Shannon Cuttle is not your average school board candidate.
One of eight challengers for the three Board of Education seats up for grabs next month, Cuttle has spent years working for equality, student rights, and anti-bullying causes.
Oh, and Cuttle also happens to be gender questioning.
Or, specifically, “non-binary,” a term defined by the National Center for Transgender Equality as neither male nor female. In Cuttle’s case, as “someone who is neither one or the other.”
And if they (as Cuttle prefers to be referred to) succeeds, they would be the first such person to serve on the school board, and perhaps the first statewide. At a time when gay, lesbian and transgender issues are still hot topics, in and out of the classroom, such representation would be a milestone.
“Queer is an identity I use because it covers a multitude of things,” Cuttle said over breakfast Sunday at the Maplewood Diner, while reciting facts and figures about student bullying and queer youth needs in between bites of scrambled eggs. “I make sure I openly identify because it helps with visibility as someone who works with youth and families for young people to know there are people like them; and for other educators, other people to have someone they can identify with and see as a model.”
A former teacher from Michigan, the 41-year-old Cuttle helped launch the national Safe Schools Action Network, worked with Garden State Equality and consulted other educational outlets, and has been a Maplewood resident since 2013.
Also on the ballot in a potentially historic way is Dean Dafis, the Maplewood Township Committee (TC) candidate who is the first openly gay challenger to run for the TC and would be the first to serve if he wins Nov. 7 in the race that includes incumbent Victor Deluca and GOP challenger Mike Summersgill.
Dafis joined us at the diner Sunday and made clear his candidacy is about more than historic milestones and diversity. He listed his top priorities on the TC as affordability, public safety, and smarter economic development.
But he also knows having a gay committee member would mean a lot for equality and the Township.
“I think our kids are looking for role models, right?” Dafis said in our booth that overlooked Springfield Avenue. “It sends an important message to D.C. as well at a time when we’re going in a regressive mode culturally, rolling back a lot of things, a lot of gains we have made across the board in civil rights.”
Given Maplewood’s longtime acceptance of gay, lesbian and transgender residents -- from the group gay wedding years ago at Town Hall to several Pride Festivals being held in Memorial Park -- electing such folks to our governing bodies would seem a no-brainer.
But like any candidates, they know they need to earn it with policies, experience and planning. Voters will decide how much their historic candidacies weigh in when compared to their other attributes.
An independent consultant on education policy, safer schools and anti-bias training, Cuttle said they “came out” at 26 on the cover of The Advocate, a national publication on gay rights, in 2002.
“Being someone who was assigned female at birth, I’ve always been me,” Cuttle explained. “My mom used to joke that I was born proudly wearing a Detroit Tigers baseball cap. From an early age I’ve just been me.”
That “me” is something different for different people who question their birth or “assigned” gender, experts say. A TIME cover story earlier this year on gender identity stated:
These aspects of identity — the sense of being a man or a woman, for instance, and whom one is drawn to physically or romantically — are distinct. But they are related, and together, they're undergoing a sea change, as an increasing number of people say they aren't one or the other but perhaps neither or maybe both.
Cuttle chose to say less about their personal life, adding, “my individual choices and dating history does not make up who I am … I’m not reluctant, but me being LGBT is just part of who I am.”
But then speaking about growing up: “I was someone who stood up against stereotypical gender norms and was very social justice minded and an advocate for those in need and was taught from an early age the importance of social justice.”
Cuttle cites a battle to play T-ball as a youngster on a boys team as one of their first social justice fights.
Cuttle said the average age of when an LGBT student comes out is 11 to 13: “It was not common when I was that age. It is often assumed there is one type of coming out process for an LGBT person, but a person comes out many times in their lifetime in many different ways.”
Cuttle’s candidacy has drawn some strong support, with Township committee member Nancy Adams and former school board president Beth Daugherty among their backers.
It has also brought national support from the pro-LGBT Victory Fund, which backs LGBT challengers and named Cuttle among 16 candidates it supports this fall.
“Hostile political forces have successfully pushed anti-trans bills across the nation because trans people have been severely underrepresented and marginalized in our politics and our government,” Elliot Imse, The Victory Fund director of communication told me via email. “That is why Shannon Cuttle’s race is so important. We need more trans elected officials on school boards, and in local and state governments, because they humanize our lives, change the debate and influence positive legislation for our community. A win for Shannon would make history in New Jersey, which is why Victory Fund is proud to have their back.”
Dafis, an attorney who has been in a long-term relationship with his partner, George, said of Cuttle and others in the LGBT community that “often times when people are reading a bio or meeting someone, they want to go into those personal details … those details create a novelty thing that gets away from who the person is actually, ironically.”
Cuttle adds with a smile: “You want to know who I am and I am telling you who I am.”
This column has been edited for clarity since its original publication.