Local Government and Politics, News

Swampscott principal: I’m transgender

Swampscott elementary school principal Shannon Daniels.
Swampscott elementary school principal Shannon Daniels. (Jim Wilson)

SWAMPSCOTT — The principal of Stanley Elementary School has announced they’re transgender.

Principal Tom Daniels, 52, announced the change in a letter to parents on Tuesday. Daniels will go by Shannon and will present as female.

The name Shannon, the principal’s middle name, is poignant as it’s Irish for “wise river,” is used by both males and females, and perfectly denotes a fluid gender identity, Daniels said.

Daniels, a Swampscott resident who became the school’s principal in 2012, identifies as both male and female and asked to be referred to as Principal Daniels. When using pronouns, Daniels prefers “they,” for a gender non-binary or gender-fluid identity, but said “he,” “she” and “they” are all acceptable.

Daniels said the change toward presenting more female, including wearing more women’s clothing, would begin next week — the principal told staff about the change on Tuesday and letters were later sent home to parents by Daniels and Superintendent Pamela Angelakis.

“I have struggled with gender identity since I was in elementary school,” Daniels said. “I did my best to suppress those feelings for more than 40 years, and while I was successful to a degree, I have never been completely happy or at peace. I got to the point that I thought I would never be able to reveal my true self. Frankly, the prospect of doing so was terrifying.”

Daniels said they began to imagine the possibility of being honest about being transgender after experiencing professional challenges last spring and in the fall.

Daniels told The Item they grew up in an environment, where although there were experiences where they felt like they wanted to be a girl, there was not even the option to think about presenting feminine.

Daniels grew up with four older brothers, who were wonderful people, but the all-male environment led to a lot of shame like there is in families and like there was 40 years ago around things that were different, especially around gender. The transgender feelings and experiences back then with dressing like a girl throughout Daniels’ teen years and in college got buried in other ways as an adult.

“I’ve gone through a lot of personal and professional challenges that I’ve overcome in many ways, but I’ve never been consistently without some periods of depression,” Daniels said.

“I’ve suffered some job losses and some relationship challenges that have been really, really tough. And yet since this fall, I feel completely myself. I feel calm, peaceful, happy and the best part is I feel like I’m more effective at my job than ever. I feel like I’m connecting with the kids and teachers in ways that are very authentic and warm.”

What happened to prompt the change, Daniels said, is they didn’t handle situations with two different staff members well on separate occasions last spring and in the fall. Daniels vowed to make a change on the first occasion and enlisted the help of a female mentor, who helped the principal through some issues.

“She listened to my story and really led me to thinking about the fact that all my friends are women, I work with young children, I love to sing and dance, all these different ways that I am female and really have been and (that) I long to be more female,” Daniels said.

The second negative interaction in the fall led Daniels to make some make major changes.

“I think what it was, the work issues really had to do with being insensitive, being sort of obtuse,” Daniels said. “My best self is actually very, very sensitive. I was described in my family as being very empathetic.

“It’s just that I’m also this other guy who can be task-oriented, a little insensitive, a little obsessive, but also effective. My male self is actually not bad (but) he’s got some problems.”

For Daniels, the transition is in its beginning stages. Daniels has been attending a transgender support group and is in therapy, which includes seeing a psychiatrist about all kinds of gender dysphoria challenges. Daniels is also working with their doctor on the more medical aspect of transitioning, including the mental and social aspects of that.

“How I envision myself right now is to transition in every way possible,” Daniels said. “That may change but I don’t see it changing right now. I really look forward to becoming fully transitioned to female.”

Part of the change for Daniels was telling their family, which they did just a few weeks ago. Daniels has been married to their wife for 29 years — the couple shares three children who are 16,18 and 23 years old.

After the initial shock, the couple has decided they want to stay together. The news did not completely blindside Daniels’ wife, as she’s always known Daniels had transgender thoughts, but what was new was her husband wanting to come out and socially and medically transition, Daniels said.

Daniels said they dealt with anxiety in the past through obsessive goal setting, hobbies and developing bad habits — if you’re obsessing about things, you’re just not happy, you can’t focus, are working against yourself and it’s just lonely. Now Daniels still sets goals, but they are more relaxed and living more in the moment.

“The one thing I’d want people to know is how lonely I’ve been for a really long time despite the fact of having a really wonderful wife,” Daniels said. “I just didn’t have connections with friends that I wanted because the people I really care most deeply about are women.”

Daniels will gradually start dressing, acting, and sounding differently as they begin to nurture their new identity, and acknowledged that their transition may not be easy for everyone to understand. In the letter home to parents, Daniels made some suggestions on how parents can communicate the change to their children, including explaining how there are different ways boys and girls can express themselves, but that it’s important to accept everyone for who they are.

“As hard as this will be for people, I think because they know me so well — I’ve been the principal here and I’m in my sixth year — I have a track record. I’ve really done a great job. I’m not perfect but they know I love their kids. I’ve done a good job. Even though this is going to seem very, very strange to some, they know I’m not really that strange a person.”

Daniels said parents may have gleaned that the principal is pretty feminine, including in how Daniels interacts with little kids, so the change wouldn’t be too much of a shock.

Daniels said they anticipate a lot of parents and kids will see the news in a positive way, that Daniels might be seen as brave and caring, a role model for their kids, including kids who may present as not stereotypically like their gender. Some may find it confusing for the kids though, Daniels said, and may feel pressured to have to talk to their children about it.

“I will do everything in my power to ensure that there is no negative impact on our school community,” Daniels said. “The wonderful Stanley School community is incredibly warm and accepting. I am proud to be the leader of this school, and I sincerely believe that the ability to live my life openly and authentically gives me great serenity and will make me a more sensitive, empathetic and effective leader.

Angelakis acknowledged Daniels’ transition would lead to questions and said the district would be providing opportunities for education and conversation about the topic in the near future. She said she applauds Daniels and admires the courage, honesty and transparency that Daniels showed in their letter home to parents.

“As pointed out in the letter, getting to the point of being willing to share those feelings has been a long and challenging process,” Angelakis wrote in a letter to the Swampscott community. “I hope you will join me and the entire district leadership team in offering Principal Daniels our acceptance, understanding and support.

“In all my years in Swampscott, I know the community to be caring, considerate and accepting and I am confident we can provide the level of support and understanding necessary to help Principal Daniels on this journey.”

In a similar situation last June at the Heath School in Chestnut Hill, Principal Asa Sevelius announced that he was transgender and was transitioning to becoming a male.

This story has been updated.

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