Meet Hazel Edwards, a 21-year-old trans advocate who helped craft the Philadelphia School District’s policy on transgender and gender-nonconforming youth.
Telltale art: Edwards, an artist, came out to her mother as trans in a painting: “It was a male silhouette looking into a mirror with a female silhouette looking back," Edwards said. “All my mom could say was, ‘Nice texture.' I said, ‘OK, she doesn’t get the hint.'"
On her strength: “I think I was forced to have it. Living every day in a society that was not meant for you to succeed inherently makes you strong and powerful.”
Hazel Edwards was four months away from graduation at Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Charter School in 2015 when the principal called Edwards into his office to discuss ongoing tardiness and absence issues.
What the principal didn’t know is that Edwards had been missing classes at the all-boys’ school because she identified as a girl and didn’t feel comfortable there.
“I told the principal I was trans,” Edwards said. “The principal was like, ‘Whoa. I was not expecting this.’"
Edwards said the principal, a “sweet person who didn’t know what to do," brought in another staff member who told Edwards she was a boy and couldn’t come to school with her hair or nails done. She said she wasn’t kicked out but did feel pushed out.
“I packed up my stuff and never went back to that school as a student,” Edwards said.
But later that year, Edwards did go back to Boys’ Latin — not as a student, but as an educator with the Attic Youth Center — to help train 86 teachers on the best practices for working with LGBTQ students.
“That was the first time that I walked into that school as Hazel,” said Edwards, who continues to lead training at Boys’ Latin. “I got so much good feedback from former teachers, and the principal came up to me, started crying, and said, ‘The student is now the teacher.’”
Noah Tennant, then principal and now CEO of Boys’ Latin, said he doesn’t remember the details of Edwards’ departure but confirmed the comment he made at the training.
“It really added a whole extra layer of relevance for us that Hazel walked our corridors and classrooms," Tennant said. "The firsthand knowledge she had was invaluable to us as we thought about how we can grow.”
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Edwards grew up in Overbrook Park with her mother, brother, and sister. Her father was incarcerated when she was 9, she said.
For many years, Edwards didn’t have the language of trans to express herself. She said it wasn’t until she met a trans woman her own age when she was 17 that she fully realized what she’d always felt.
“I was fighting it in mental hospitals and behavioral hospitals," she said. “After meeting that trans person and seeing how happy they were and how unhappy I felt, I said ‘OK, now this is a time of life or death.'’
After she came out, Edwards’ relationship with her mother became rocky, and for a time, she experienced homelessness. The Attic, a center for LGBTQ youth, gave Edwards a paid internship during that tough period. Since 2017, she’s worked full time as an educator and outreach specialist there.
In 2016, Edwards helped University of Pennsylvania professor Amy Hillier, whose daughter is trans, develop a policy for the Philadelphia School District on protecting transgender and gender-nonconforming youth.
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Hillier said she was impressed by Edwards’ ability to navigate institutions and inspire other young people.
“For someone who has a tough story, she’s just so full of love and optimism and energy," Hillier said. “It’s remarkable that somebody who’s had as challenging a journey as she could be so gracious.”
Edwards has even become a mentor for Hillier’s 10-year-old trans daughter.
“My daughter said, ‘Hazel is fancy!’ which is high praise,” Hillier said.
Outside of Edwards’ advocacy work — for which she’s won local and national awards — Edwards is also a member of the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative and enjoys performing and painting, particularly around themes of black love, queer and trans love and liberation, and the universe.
Edwards, who now has her GED, plans to attend college to become an art therapist and community organizer for the queer and trans communities.
“I want to be an art therapist because all of the things I wasn’t able to vocalize when I was young, I was still able to get out through my art,” she said.