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A New Beginning at PD for Harper Seldin '07

Providence Day School welcomes new students to all three divisions each year, though rarely two months into the academic year. Harper Seldin ’07 took it all in stride when his family relocated to Charlotte from Massachusetts in 2004 during his sophomore year.

It would become the first of two enormous life changes that Seldin would undergo at PD.

“My parents were business consultants and we had moved in January before, but I hadn’t moved mid-semester,” says Seldin. “I thought when I started in October that it would be terrible but a lot of people were checking in with me all of the time to see how I was doing. As tough as it might have been, the school made a real effort to make sure I acclimated.”

Ben Topham led the Upper School at that time. “I remember sitting in his office with a stack of textbooks and a parade of teachers who came in one after another to tell me where they were in class. The miracle is that I lined up pretty well in every class,” Seldin says. “A lot of it was PD saying, ‘Let’s just make this happen.’ I was always very grateful and I know my mom was very grateful that they were willing to work with us in a way they very much did not have to.”

While Seldin mostly focused on academics, he dabbled in theatre his senior year along with extracurricular activities outside of PD including a youth group called Time Out Youth that provides programs, services, and advocacy for LGBTQ+ youth that is still very active in Charlotte.

Seldin always knew he was transgender but did not have the words to articulate it. “Now there is more public visibility for people who are transgender, you are finding younger people having that language for themselves, but back in ’04-’05 there were not really publicly ‘out’ transgender people,” he says. “I didn’t really have language for that until my junior year.”

“I transitioned my junior year into my senior year at PD and it went surprisingly well. Within a weekend my records were changed with my name and pronouns; people were very respectful.” Seldin credits his advisor, longtime former math teacher Rhea Caldwell, for keeping an eye on him, including holding his report card until she saw that every teacher had used the correct pronouns in his written evaluations. She also placed him in a specific AP Calculus class to make him feel socially comfortable. “That was typical of how folks at the school worked to make sure I was comfortable and felt accepted. It was a small moment but she had my back.”

“I think I was the first student to publicly transition while enrolled at PD but I know I’m not the last,” he says. “In some ways, I think because I was the first, there were pros and cons. The pro was the attitude of ‘Let’s just make this work’ and a real flexibility about what they were going to do. Even though knowledge about transgender students is higher now and schools have more tools, I’m kind of glad it was in ’04-’05 because I benefited from the fact that at worst, people were confused, and the school was willing to deal with that, but there was no organized movement against me or my participation in school.”

Not everything was ideal or easy for Seldin after transitioning. He ran into a challenge during the Senior Venture trip prior to 12th grade. “Even though I had female and male friends willing to room with me, I ended up having to room by myself,” he says. “At the time I was bummed, but people pointed out that they would love to have a single room. I made the best of the situation. I have more perspective now on what best practices would have been, but there was no animus and the school did its best with something they had no experience in.”

There was also the question of which bathroom he should use. “Part of the deal we struck with the school was that I would use the nurse’s bathroom my senior year. I was not thrilled about it but the school was so good about everything else that my family and I decided it was going to work and wasn’t worth fighting about,” he says. “That’s an example of something that at the time people thought made sense, but now the prevailing advice is that transgender boys use boys’ bathrooms and transgender girls use the girls’ bathroom with no need to stigmatize,” he says. (Currently PD policies allow students to use restrooms aligned with their gender identity, as well as making gender-neutral restrooms available in most buildings).

After graduating from PD in 2007, Seldin took a year off before college. “I had big plans to get an internship in NY and instead I got mono; I was laid out from the end of August until the end of that calendar year.” He remained incapacitated until the spring, but by that time he had enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania for the fall and enjoyed what remained of his gap year.

He made up for lost time, starting at Penn in 2008 but graduating a year early thanks to AP placements. “I got into Penn Law after I graduated college in 2011, so I started law school that fall and loved it,” he says. He graduated from law school in 2014 and clerked for a federal judge in Philadelphia for two years. Then in the late summer of 2016, Seldin joined his current law firm Cozen O’Connor where he has happily worked for five years.

“I focus on commercial litigation which is mostly contract disputes for companies of various sizes. It sounds frightfully boring but I enjoy it quite a bit! I also have a pro bono practice which focuses on LGBTQ+ youth issues,” he says.

His cases included the Fulton v. Philadelphia case involving Catholic Social Services that was recently ruled on at the Supreme Court, where he worked as counsel with two partners from his firm to write a friend of the court brief for former foster children who communicated about how they would have been very happy to be placed with any foster parents. The brief also included LGBTQ+ foster youth who would have benefitted from being placed with gay foster parents or were placed with LGBT foster parents and it changed their lives. “It was very powerful.”

As an attorney, Seldin worked on a 2017 impact litigation case, Doe vs. Boyertown Area School District, that dealt specifically with transgender students’ access to bathrooms in public schools. “The Boyertown case was probably the most important case I’ve gotten to work on,” he says. For three years, his team worked as cooperating counsel with the ACLU of Pennsylvania and ACLU project in NY that deals with LGBTQ+ cases. “I started that case very early in my career but by the time it ended I knew something about litigation. It was personally my most meaningful piece of work, for the content and the result we got for our clients, and it’s now one of a few appellate level decisions that are very helpful to the broader impact litigation movement for transgender students in public high schools. My firm was very supportive of that and I’m grateful because that was a seminal experience for me as a lawyer.”

Despite a full caseload, Seldin also serves on the board of two organizations based in Philadelphia. “One is the Youth

Sentencing & Reentry Project which works to keep children in schools and out of adult jails and prisons,” and he is also on the board for Equality Forum which organizes LGBT history month. Seldin also serves on alumni boards at Penn Law. “The law firm wants us to be well-rounded citizens and I’m very happy.”

Seldin married his husband on New Year’s Eve and will celebrate their fourth anniversary this year. “We started the pandemic with no children or pets and promised each other we would end the pandemic with no children or pets,” he jokes.

Despite living in the northeast, Seldin remains an involved PD alumnus. In 2020, he spoke virtually with Upper School students in Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) and it brought back memories of his time at PD. “The students were so thoughtful and prepared the way only 16-year-olds are, and they had such energy in talking about issues important to them,” says Seldin.

He has also participated in a couple of the calls for the new PD alumni network Alumni Fostering Inclusion, Respect, & Multiculturalism (AFIRM), on which he’s enjoyed hearing from recent alumni about their experiences at PD. “I really admire the work that they are doing. They are thoughtfully, respectfully, and responsibly trying to reconcile the fact that PD is and was a great place to go to school with the fact that PD was a white flight school [at its founding in 1970].”

“My strong belief about my high school experience is that I really think there are very few high schools in that time and place that could have done as good a job being as supportive of me as PD,” he says. “I know they did that with parent pushback, but Ben Topham got it done anyway. The school clearly has a capacity to deal with students individually and question existing policies and practices, so I hope the school can institutionalize those practices for students of color and for LGBTQ+ students.”

“What I want to share is that I had an overwhelmingly positive experience in high school under circumstances that could have very easily gone the other way,” Seldin says. “I give great credit to PD for not only doing the best they could but also doing a really good job, which are two different things sometimes. A school that could be that supportive of me that early in my life and that early in the national conversation about what it would be like to have transgender students in high school should be very proud,” he says. “PD can capitalize on the fact that they’ve been supporting transgender students since 2005. If they want to claim it, there’s a real legacy that’s completely consistent with PD’s values and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t continue to do that and be very proud of it.”

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