BERKELEY -- Until two years ago, Luke "Sasha" Fleischman was a shy teen, a loner with odd hobbies and a bright mind, but far from a civil rights activist.
But between Fleischman's freshman and senior year something changed: Fleischman decided to identify as agender or "nonbinary" gender, neither male nor female. Sasha asked to be referred to by the pronouns "they," "them," and "their."
Family members say that very personal decision helped the teen blossom. But police believe it also led another teenager to light Fleischman's skirt on fire as the student slept on a local bus, causing severe injuries that could take months to heal.
Since the incident, public support for the injured 18-year-old has been overwhelming, with more than $20,000 raised to help with medical expenses and civil rights leaders expressing outrage about the case. And understanding seems to be growing about the issues of gender identity that Fleischman hoped to call attention to.
On Friday, about half the 100 students at Maybeck High School in Berkeley, where Fleischman attended, wore skirts for Skirts for Sasha Day and carried signs reading, "Get well, Sasha, we miss you."
No one knows what the future holds for the once quiet student who suffered second- and third-degree burns and remains in stable condition at St. Francis Memorial Hospital's Bothin Burn Center in San Francisco.
But those who know the teen believe this hate crime, a violation of Fleischman's civil rights under the law, might stir the student to continue and even step up advocacy for like-minded people.
Fleischman has already been politically involved in the issue of nonbinary gender and gathered 27,000 signatures on the Internet in hopes of calling President Barack Obama's attention to the subject.
"(Sasha) was a shy kid and by coming out, it helped (Sasha) open up a bit," Fleischman's mother, Debbie Fleischman, said earlier this week.
"My preferred pronouns are the singular they (they/them/their/theirs)," Sasha Fleischman wrote in an online posting about the gender decision. "If you find that weird, you can use whatever pronouns you want for me, but I prefer those ones."
Debbie Fleischman said her teen doesn't want to be "judged" on being male or female, but rather on personal abilities, talents and smarts.
Classmates said Fleischman earns straight A grades, recently applied to MIT, and is a National Merit Scholar semifinalist, who speaks French and Spanish and has even created a new language.
Michael Ditmore, a history teacher who coaches Fleischman in saber fencing, and described the teen as a "brilliant kid," on Friday donned a black ankle-length skirt in support of the pupil.
When Fleischman arrived at Maybeck, Ditmore said the teen "was kind of withdrawn and quiet."
"And now (Fleischman) is blossoming and flourishing and has a lot of friends."
On Monday night, Fleischman had fallen asleep while riding an AC Transit bus from Maybeck High to the family home in Oakland's Glenview district -- the same bus the skirt-clad teen has ridden for a year without any problem. But on this day, police say, 16-year-old Richard Thomas boarded the bus, saw the teen asleep in the rear of the bus, took out a lighter and lit the teen's skirt on fire.
The Oakland High student was charged Wednesday with two felonies and two hate crime enhancements and could face life in prison if convicted. Relatives have said he's sorry and it was a prank, but the suspect told the police investigator that he did it because he "was homophobic."
Fleischman's family says the teen faces a long recovery and police believe the teen will be in the hospital at least two weeks.
Fleischman "is doing quite well at this point," Maybeck High School Director Trevor Cralle said.
The teen's father, Karl Fleischman, a kindergarten teacher at Sequoia Elementary in Oakland, thanked colleagues for their support and for contributing to an online fund that raised more than $21,000 for his teen's medical costs earlier this week.
He said he understands that the concept of nonbinary gender might be tough for children, and even adults, to understand.
"My wife and I frequently slip up in our pronoun usage, much to Sasha's chagrin," he wrote. "So I can't pretend that it's an issue that all young children will grasp."
What he hopes people will understand is that different people like different things. "Different people dress or behave or look differently. And that's a good thing. Sasha feels comfortable wearing a skirt."
Staff writer David DeBolt contributed to this report. Contact Kristin J. Bender at email@example.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/kjbender. Contact Doug Oakley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakely.