TRANSformed in Public
Reflections on my first year as a transgender educator in a public school
I was outed to my colleagues while still on a medical leave that I was taking due to what, I realize now, was essentially a nervous breakdown. I don’t know who the first person to find out about me was exactly, and it doesn’t really matter. My truth was told by others before I was prepared for it to be shared. I was very lucky though. Overall, my fellow teachers and the rest of the school staff has been overwhelmingly supportive of me. This is something that many transgender people do not experience, so for that, I am grateful. I returned from my leave with a week left of school as my old self and found that my students were excited to see me return. They did not know that I was transgender….yet.
That all came a few days later when someone, somehow, discovered my Youtube channel that I was using to document my transition. I don’t know how it was discovered, I had used a different name and no real trail; but it was and my news was out. What came next was that essentially my Youtube channel went viral, at least within my district. Students were watching it. So were parents and administrators. It all spiraled out of control in an instant. There were comments being left on videos, many of them very supportive. Others, the exact opposite. One thing that I have found is that when someone misunderstands a transperson or simply “disagrees” (as if being transgender is a matter of opinion) with our “lifestyle” (it’s my life, not my lifestyle) they tend to just get mean about it. Like so many other transpeople, I was attacked anonymously online. I was called “it”. I was questioned how I could possibly transition, after all, I’m a teacher. I was called a freak. I tried not to let those comments hurt me, but they did. They cut to the core. That being said, they were vastly outweighed by the positive and supportive comments.
At the time, I was beginning to feel some major burnout in my career. I have taught the exact same grade and curriculum for 19 years at that point. I questioned how much of a difference I was truly making in the lives of my students. That all came to an end when I started receiving notes for students, both past and present, telling me how they always enjoyed my class and that I have impacted their lives in a positive way. I had former students, not adults, reach out to me in support on social media. One student told me that my revelation inspired her to come out to her parents. Another found the strength in herself because of me to create a GSA at her university. I cannot begin to even express how amazing it was to be the recipient of such a major outpouring of love and support from colleagues and former students.
In school though, there was a lot of talking. I didn’t hear anything specific or personally said to me; but I know that there were a lot of horrible things that kids were saying about me behind my back. Kids from down the hall would often call out, “Sarah”. Clearly to get a rise out of me, though I’m not sure how calling my name was supposed to get that reaction. Either way, I remained outwardly strong, while inside I was crumbling.
Shortly after being outed, I was called into a meeting with the district superintendent. I had previously met with him and come out and outlined my plan to transition. He was supportive as well, although understandably cautious, as someone in his position should be. No one in my district had ever been openly transgender before. I was a pioneer in every way that I never wanted. We decided that it would be best if I began my summer a few days early and then reconvene later in the summer to work on my transition plan.
At this point in time, I was still only part time. I had come out to most people, but not everyone, and was going out as my true self often. Following the last day of school, I was invited to a local wine bar with a number of my female colleagues. It was a huge event for me. They had all seen my photos online of course, and probably watched some of my Youtube videos, but had not yet seen me as Sarah in person. On my end, it was my first girls’ night out with cisgender women. I was excited, but scared out of my mind at the same time. It turned out to be an amazing evening. I had known all of these women for years, but had never been very close with any of them. They accepted me as a woman with open arms and put my nerves at ease immediately. I credit them so much with helping to ease my transition at work just a short summer later.
It took a few months to meet with district officials to create my transition plan. It detailed things like the district’s responsibilities, how I should deal with any harassment I might experience, and what would be expected of me. I remember being more nervous to sign it than I was when I signed my initial contract. But again, the feeling of excitement was there as well.
As usual, the first day of school arrived much more quickly than I would have liked it to. I experienced the normal late summer jitters, but to the nth degree. In my district, the very first event of the new school year is a faculty and staff breakfast in the high school cafeteria. I fully anticipated walking into that room and having everyone stop talking and eating and stare at me. It was a vision straight out of a 1980s teen movie. Fortunately, the opposite happened. No one looked at me. Or at least, I didn’t see anyone look at me. I got my food and found my friends and it was like every other breakfast that I had experienced on the 15 prior first days.
The next nerve wracking event that was to occur was at the building-wide faculty meeting. My principal was tasked with introducing me as Sarah to the faculty and instructing everyone to use my preferred pronouns. When it happened I remember experiencing that feeling of when a large group of people is singing happy birthday to you. What was expected of me? Smile, wave, stand on my seat and through my hands into the air? I think I just grinned a bit and prayed for the moment to pass as quickly as possible.
The first student day of school came a few days later. This was really the moment of truth. How would kids react? Would I be stared at? Laughed at? Openly mocked? Would my old students ignore me? Would my new students have questions? It turned out that the answer to all of those questions was, “No.” It was the same as any other first day of school. Students from previous years stopped by to say hello. New students, overwhelmed in what is a labyrinthian school, asked for directions. I was prepared for the worst, but experienced nothing of the sort.
My students and I quickly settled into a routine that was exactly what I had been used to. Occasionally, there would be a slip of Mr. instead of Ms, always followed by either an apology or an obvious embarrassed excuse for why they accidentally called me “Mr.” It’s ok child. I know why it came out and I know it was an accident. I am not offended or upset. A few times it came from a member of the faculty or staff. Again accompanied by an apology. And again, understood by me that it was not purposeful.
I do have a large number of former students who I can tell feel a little uncomfortable. Maybe they don’t know what to say, or it’s still just strange to see the teacher that they knew as a man looking like I do now. There’s certainly a part of me that is looking forward to the day when no students in the district knew me as my former self. But that won’t be for another 5 years, so it’s going to be a while.
As far as parents are concerned, I was especially nervous about them. I dreaded our open house night, going so far as to talk to my principal about what I should do if someone were to corner my in my room and threaten me. Two other teachers, who weren’t receiving any other parents were stationed outside of my room all night. He even parked next to me that night and walked out with me and a few others, just in case anyone would be waiting for me. I kind of felt like I had my own personal security. It was very much appreciated.
It turned out, that for most of the year, no parents openly said anything hostile towards me. In fact, other than one incident, I had nothing but positive interactions with parents all year long; which is how it should be in every case of teacher/parent contact.
However, one night in January, ironically enough the same day that I changed my name, I received a hurtful, bigoted, and ignorant Facebook message from a parent of a child who I didn’t even teach, had no idea who he was, and had no contact with at all. She had to make a point of telling me that I’m a disgrace, confusing the kids, should have just gone to a different district and started all over, and of course, that she doesn’t believe in “transgenders”. It brought me down from the high of finally being legally my true self faster than a comet hurtling through space.
But, like so many other negative experiences that I’ve had in life, I accept that it happened and move on. The pain is still there, in some small part, but I refuse to allow it to affect me. The second half of the year was as uneventful as the first really. I did have a couple of experiences of kids asking me about me being transgender. My response was always, “I would love to discuss this with you, but unfortunately, I can’t.”
When I first thought about being an openly transgender teacher I envisioned myself taking every LGBT kid in the school under my wing, advocating for them, and guiding them through one of the most confusing times of their lives. It turns out, that just isn’t the case, at least for the time being. I was originally a bit angry about this. Upset that the person who may best understand some of these marginalized kids couldn’t mentor them like she wanted to.
However, I now realize that I’m doing them, and the entire transgender community, both now and in the future, a huge favor. Simply by being visible I’m showing other LGBT kids that they can make it. They can be successful in life. But, equally important, I’m showing non LGBT students and their families that transgender people are not monsters, we’re not perverts, we’re not satanists. We’re just human beings.
According to a recent poll conducted by GLAAD, only 16% of Americans report knowing or working with someone who’s transgender. Thanks to my living authentically, every single student in my school district, up until the day that I retire, can say that they know a transgender person. I’m proud of that.
TRANSformed in Public
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