Monday, June 23, 2008

Transitioning on the Job: Part One

This past week, I made the decision to begin identifying as male. The decision to be male-identified and start hormone therapy hasn’t been a sudden one for me, but it’s been building for the past several years. Anyone who has known me over the past few years is probably not particularly surprised. I’m harboring relatively few serious concerns about this transition, mostly out of awareness that I have an incredibly trans-aware and trans-identified group of friends and that my girlfriend is the most supportive person in the world. Opening this door makes me feel as though a huge weight has been lifted off my chest, and I’m very excited to be undertaking this process.

This past week, however, I began to worry about returning to my school in the fall as “Mr. K” and going by male pronouns. Ultimately, my school is not a bad place to be a transsexual, especially relative to many public schools I’ve heard about. “Gender identity and expression” are protected in the employment non-discrimination laws of New York City. I have a vocal and strong support base among my colleagues, several of whom are queer-identified. I’ve begun conversations about how best to handle my transition with a few colleagues for whom I have tremendous respect as educators and as individuals. Two colleagues have offered to accompany me in my “I’m becoming a man” meeting with my principal. After communication has been established with administrators, we’re hoping that Respect for All can eventually direct conversation towards the general school climate with respect to LGBT awareness. My transition is simply one of several examples illustrating the need for education and dialogue around LGBT issues in our school.

Though these factors clearly fuel a great deal of optimism and hopefulness, I’m beginning to feel the onset of a few anxieties that are, perhaps, inevitable in this situation. These anxieties have to do with the increased scrutiny and potential threats to my job security brought on by such an unavoidably public and visible transition (two thirds of the school next year will have known me as “Ms. K”). I’m not particularly concerned about what the many members of what I call the “frat boys club” and the “old boys club” at my school personally think and feel about trans issues. It seems like a given that some of my colleagues will believe that they have never met a transsexual before, and that I might be a story they tell their buddies at happy hour. Their potential to incite suspicion about me and my teaching as a result of my identity seems like a more pressing matter – and in my mind, it has everything to do with the obligation of teachers to demonstrate basic respect for others’ identities on a daily basis.

Education and professional development around trans identities and the rights of trans people are crucial in ensuring the respect and safety of students and employees in our school. The nervous and pessimistic part of me worries that my school will fail to encourage thoughtful conversation about and inquiry into LGBT issues, and will instead pretend that they do not have a tremendous affect on the daily lives of many of our students, faculty, and staff. Students in our school are coming out or on the verge of coming out as LGBT, teachers and staff in the school are LGBT identified, and many people in the building have family members, friends, and neighbors who are queer or trans. The encouragement of respectful, thoughtful conversation about LGBT issues must become inextricably linked to professionalism for teachers in our school – and I’m worried that a core group of my colleagues will attempt to prevent this from happening.

I hate to border on paranoid, but my teaching career began with an unpleasantly transphobic experience with the Department of Education that has left a lasting impression. I was slated to begin my first year of teaching at a middle school in Brooklyn in the fall of 2006, and the day before I was to report I received a phone call informing me that a) I had been “excessed” and therefore had to start the search for a new job and b) there was a rumor circulating around the district of my original school that I was going to have a “sex change operation.” I knew that it was no coincidence that I heard about these two facts in the same conversation, and I set out to get to the root of my being excessed. When I approached the principal of my original school, he offered me a position teaching science in a clear attempt to cover his ass. Needless to say, instead of expressing gratefulness about the scraps he tossed me, I decided to take my chances in the job search. In what I still consider to be a stroke of luck, I landed at my current school.

This first experience with the Department of Education and trans issues makes me a bit hesitant to trust that my administration will not seek to find ways either to excess me or to dismiss this transition in a way that allows my colleagues – and as a result, my students – to disrespect my identity and the identities of any gender variant people in the school. All it takes is one teacher, or one parent of one student, to spark controversy and confrontation. I incorporate many radical and queer pedagogical methods into my classroom, and I believe in opening discourse to push students intellectually instead of closing it down. In the back of my mind, I fear that the aspects of my teaching that have led me to invite students to learn about and discuss the deaths of Lawrence King and Sean Bell, for examples, might quickly become suspicious in an atmopshere of heightened scrutiny.

I know several trans teachers, but right now I’m searching for educators who have had a similar experience of transitioning while at their schools - if you know of anyone, kindly send them my way.

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