Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Seeing Our Students

I recently heard that the family of Lawrence King has filed personal injury claims against the Oxnard, California school district and county. Unfortunately, however, King's family has decided to blame the school for "allowing" King to behave and act flamboyantly and to wear clothes that were out of the school's gendered dress code. While I understand and sympathize with the family's grief and eagerness to hold the school accountable in some way, this particular lawsuit seems to be another frustrating gesture blaming King's gender expression for his/her own death when in fact King should have been protected no matter what.

I believe it is important to hold schools accountable for failing to foster an atmosphere and environment of safety for trans and queer youth. Administrators and teachers need to start understanding that it is impossible to protect students who are invisible to us. We cannot “protect” students whose identities and realities we refuse to see and respect.

The atmosphere of repression around sexuality and gender expression in public schools is astounding. Every day I get an influx of email news updates about another public school that has denied its students a Gay-Straight Alliance, or another instance of students being bullied, or another administrator who lectured a queer or trans student about how wrong homosexuality is. Most public schools seem dead-set on invisibilizing, weeding out, or ignoring LGBTQ students and LGBTQ issues that directly affect students.

Even in the context of my school, where teachers generally have a remarkable amount of freedom to determine our own curricula, I could not share news articles about King’s death with my students without admonishment and warning from numerous colleagues. My administrators have also expressed a strong desire to keep my transition as quiet as possible. I was recently informed that my principal has been advised by the New York Department of Education to avoid talking to students about my transition, and I learned that I am being moved to a different floor in my school. However, even if nobody raises questions or concerns about my transition, trying to sweep it under the rug is a band-aid solution that implies that my administration believes me to be an exception, a special case, and the only transgender person with trans-related needs in our school.

This is where my school, though well-intentioned and relatively supportive, seems to be making the same mistake that so many other public schools make. My transition is not the singular reason my colleagues and administrators need to learn to respect and support transgender people. In fact, my feelings are probably the least important aspect of all of this. After all, I am an adult, and it will not be the end of my world if someone refers to me as “she”. However, what message would it send to students about respecting gender identities if my colleagues use inappropriate pronouns or disrespect my identity in front of students? What impact could that have on a gender variant or queer middle school student? LGBTQ issues are students’ lives, identities, families, friends, neighbors, and teachers. They are immediate, real, and non-negotiable – and it is inevitable that some of the students of the 1,000 in my school are trans or gender variant.

And we can’t protect students whose realities and identities we refuse to see.

It is also inevitable that most of the school this year will know I am a transsexual. For administrators to maintain a willful ignorance about the controversy, emotion, and curiosity that will undoubtedly arise at some points as a result of my transition would shift onto me, individually, all responsibility to “educate” others about trans matters – and I find that unacceptable. I can’t speak for all trans people, and I should not be obligated to spend my energies versing my colleagues in Trans 101 or to spend my professional time doing transgender “damage control.” I am happy to engage in conversation and answer (some) questions on my own time, and only when I have the emotional energy.

Luckily, my principal has given me permission to find a third party to come and speak for fifteen minutes during one of our in-service days next week. I’ve contacted a lawyer from the NYCLU who has committed to talking with my colleagues and administrators on August 28th about transgender rights in New York City and about how to respect transgender people (both adults and children). He and I have collaborated to plan the presentation, and he has experience engaging with administrators and public schools, so I hope this will be a significant step towards establishing a common transgender and queer vocabulary at my school. I also hope that this speaker will help teachers and administrators realize that opening, rather than avoiding, dialogue is crucial to recognizing identities and experiences.

This approach applies to individual classrooms, as well. Instead of censoring what students “can” or cannot say in a top-down fashion, I prefer to encourage an expansion of students’ knowledge and understanding about the history and power of language. This past year I spent one day reading a GLSEN text on the etymology of the word “faggot” with students and engaging in class conversation about the violence of the word, and about why some people choose to describe and identify themselves as “faggots.” Declaring any particular word “off-limits” both entices students to use it when they are out of earshot and denies the experience of students who may identify with the word or what it symbolizes to them.

I believe it is possible to establish a safe environment without restricting students’ free speech, but it requires the classic teaching method of showing – not telling – students that words can have serious implications. This means that teachers and administrators must begin opening conversations in our schools that are difficult, painful, and often cause a great deal of anxiety.

But look at it this way: How will students ever understand the word “faggot,” and why they shouldn’t use it in a derogatory way, if we cannot talk about it or use the word itself? How can we truly see our students, let alone protect them, if we are scared to engage with the language used to defile and tear them down?

We can’t.

Likewise, we can't protect students if we don't acknowledge their gender expressions as valid and legitimate. Though I have the utmost sympathy for Lawrence King's family, the lawsuit they have filed fails to hold King's school truly accountable for its failures.


  1. All too often schools see trans people as fantastical creatures that don't really exist outside of movies and plot twists. I know a lot of principals who've flat out said that there aren't any trans students at their school. The example that takes the cake is when a friend brought up the issue of creating a non-discrimination policy with the LGBT advocate at her community college and the answer was "But [name of a trans woman was in the school paper a few years ago] graduated and isn't here anymore."

    At the time I knew of 3 trans people going to school there, including myself, but we were all apparently invisible. And the possibility that other trans people might become students in the future never even crossed her mind.

    Although, the example of Larry King's parents isn't as hopeful as you might think. It appears that they are blaming the school for allowing Larry to be femme. Their logic is that if the school had "enforced the dress code" and not allowed him to wear women's clothes or makeup then he wouldn't have been a target. It's all very busted, as if the solution to violence against gender variant students is to force them not to be gender variant.

  2. That's a really good point, Tobi - and upon further research I've actually changed this post to reflect that, while I have sympathy with King's family's grief, I don't think the lawsuit itself is actually productive in doing anything except blaming King's gender expression for Larry's death.

  3. I too lost a son. But it wasn't to hate violence. I can't even imagine what Larry's family must feel. I understand their wanting to hold the school accountable. I think the problem with their lawsuit is not that it doesn't do that, but that perhaps it holds the school accountable for the wrong thing.

    I do not believe the fault lies with those adults at school who affirmed Larry and allowed him to be as feminine as he felt. Who knows? They may have prevented his killing his own self.

    If there is fault among the adults at school, it is that starting in kindergarten the school district could have helped Brandon* and his friends to understand that being gay doesn't make a person less human, that being feminine doesn't make a person less human, and that it is a compliment when someone likes you, no matter what gender they are. Apparently that education never happened. There was a failure to reduce prejudice and foster compassion.

    Probably most of the prejudice came from the culture at large, not from the teachers and administrators explicitly. But to the extent that they were silent on the subject all through elementary and middle school, their silence may well have reinforced Brandon's trauma at imagining that people might think something was wrong with HIM if Larry liked him.

    And the school apparently didn't succeed (or even try? I don't know) in replacing misinformation with accurate information about gay and trans people or creating a school community with respect for all people. That's where the school system failed Larry. It didn't give him safe waters in which to navigate the very normal journey of puberty and adolescence.

    The school district, of course, is not the only one at fault for that. What did Brandon's family teach him? His community of worship, if he had one? What did the music, TV and film industries contribute? His Little League coach? His Scoutmaster? His friends' families? His neighbors? We all failed him.

    I don't know if it's fair to sue the school, but I certainly don't think it makes sense to sue them for helping Larry feel better about himself. He deserved safety no matter who he liked or how masculine or feminine he felt or acted.

    * Brandon is the 14-year old classmate to whom Larry gave a Valentine and who responded by murdering him.

  4. Loren, you hit on a lot of the issues I had while teaching about the word "faggot." My kids would constantly gasp and cover their mouths when someone said the word "gay," and I did a lot of explaining that it was fine to say the word gay, just not to use it as an insult. I don't think they had ever heard anyone make this distinction, but it made sense to them after some explanation. Bullying and namecalling is so widespread in middle school that I think it's often easier to just tell your kids, "Don't say faggot," and try to enforce that than it is to dig into these issues. I know I was often afaid to even go there; I had a constant fear that I would accidentally reveal that I was gay in the process and, I don't know, lose my job, or something, even though that would have been illegal.

    Anyway, you seem to be jumping into this so fearlessly - and at the same time, you're clearly making sure you're protecting yourself. Granted, involving the NYCLU blows you up a little bit - when there's been a required faculty meeting about your transition, you will be expected to teach your colleagues even more, which can be a frustrating responsibility as you said - but it protects you. That visibility and publicity can go a long way - just like being visible and honest with your students can go a long way in teaching them compassion.

  5. The lawsuit makes sense to me. The school should not promote the idea that a pathology is normal. Sure, persons with a same-sex attraction and sex identity confusion are not less than human, but they are abnormal and need treatment. The school failed in that regard and must be held accountable.

  6. *Sigh.* Pathology=disease? Abnormal for whom? Exactly how, sir? And what kind of ‘treatment’ do you suggest? I am relieved that you at least write that they are not less than human.

    George, affectional orientation and gender identity are not diseases – i.e. same sex attraction may be abnormal for you if you are straight, but for a gay person it is not.