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?
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.