Saturday, September 20, 2008

Transitioning on the Job: Part Two

A month ago, when a friend forwarded me a New York Times article about how transgender people are now experiencing “smoother transitions” in the workplace, I scoffed. After all, the idea that trans people “have it easy” in any way is pretty ridiculous. At that point, I was also anxiously anticipating my first day back at my school and coming out to my colleagues as a transsexual and as “Mr. Krywanczyk.”

As our first staff and faculty in-service day on August 28th neared, I felt incredibly nervous and sick to my stomach. My transition itself had been feeling very good to me. I felt more comfortable in my own skin and knew that I was on the right track for me. But the thought of coming out in an auditorium full of my colleagues and administrators intimidated me. The past two years I mostly avoided social events - such as after-school happy hours - with fellow teachers. My discomfort derived from the sense that I stood out not necessarily for my queerness or gender non-normativity, but for my progressive and radical political stances. Some of my interactions with fellow teachers, including being chastised for wanting to incorporate conversations about genocide and imperialism into our schoolwide celebration of Thanksgiving, left me feeling lonely and alienated. My impulse to protect myself, in addition to the fact that I felt fundamentally uncomfortable with myself, sparked a criticality of many others in my school. I was expecting the worst in coming out as trans.

However, my “coming out day” at my school went surprisingly well. At our first faculty assembly of the year, the speaker I brought in from the NYCLU did a superb job of presenting the basics of “how to respect trans people” without focusing exclusively on my personal transition. He spent a great deal of time connecting trans and gender issues to the students in our school, and explaining from a legal standpoint why it is educators’ responsibility to intervene whenever anybody – child or adult – is being harassed because of their gender expression or identity. His presentation, and my colleagues’ response to it, renewed my faith in and appreciation of third party advocates who know what they are doing. It can be so effective for people who are not familiar with a particular issue to hear about it from a seemingly unrelated person or organization. The NYCLU really came through for me and for other trans people in our school.

After the NYCLU representative spoke, I stood up and announced that I had started transitioning, and that I would be going by male pronouns and by “Mr. Krywanczyk” from that point on. I knew that the NYCLU speaker had discouraged direct harassment or invasive questions, but I was mostly concerned that colleagues would ignore me out of awkwardness or discomfort. But my coworkers, even those whom I have perceived as politcally conservative or “frat” types, pleasantly surprised me. Instead of avoiding me, a large number of them proactively approached me after the speaker that day to congratulate me, assure me that I would be fine, and to tell me that they had my back. Frankly, I had underestimated many of them. Ultimately, I know there’s something valuable in taking a defensive stance and being proven wrong about it – but I felt like a little bit of a jerk for having expected the worst.

Though I was less worried about students’ reactions to my transition than I was about the responses of adults in my building, the teaching aspect of this year has gone smoothly, as well. I have had no issues with my colleagues, and I have been recognizing a great deal of growth I’ve made as an educator – which is undoubtedly connected to, though not equatable with, my personal growth. Already this year, I’ve felt more excited about my job than I ever imagined I could be. My markedly increased comfort in the role of “teacher” and my newfound passion for teaching are the results of several coinciding factors: Everything I’ve learned over the past two years that has helped me be more organized and prepared with lessons and my classroom than I have been before; my decision to dive into “dressing up for work” and wearing ties every day, which make me feel like a responsible adult and are also useful gender markers for colleagues and students; and a new classroom that is spacious and well-equipped for English classes, as opposed to my previous year’s room.

Presenting as male has also caused some palpable and very noticeable changes in the way students respond to me. According to my observation, my status as "Mr. Krywanczyk" has remained unquestioned among my sixth graders this year. As a male teacher, it is clear that I command more respect than in previous years when I identified as female and presented as a butch lesbian. One “teacher stare” goes a lot farther now that I am “Mr. Krywanczyk” than it ever used to, and I haven’t once felt tempted to shout or talk over any students in my classroom. I can’t be sure how much of that stems from my increased organization and ability to do my job, but my perceived gender undeniably helps. Feeling that kind of male privilege with regards to my students has been illuminating already.

Possibly the strangest aspect of this school year so far is the conspicuous absence of any sexuality- or gender-related questions and conversations among my students. I’m not sure how my students read me sexuality-wise, but after the past two years - when my appearance in combination with “Ms. K” prompted immediate and incessant inquiry - it seems bizarre to me that LGBT matters have not yet arisen in my classroom. Passing unquestioned as male with my students, and therefore mostly likely as a straight man by default, helps me better understand the experiences of friends of mine who have struggled to navigate “coming out” in their classrooms. It was never an option for me, before this year, to not be “out” as queer.

The current silence around LGBT issues probably won’t last very long, however. Considering the fact that my students from last year are still in the school, and they often shout “Hi Ms. K!” at me down hallways and across the streets outside our school, it seems inevitable that eventually my students will find out that I was “Ms. K” last year. I’m beginning to feel scared that my overwhelmingly positive transition experience will come crashing down at any minute.

I recently remembered, much to my horror, that over half of the books in my classroom library say “Ms. Krywanczyk” on them in permanent marker. Last year, two very well-meaning students had taken Sharpies to my library in an attempt to ensure that I didn’t lose any books.
Yesterday, one of my current students noticed such a “Ms. Krywanczyk” on the inside of his book, and I saw him look at it, look at me, look back at it, hold it up above his head, and gesture wildly at it to a friend of his across the room until I asked him to put the book down and begin reading. That moment gave me chills, and deflated me a bit – which took me by surprise. I’m realizing that for the first time in my life I’m understanding how right it feels fo rme to be male without necessarily being marked as “trans,” and I’m starting to feel reluctant to let go of that feeling, even though I want to be “out and proud.” I have to wait and see what happens in terms of “disclosure” and “coming out,” and I’m sure it will be a constant navigation.

Ultimately, though, I have received a mind-blowingly supportive and respectful reception in my school, and I am trying to appreciate and enjoy that in the moment. In hindsight, I realize what the New York Times article was getting at, even if it fails to represent more than a sliver of trans experiences. For the small subset of trans people like myself - who have a tremendous amount of resources, support, educational and socioeconomic advantages – maybe transitioning on the job isn’t necessarily a horrible and traumatizing experience. But if there is one thing the beginning of this year has illuminated, it’s how incredibly lucky and privileged I am.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Making Sense of the Senseless - and What Can Educators Do? with SSC's Beth Reis

This article by our co-chair, Beth Reis, was just published in Teaching Tolerance Magazine, a project of Southern Poverty Law Center.

Certainly there are potential costs for a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender student's honesty … discrimination by teachers, rejection by "friends" and, yes, even assault, rape, or murder. Are these experiences universal consequences of coming out? No. Do they happen? Yes.

But there's a flawed prevailing assumption: that being out necessarily increases a child's risk over some sort of bully-free baseline. Gay and, especially, gender variant children are often harassed long before consciously deciding whether to be out. It starts in primary grades. Gender variant little kids don't "choose" to be defiant about the larger culture's gender straight-jackets; it's how they're born. They may become more overt about it as they become more aware, at puberty, of its meaning and of their rights, but the harassment is hardly something they bring on themselves. In fact, whether you're gender variant or gay/lesbian/bi or both, coming out sometimes reduces the harassment you experience. It's not so much fun to hurl the vicious, "What are you ... gay or something?!" at a person whose response is a simple, non-defensive "yes."

The secrecy of the closet isn't without its own costs. These can include academic decline if you can't pay attention in class for worrying when a word or a gesture might lead to your life's unraveling. The costs can include profound loneliness. You can never be sure if those who love you are loving the mask or the person. You may deny yourself a supportive peer group because even accessing the gay-straight alliance may feel dangerous. You may deny yourself conversations with caring adults, unsure if you'll lose their esteem. You may forgo the typical adolescent social venues and, instead, find yourself in riskier adult environments. The closet can lead to depression and self-harm.

Read all of:
Making Sense of the Senseless: The Murder of Lawrence King
by Beth Reis, Safe Schools Coalition Co-Chair

Published in Teaching Tolerance Magazine, Number 34, Fall 2008

Web Exclusive! What Can Educators Do?
Teaching Tolerance sat down with Beth Reis and Helen Stillman of the Safe Schools Coalition, which shares the latest research, programs and ideas about preventing and responding to anti-gay harassment in schools to zero in on ways teachers can curb anti-gay bullying.