Monday, October 6, 2008

Transitioning on the Job: Part Three

Transitioning has shattered my understanding of how people are perceiving me. In my everyday life, I feel less and less certain about what sexual and gender identities other people are mapping onto me. In the past few weeks, I’ve been read as a straight, cisgendered man at gay male bars, and as a gay man by straight women whom I thought were hitting on me. I had my first experience of having to come out as a transsexual to a gay man who asked me out. These are all firsts for me. The cumulative effect of these seemingly minor, quotidian exchanges has felt utterly overwhelming at times.

Shifts in my physical appearance (and therefore in the way other people interact with me) have been disorienting at work, too. While modeling how to draft a personal essay the other day, the fact arose that my two best friends when I was in eighth grade were named Talia and Joanna. The moment I mentioned their names in my draft, a wave of giggles swept through the classroom. I turned around, surprised and unsure of the reason for the amusement. One flabbergasted student blurted out “GIRLS?” and I replied “yes, they were my friends.” In the brief flurry of whispers that ensued, I overheard comments like “he hung out with girls?!” I hadn’t anticipated that reaction. It hadn’t even occurred to me that it would seem strange that I spent time with girls as a kid. Upon reflection, though, I realize that most of my students immerse themselves in same-sex social groups. The impression I got from students’ reactions was that there was something “off” about an eighth grade boy whose best friends were girls. Perhaps, I realized, they’re suspecting that I might be a gay, cissexual man? I can’t tell.

Yesterday, one student came up to me with a book in hand to point out that “almost all of your books say ‘Ms. Krywanczyk’ in them.” She didn’t say it in an accusatory or “what’s going on here?” way. Her tone was earnest, and she clearly figured she’d inform me of something that she assumed I would want to know. My nervousness came through in my response: “Thanks for letting me know, you can change it if you want.” She walked away from my desk seeming a little confused and curious. Moments like this have illuminated my tendency to project my own “passing anxieties” onto my students. I had assumed that the “Ms. Krywanczyk” written in my classroom books would “give away” my trans-ness to students. However, a friend pointed out to me that students very well may see “Ms. Krywanczyk” not as an indicator that I was designated female at birth, but as a hint that I may have a wife. Sure enough, a few students have approached me to ask me if I’m married. (I’ve said a simple “no.”) But I haven’t fielded a single gender-related question, or had to address an inappropriate pronoun.

Frankly, I’m shocked that this hasn’t come up in my classroom yet. Maybe my sixth graders simply haven’t heard anything about the fact that I used to be Ms. K? That seems highly unlikely, though. Maybe seventh and eighth graders in the school have heard about my transition, and have kept relatively quiet about it? I’m skeptical of that, too. Some seventh and eighth graders who knew me last year have clearly “gotten the memo” about my transition, because they have begun referring to me as Mr. K. (Or perhaps some of them have just put two and two together.) But some of my former students who are currently seventh graders in the school still shout “Hi Ms. K!” when they see me in the hallways. It is possible, then, that my sixth graders have heard about my past as Ms. K – and they simply “get it.”

I would love to wire-tap students to be privy to the ways this kind of information is communicated, discussed, and spread. I’m absolutely dying to know, as very few people – students or adults – are discussing any of this with me. In the past three days, two coworker friends of mine have shared conversations that other teachers at our school have started with them about me and transgender issues. In both cases, other teachers approached coworkers whom they knew were friends of mine to ask extensive questions about my transition. While the thought of having friends put on the spot to speak for me and my identity makes me uncomfortable, I’m relieved that all of the burden of fielding these inquiries isn’t falling on me.

In response to questioning, though, I find myself oscillating between a personal impulse to engage in conversation with adults about my transition and a political obligation to establish that just because someone is transgender doesn’t make it okay to be invasive. I always feel like I should tell curious inquirers that they need to find some trans literature and educate themselves rather than depending on trans people to spoon-feed them information. No individual is obligated to educate the trans-ignorant world at large; and it would certainly be problematic for me to self-authorize to “represent” transgender people. However, at the same time I’m inclined to speak for my own personal experience and transition. And in terms of effective “Trans 101” teaching tools, nothing compares to “real life” interaction with trans people.

In both my professional and non-professional lives, I’ve been struggling to navigate boundaries when adults ask deeply personal questions about my body, my sexuality, my sex life, etc. It’s extremely important that I have cissexual supporters in my school - like these two coworker friends - whom I trust to address questions appropriately, to advocate for me, and to therefore alleviate some of the pressures to “educate” that might otherwise fall completely on me. I dislike the term “ally” for many reasons, but my awesome and trans-aware colleagues are contributing to my hopefulness about teaching this year.


  1. i feel like you addressed so many issues in this post. first of all, the issue of how you appear to others, particularly your students, is interesting. some of them may know other students who told them that last year you used to be ms.k. on the other hand, some of them may genuinely believe that ms. k is your wife. it is up to you how you want to deal with your students inquisitions. whatever makes you feel comfortable, go with that. if this means no conversation, fine. if this means talking to them openly in the future, fine. however, i think your privacy and your safety comes first.

    you are right. you do not have to be the trans-educator. if people want to know, they need to read and educate themselves. i can't imagine how hard this can be, because people sometimes talk without thinking. have any of your older students come to ask you questions? i'm just curious.

    it's so true how students form social cliques based on gender, especially in middle school. how can we help our students break out of these socially constructed norms and attitudes? sigh.

    thank you once again for a great post.