As far as I can tell, none of my sixth grade students know that I’m trans. This astonishes me. Has not one seventh or eighth grader mentioned anything to one of my students? Has not one of them Googled my name? Seriously?
Clearly, I can never know exactly what someone else is thinking – but I can make inferences based on students’ comments and actions. Students have continued to ask me “are you married?” when they point out the “Ms. Krywanczyk” written in most of the books in my classroom library. I met many students’ parents at Parent Teacher Conferences last week, and the fact that several parents commented “you look so young!,” implied (based on my past experience) that they perceived me to be a teenaged boy.
Two weeks ago the concept of homophobia arose in my class because of a novel we are reading that has a prominent gay character (After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson, which is fantastic). When I explained that homophobia is “hatred or intolerance of gay and lesbian people,” one of my students raised his hand to say “But Mr. Krywanczyk, what about transsexuals? Aren’t there transsexuals, too? My mom said she saw one once.” Most other students in the class proceeded to look at each other with confused looks on their faces, and a few of them asked “Mr. K, what’s a transsexual?” I explained the term briefly and we moved on with the lesson – but the moment confirmed my suspicions that my sixth graders do not yet know about my past as “Ms. K.”
I continue to dread the day when one of my students asks me point-blank “did you used to be Ms. K?” or calls me “she.” One of the most frustrating aspects of being trans is learning firsthand that many people, once they are aware of your history, feel that they suddenly “know” something significant that changes the way they interact with you. I’m nervous that when my students learn that I’m trans, it will cause them to treat me differently - and it’s been feeling really good for my identity to be respected in my classroom, in part because it has been my only experience of that, to date. It is possible that my students are aware of my history, but they just “get it.” That would be amazing. After all, most of the seventh and eighth graders in our school have quickly caught on and started calling me “Mr,” or correcting themselves when they call me “Ms.”
Though many of my colleagues and administrators have been supportive and well-intentioned, this year has reminded me that students are often more open and thoughtful than adults. When one administrator heard that the word “transsexual” came up in my classroom, he immediately assumed that I was “teaching transexuality” to my students. Though the matter was cleared up by other staff and faculty who were present at the time, hearing about his assumptions alerted me to the fact that I will probably not be given the benefit of the doubt very often this year: Even when students bring up their own legitimate questions, thoughts, or ideas about sexuality and gender identity, it very well may be assumed to be my doing. This incident put me on edge and reminded me to always watch my step and cover myself.
Fighting the assumption that LGBTQ and sexuality-related conversations only arise in classrooms when queer or trans teachers bring them up is one of the biggest challenges LGBTQ-friendly teachers will face at my school this year. Three weeks ago, an eighth grade student in a coworker’s class asked about me: “If he’s a dude, why was he Ms. K last year?” The teacher responded exactly how a professional educator is supposed to respond – by explaining terms and abstracting the conversation to avoid talking about individuals' personal identities. She explained what “transgender” means and that gender and sexuality are not necessarily the same thing, while refusing to speak for me or about my transition in any detail. During this brief discussion in her classroom, another eighth grade student spoke up and began explaining transsexuality to the rest of his classmates. How did he know so much about the topic? His mother’s best friend, he informed everyone, is a trans woman.
An administrator reprimanded my coworker for “discussing sexual preference” in her classroom – and stated that “if students have questions about Mr. Krywanczyk, they should go to Mr. K.” Basically, this administrator was saying that any and all instances of the word “transgender” coming up in class must necessarily have something to do with ME, and that I should be the only person in our school able to speak about trans issues. This is ludicrous, and completely invalidates students curiosity and the presence of LGBTQ issues and identities in students’ everyday experiences. Even after that situation settled down and the principal (thankfully) intervened to establish that the teacher had not done anything wrong, the implication remained that it is only acceptable for LGBTQ issues to arise in our classrooms when they are related to some kind of text that we are reading – not when students are “just” asking questions.
In addition to invisibilizing the realities of students’ lives, attempts to shut down discourse and conversation often have strong racist implications in my school. Most teachers and administrators are white and very few of our students are white, and so the admonishment “Don’t talk about sexual preference!” all too quickly turns into“You know how racial minorities are, they’re so homophobic!” This is an offensive excuse made by adults in our school who simply don’t want to have to put forth energy to support queer and trans youth. LGBTQ-friendly teachers in the school will need to work hard to make room for LGBTQ-related dialogue that does not always become exclusively about queer or trans teachers and our identities. It should be about students having access to information and dialogue they need and deserve because these are issues that affect their lives.