Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Trouble with "Liberal" Teachers...

When reflecting on how this year has gone for me at work with regard to my transition, it’s been easy for me to brush it off with an “Oh, there have been no problems at all! My school’s great!” And indeed, my school is a relatively ideal place for me to be going through this. But even in the most ideal of locations, quotidian challenges arise that keep me on my toes and in a state of perpetual emotional exhaustion. The problem at a school like mine - which is filled with young, mostly white Teach for America corps members and New York Teaching Fellows and fancies itself uber Liberal - is that coworkers are quick to rationalize hurtful ignorances with the excuse of "But I had good intentions! I'm very Liberal and open-minded!"

Two weeks ago a colleague at school brought some students from a seventh grade class to see me. These four students had encountered me in the hallways last year as Ms. K and, even though I’ve never taught them, they have been confused and curious about my transition. My coworker did not discuss this in detail with me beforehand, nor did he ask me if the timing was convenient or appropriate for me.

The four students were very shy and nervous, and this coworker drew some extremely problematic race analogies - which I didn’t even entirely understand - to explain to the students why they should “feel comfortable asking Mr. K anything they want to know!” The students were clearly very uncomfortable with this, so to relieve them of the pressure their teacher was putting on them, I suggested they write down their questions on post-its. They gladly did so, and the first questions they offered I was happy to answer and discuss: “How has your family reacted to you being transgender?” and “Why do you think you are transgender?” These questions pop up frequently, and I’m usually pretty happy to answer them.

However, my coworker then started encouraging them to ask questions that I would never discuss with students, questions like: “Do you still menstruate?” It bewildered and angered me that he would self-authorize – let alone authorize students! – to talk about my body in that way. He was paying no attention to my level of discomfort, and to make matters worse, he made several offensive offhand comments while the students were writing down questions, such as: “So, who are you interested in these days, men or women?”, and “Do gay men hit on you a lot?” When I responded “Sometimes” to the latter question, he laughed and said “Haha, do you just tell them that you don’t have what they’re looking for?” At that point, I was ready to either a) sock him or b) tell him off for his arrogance in presuming to know anything about my body or "what I have." But the students approached me again with more questions, and I had to return to Teacher Mode.

The most infuriating part of the entire interaction was that while he was undermining my identity and treating me like an object for analysis this coworker clearly felt he was being open, affirming, and supportive. He assumed that as someone with “lots of gay friends!,” he was necessarily authorized to ask me probing personal questions and make judgments and share opinions about my body.

I understand that “teachable moments” are unavoidable, and that difficult moments pop up every single day. As a professional, it is inherent to my job to be constantly put on the spot by my students, and I try to rise to the occasion to deal with that. When a student of mine used the phrase “no homo” two weeks ago, I talked to him individually to ask him what he meant by it and why he was using it. When another student asked me the question “Mr. K, who would you rather have as your girlfriend, Alicia Keys or Alissa Milano,” I responded by simply stating “Think about all of the assumptions you’re making about me when you say that.” The student was puzzled, but got quiet and pensive for a few moments.

These situations are regular, and constant, and part of my job to tackle. I have occasionally chosen to come out as queer or trans in moments like that, but ultimately my decisions about what information I share about my body and my personal experience is completely up to me – and I’ve found that in many situations sharing my experience does not necessarily assist me in provoking thoughtfulness and getting my main points across to students. Even just in developmental terms, eleven- and twelve-year-olds process everything through the lens of themselves. Coming out has an important and crucial place in teaching, in my opinion, but it is not inherently necessary to prompt students to think critically about sexuality and gender identity.

So, then, how do I react in a situation in which my body is being put on display as a specimen to be examined and probed, by a well-intentioned colleague who thinks he is affirming my identity? It is very challenging to be in that place, because it was not simply an interaction between myself and a coworker – there were students present, as well. I should probably speak with that coworker individually to explain to him why I felt like he disrespected my boundaries and identity. But I can’t find the energy in me, for some reason. I guess there are limitations to my willingness and ability to educate people about trans-ness, but maybe after spring break is over I’ll muster up whatever willpower I need to discuss it with him face-to-face.

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