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Ask any adult what they remember from their school days, and they will bring up a teacher who was unique and unforgettable. Formulas and vocabulary words are forgotten, but children remember their teachers. In the urban high school where I teach in Denver, children remember the day I told them I was a transgender man.
The decision to come out as a trans teacher has never been easy. Every August, as new students arrive, I wonder whether I want to share this part of myself. For most of the time I have been teaching, the Trump administration has targeted the transgender community: rolling back Obama-era protections for transgender students, plotting to exclude trans people from civil rights protections, and banning trans people from serving in the military.
In this precarious national atmosphere, I have the privilege to choose whether I am out at school—or not. I transitioned before entering the workforce, I pass as a man, and my identity documents all match. I could keep my story private, and initially I did but found that in the relationship-driven world of teaching, my silence brought profound isolation.
Schools operate on a gender binary, divided into misters and the misses, the girls’ bathrooms and the boys’. We as teachers are expected to instruct, lead, inspire, and thrive within these confines. When a teacher publicly transgresses the expectations of gender, the entire community reacts. I had read stories of teachers being fired after talking about their trans identities or after transitioning. I decided that was a risk I was willing to take, for the opportunity to teach with my whole self.
I tested the waters by coming out at our staff retreat in the summer of 2015. It was a close-knit team of 50, with a remarkable level of inclusion and authenticity in their interactions. As I stood up to speak, I was shaking with uncertainty about their reactions but had conviction that this was the right thing to do.
I shared about the challenges of transitioning as a youth with no supportive adult advocate, in a high school with no trans-inclusive policies. And I thanked my coworkers for creating the space that had motivated me to share this part of my identity.
When I finished speaking, the room filled with warm applause.
That fall, I shared that story with all 500 students in our high school. In each following year, I have come out to the incoming ninth grade class, to whom I teach science. I always tweak my word choice and focus, but my most important messages are self-evident. By sharing my story, I am telling every student that our community values diversity and you can be yourself here. I am telling the LGBTQ and questioning students that you are who you say you are, even if your family doesn’t agree right now. In my own story, it was five years before my mom started calling me by my name.
Do students listen? Yes, with every fiber of their being. Children are always listening.
An apathetic senior who was repeating my science class declared that I had a lot of courage and gave me a fist bump. An inquisitive ninth grader went home and told his parents about it, and the parents sent me an email to say thanks. Some of our devoutly Catholic, Latinx families were warm and amicable at family nights. One timid student decided they felt safe enough to come out as genderqueer at school, and other closeted LGBTQ students eventually followed—at least one in every year that I’ve come out to a new class.
Some students have a hard time processing what they’ve heard. One boy wrote my name incorrectly as “Mrs. Long” on his final exam as a joke. I know that my presence, as a man who once lived as a girl, disrupts many adolescent boys’ ideas about masculinity. As a Chinese American man, I stand eye to eye or shorter than many of my ninth graders. While many male teachers will use a masculine presentation and mannerisms to win respect and compliance in the classroom, I don’t make any attempts to act more masculine than I am. I am one of a few adult males in my building not to sport a beard. Although I was upset when my student joked about my identity, in hindsight I realize it is all about the student’s processing, not about me.
Although my experience has been overwhelmingly positive, many other educators have been silenced, reprimanded, and terminated after talking about their trans identity. My friend Harper Keenan created the Trans/Nonbinary Educators Network, which provides social support and professional networking opportunities.
In the absence of, or in addition to, written policy in many school districts, there are ways that educators and school officials can support us.
Trans people are experts on their own needs. Before I came out, I sat down with my principal, and he asked me how and when I wanted to tell students. Then he asked what he could do to support me. If an educator is starting to transition at work, and a support team is needed, then the trans educator should be the one to decide who is on that team.
My principal originally wanted to send a letter home to parents, describing the topic of my upcoming presentation and allowing them to opt their children out of it. A friend of mine, at his school, was asked to host an after-school meeting where parents who were upset about the teacher’s decision to transition could voice their concerns. These actions might have been conceived with good intention, but they paint trans people as an unsavory inconvenience that families are expected to take issue with. This messaging allows families to choose to accept or reject trans people, as if students will have these same options in life.
Rather than allowing students to opt out of my coming-out, my principal invited families to attend. In this choice, he made families aware that I would be sharing my story, framing it positively as an act of authenticity.
If any parent has asked to move their child out of my class, they haven’t asked me directly. I am sure that in the four years I’ve been teaching, at least one parent has called the office to make this request. But it’s never been granted, and I commend my school leaders for their steadfast support. When you make a decision that characterizes a trans person as lesser, it sets a precedent for how students will go on to treat people who are different from themselves.
As an out trans teacher, I am often the first person asked to consult on issues such as transphobic or homophobic bullying. LGBTQ-identified educators may or may not have the expertise, resources, or interest to consult closely on an issue or to spearhead an initiative. All educators share the same responsibility to create an inclusive school climate. You might do this by conducting a school climate survey, sponsoring a gay–straight alliance club, or advocating for LGBTQ inclusion at school board meetings.
Does your school or district have any guidelines on what to do when a student transitions? What about when a staff member transitions or comes out? The GLSEN provides a model policy on supporting trans students, and the Toronto and Chicago district policies both have sections addressing the needs of trans staff.
While I’m the only out trans teacher at my school, I’m sure I won’t be the last. The support of educators, parents, and others in the community can help ensure it is affirming for everyone. My own positive experience gives me hope that my choice to be out, and to teach with my whole self, will be remembered by students long after they’ve left my classroom.
First published in YES! Magazine. Included in Vox Populi with permission.