Friday, April 11, 2014

A Transgender Teacher Speaks Out

It’s April 2014, and for the second time in less than a month, a transgender teacher is in the headlines. The first one: a science teacher in California who caused quite a stir in the most liberal state in the nation when she finally—after a long, long life of denial and hiding (and a three decade career)—found the strength to be open about the truth that she had known from early childhood. The most recent: a fifth grade substitute teacher in Texas who made headlines for being suspended from her position.

Did I mention that it is 2014?

One might think that, by now, the world—or at least the United States—might have figured out that, whether or not they understand what being transgender is all about, transgender people do in fact live among them and do not cause any harm, transmit any disease, carry any scary LGBT contagions, or have any agenda other than to live our lives in the truest possible ways. One might think that. After all, Trans Visibility is at an all-time high. Chaz Bono was a popular contestant on “Dancing With the Stars.” Amanda Simpson is a member of President Obama’s government. Janet Mock is all over the talk shows. Jenny Boylan is a high profile university professor and writer. Laverne Cox is receiving raves for her performance on “Orange Is the New Black.” Lana Wachowski, with her fuchsia locks drizzling down, is one of the most significant directors in Hollywood.  

But of course if one does believe that this is an upbeat time for transgender people in America, then one must clearly not be paying attention to the news. It’s hard enough for the LGB part of the alphabet soup acronym of the gay movement: far beyond the transparently insane groups like Westboro Baptist Church that pretty much everyone agrees are ridiculous, a large percentage of regular people still feel that there is something wrong with those gay folks. Many of them base it on the Bible—faulty, pick-and-choose readings of the Bible, to be sure, but the Bible nonetheless. I mean that's a big thing. Others base it on the ewwy feeling they get when they even think about "the gay.". Still others might be afraid of exposing that part of themselves that might actually wonder about that kind of thing.

LGB people, though, are making strides. These percentages, though still high, are no longer a majority. It’s the T-folks, in which category I include myself, who have issues. We’re just…weird. Impossible to understand. Too strange. There must be something very, very wrong with us. And you definitely don’t want any of us around your precious children, do you?

Guess what?

Aside from the transfolk I named above, we are doctors, lawyers, accountants, dentists, clergy, deli clerks, police, construction workers, athletes, laborers, consultants, IT people, restaurant managers, airline pilots, soldiers, chefs, and probably just about any other profession you could name. And, yes, we are teachers. And even more important: we are your children.

No one has to contaminate anyone for them to “become” transgender. It isn’t a disease. It is something we carry within ourselves from birth, like the ability to breathe. No one can say if it is genetic, chemical, hormonal, or what in origin, but studies have shown that it is a physical thing, part of the makeup of our brains, that shapes our minds this way. Most of us are aware of it from earliest childhood, whether we tell anyone or not. That is why you are seeing more and more news reports today of transgender children, and you don’t know what to do with that.

The answer is this: recognize that your world is not as simple as you always thought that it was. It is not black and white. It is not right and left. (Have you noticed how politics does not work as well when everyone is on one side or the other and no one is in the middle?) Everything has a vast middle. We are part of the middle, and we always have been.

Honor the middle by stopping the attacks against it. Transgender people are small in number, but staggering percentages of that number have suffered discrimination in everything from housing to retail stores to jobs to health care. Absurd numbers have been discriminated against, harassed, even beaten, by people on the streets and in rest rooms, even by the police. 57% of transgender people in a recent survey reported being rejected by members of their own families. 41% reported that they had attempted suicide, compared to 1.6% of the general population.

This has to stop. For the sake of those children—who might be your children—who are growing up right now with that deep secret they have yet to share with the world, this has to stop.

I am a high school teacher. I have been a high school teacher for 34 years. In 1998, I became the first teacher in America to transition from male to female in place, on the job, without changing schools or position or taking any kind of break to do so. I did this in a wealthy suburb north of Chicago, a well-known, conservative town where I had been teaching and directing plays for fifteen years. At the time, I was forty years old. I had tried to make it as a “man,” had married, had done my best, had three children who adored me and a spouse who had basically become little other than a good friend over the years. But I was falling apart, both emotionally and physically. I lost forty pounds (and I did not have it to lose) in six months. My colleagues thought I had AIDS. In my classroom, by myself, I broke down in frequent tears. I found myself snapping at friends—something I simply never do.

Finally, I had to face the truth: my secret, which I had hidden for so many years with relative effectiveness, was destroying me. I would not make it much further.

When I told them, colleagues said I was insane to think I could transition in this place. My response was that they were probably right, but what the hell: maybe people, even these conservative people, would ultimately “do the right thing.” And they did. The school supported me, held steady against the onslaught of reporters and the barrage of publicity, both positive and negative, that ensued. The community supported me as well, as I had been a respected teacher for a decade and a half. There were some who did not, but the administration quietly removed their kids from my class lists and that was that. After a few years, even that expedience was no longer needed.

I have been teaching here as a woman now longer than I did as a man. I am one of the supporters of our Gay-Straight Alliance. Students have told me that, by the very fact that I am here, I have taught them more than they have learned in many of their classes. I have also helped two graduates through transitions they wished they could have done when they were younger, but lacked the courage.

I do not speak of my past in my classroom. Why should I? In fact, I strongly suspect that there are students now who don’t even know. But it is my past, and it is my story, and it is my truth. I am a transgender woman. I am a woman. I am a mom. I am a director. I am a karaoke singer. I am a writer. I am a role model. I am a huge fan of “Game of Thrones.” But in my classroom, where I spend so much of my day, I am a teacher.

It is the best thing I can be. 

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it's your hair that i notice first
streaked with morning
it frames your face
you lying there eyes closed
soft breath not quite there
i follow its path as it bends the sheet
and i can touch you there
touch what i feel is you
in the spark of daylight
you'll rise
pull on the wrinkled shirt from last night
say something you think is beautiful
drink some coffee
from behind my paper
and drive away,
leaving a kiss on my lips
and a hole in my heart
where a fire ought to be

Favorite Films

  • The Wizard Of Oz
  • Amelie
  • The Princess Bride
  • Casablanca
  • Annie Hall
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • All That Jazz
  • Citizen Kane
  • Love Actually
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Big Fish
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Almost Famous
  • Bull Durham
  • Notting Hill
  • Apocalypse Now (Redux)
  • Magnolia

All-Time Favorite TV Shows

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Gilmore Girls
  • M*A*S*H
  • The West Wing
  • The X-Files
  • The Daily Show
  • Ally McBeal
  • Picket Fences
  • All In The Family
  • Seinfeld
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  • Star Trek
  • Firefly
  • Wonderfalls
  • Northern Exposure
  • Get Smart
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show
  • Twin Peaks
  • The Larry Sanders Show
  • Monk
  • Felicity
  • St. Elsewhere

Current TV Shows I Enjoy (in no particular order)

  • Perception
  • Major Crimes
  • American Horror Story
  • Louie
  • Suits
  • The Newsroom
  • Falling Skies
  • Franklin and Bash
  • Veep
  • Scandal
  • Fairly Legal
  • Girls
  • Don't Trust the B---
  • Justified
  • Portlandia
  • Psych
  • The Middle
  • Person of Interest
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • Real Time with Bill Maher
  • Nikita
  • Raising Hope
  • Castle
  • Drop Dead Diva
  • Covert Affairs
  • Elementary
  • Rizzoli and Isles
  • Revolution
  • The Last Resort
  • Alphas
  • SNL
  • Revenge
  • Community
  • Suburgatory
  • New Girl
  • Once Upon a Time
  • Grimm
  • Nashville
  • Downton Abbey
  • Smash
  • Homeland
  • Fringe
  • Glee
  • Haven
  • Community
  • Warehouse 13
  • Modern Family
  • Vampire Diaries
  • The Daily Show
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • The Colbert Report
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Leverage
  • Rachel Maddow Show

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