More Than Half Of Transgender Teachers Face Workplace Harassment

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More than half of transgender teachers face harassment or discrimination in the workplace, according to an NPR Ed survey of transgender and gender-nonconforming educators.

The survey of 79 trans and gender-nonconforming teachers from the U.S. and Canada found that the harassment they face ranges widely: from 20 percent who reported verbal harassment, to 17 percent who said they'd been asked to change how the present themselves, such as their clothing, to two teachers who said they'd been fired.

"I was horribly harassed by a coworker and very little was done about it," said Lauren Heckathorne of Evanston, Ill., who identifies as nonbinary. "The focus was on making [the harasser] more comfortable."

These findings come from our online survey, and follow-up interviews by phone and in person with two dozen of the 79 teachers who responded.

Despite the challenges they face, a majority of these teachers also said they have tried to integrate LGBT-related topics into their teaching. Many also mentioned advising LGBT awareness groups for students, training peers or addressing the topic in venues such as school assemblies.

And, they told us, they see schools as crucial spaces not only of learning, but of safety, for the next generation.

"I don't think I've ever seen a supportive parent for my LGBT kids," says Chris Smith, who teaches many recent immigrants in a high school in New York City. Considering the high rates of bullying, homelessness and even suicide among LGBT youth, these teachers say their work can be a matter of life and death.

Forty percent of the teachers told us their students were more accepting of them than were the adults at school.

There is no way of knowing how representative our sample is of trans teachers around the country, nor how many trans and gender-nonconforming people may be working in schools to begin with. (A 2016 UCLA analysis put the percentage of trans adults in the U.S. as a whole at about 0.6 percent, or 1.4 million individuals.)

With those caveats firmly in mind, these educators gave us a candid glimpse into their lives.

  • 56 percent reported some form of workplace discrimination or harassment. Primarily this came from the administration or colleagues, not from students.
  • 62 percent said they have tried to integrate LGBT-related topics into their teaching.
  • 71 percent said they were out about their identities at work.
  • Our respondents skewed young; 38 percent are under 30. And many are fairly new to teaching: 37 percent have been at it less than five years.
  • 73 percent teach in public schools, meaning more are in private schools compared with the general population of teachers. Just one teacher reported teaching in a parochial school.
  • 56 percent teach high school — a much higher number than the general population of teachers.
  • Our respondents came from 17 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada. Small towns and big cities were represented, but New York City led the list with 13 respondents.
  • Only 11 out of 69 who answered a question about their gender identity, or 15 percent of respondents, said that they were female, femme or a woman (see below for a discussion of this terminology). This is interesting in light of the fact that teaching, especially in lower grades, is one of the most gender-segregated professions in the United States — overwhelmingly, teaching jobs are held by women.
  • More than half, 53 percent, used a word related to "male" to describe their gender identity.
  • 21 percent did not use a word related to one gender — for example, transgender, nonbinary, gender queer, gender fluid.

How they identify

Our respondents used a wide variety of words to describe their identities. For some, simply "male" or "female" fits.

"I identify as a guy," wrote a teacher in Omaha, Neb. who did not want his name used.

Others chose terms like trans man, trans woman, trans femme, FTM (female to male), nonbinary, gender queer, or genderfluid. They may use the pronouns "he" "she" or "they."

While "transgender" includes people whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth, gender nonconforming is a broader umbrella term. As defined by one advocacy group, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, it includes "people who do not follow other people's ideas or stereotypes about how they should look or act based on the female or male sex they were assigned at birth." None of these terms necessarily refers to sexual orientation; trans people may identify as gay, straight, bisexual, asexual or queer, to name a few possibilities.

Cisgender, meanwhile, is the term used to refer to people whose gender identity does agree with their sex assigned at birth.

Coming out

Now let's take a deeper dive into two related topics: being out, and the repercussions of that.

Most of our respondents, more than 7 in 10, said they were out at work.

But being "out" can take many forms, from telling a few trusted colleagues to making a public announcement.

Coming out is complex for trans and gender nonconforming people, they told us. They have different degrees of "passing privilege," which can be a function of the resources available for hormones, surgery, hair or makeup, or simply personal choice.

"I pass as male and work as male," wrote Cuthbert, who did not want their last name used. "None of my current students know I am trans."

For others, "I come out when I walk into a room, or at least when I open my mouth," as Alaina Daniels, a high school science teacher in New York City, told us in an interview.

Sam Long, a science teacher in Denver, Colo., said that their administration initially pushed back on the idea of their coming out, but, "eventually I did come out to students and it had a very positive impact on the community. We had several students open up about their orientation and one student come out as genderqueer. I was glad to have made those students feel safe enough to share."

Teachers in our survey reported being most likely to be out to colleagues, and least likely to have informed their students' parents.

Workplace discrimination

For many trans teachers, coming out carries risks. The National Center for Transgender Equality lists only 15 states that explicitly prohibit, by law, discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Most of our respondents reported some form of workplace discrimination or harassment, whether from the administration, colleagues, or less frequently, students.

Here are some of their stories:

"I am the only out trans employee in my district and there are not the necessary protocols in place to keep me safe," said Lauren Heckathorne in Illinois.

"One colleague thought 'tr*nny' was the correct term to use when referring to trans people," Logan Keane, a high school teacher in New York City, told us.

"I am often subject to verbal abuse in the hallways and have been prevented from accessing the teacher's lounge by colleagues," said Jennifer Eller, an educator in Maryland. "The ... administration transferred me to a conservative area and gave me increasingly more difficult student populations to work with in hopes that I would resign my position. When that failed, they began misgendering me in front of others and disciplining me for correcting them."

Misgendering, or being called by the wrong pronoun, is one of the most common forms of verbal harassment mentioned by our survey respondents.

Several trans people emphasized in conversations with this cis woman reporter that what might seem like a small mistake or an innocent slip of the tongue --calling someone by a different pronoun than the one they request — in fact has a painful impact that builds up over time. And sometimes it's less inadvertent and more a clear expression of hostility, they said.

Chris Smith in New York, who uses "they," is tired of "the cliche response," from colleagues they call otherwise generally supportive: " 'Well, you've got to give me some time.' "

Smith's response? "Try, it's actually not that hard. We learn new groups of students' names each semester — there should be no excuse."

'Daily discrimination'

The second most commonly mentioned form of harassment, after verbal barbs, was being told to change how they presented themselves.

Rochelle, who asked us to use their first name, said they were genderfluid. They described leaving teaching over a decade ago because they felt the need to wear "work drag" such as neutral colors.

"I wonder if I were to teach now whether I could express my fluidity more fully. I have been experimenting with it at my current job (education administration, so public school system, but I don't interact with parents or students), and so far I feel safe. I think the times have changed."

Others mentioned moving schools, or states, or leaving the profession altogether.

"The treatment I received from past administrators ... impacted me so negatively that I almost quit the profession," Donnie, a civics and history teacher, who asked us to use their first name to protect their privacy, said. "Thankfully, I found a much better school."

"Before I taught in Washington State I experienced disrespect and discrimination from colleagues, administrators, and parents during five years teaching in Texas and North Carolina," said McKinley Morrison, now a pre-K teacher in Olympia, Wash.

"I'm leaving teaching because I can't be an effective educator and deal with daily discrimination at the same time. I've been on long-term med leave because of PTSD/depression from several specific events and many daily aggressions," a middle school math and science teacher in the Midwest, who did not want their name used, wrote.

Still other trans teachers said they don't feel safe transitioning in the first place.

"I'm not out yet at all, and not in transition because in Indiana I have no legal protections, and I am the provider in my household," said another teacher who did not want their name used. "I need to keep my job so I can eat, pay off student loans, pay rent, etc. I don't know when it will be safe to come out, for me. I don't know if I'll ever feel comfortable being trans at work."

"No one knows about me and I would like for you to keep this in the strictest confidential," said a third teacher who also requested anonymity.

Despite these negative experiences, there were bright spots. As noted above, 40 percent of our respondents said their students were more accepting of them than others at school.

Some said they felt times have changed, with people more understanding and accepting than they were even a few years ago.

"I would not have been comfortable being out with my students during my first few years of teaching, mostly because mainstream cultural understandings of trans topics was much, much lower," Lewis Maday-Travis, who teaches eighth-grade human biology and health in Seattle, told us.

And despite all the difficulties they noted, many of these educators expressed a deep sense of mission. Whether they work with special needs students or English language learners, teenagers or young children, they are also role models.

Many said they felt they play a vital — even life-saving — role through their visibility. Sometimes in surprising ways.

Like Chris Smith, who teaches mostly recent immigrant students at a public high school in New York City. They asked their students to call them Teacher Smith. "A former student was involved in sex work previously. He'd never been tested, didn't know what HIV was," Smith said. "And he opened up to me because he was comfortable about it."

It wasn't necessarily directly related to gender identity, but, Smith says, "I have noticed a lot of social responsibility in trans and [gender nonconforming] communities. It's a value that has a strong current in our community. Maybe because we were the folks who needed it the most growing up."

NPR's Ariana Figueroa and Carl Boisrond contributed to this report.

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