On Dec. 28, 2014, Leelah Alcorn died after walking into traffic on a highway near her hometown of Kings Mills, Ohio. The 17-year-old identified as transgender, and in a suicide note published online, which became national news, Alcorn wrote:
“The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something.”
Devon Shanley read in those words a personal call to action. He is a transgender man teaching seventh-grade English in New York City. He resolved to become more vocal as a teacher and activist. While realizing that some trans people do not want to be out, and for others being out may threaten their safety, he believes, “this is what is killing us, this silencing.”
Awareness of gender diversity has been growing. And schools in particular have been a battleground for gender rights. In interviews with 15 individuals, and in an NPR Ed survey of dozens more trans and gender-nonconforming educators around the country, teachers like Shanley told us they are becoming more visible, more active, more organized.
They are marching, writing lesson plans, changing the signs on bathroom doors and, alongside their students, pushing colleagues and school administrators and elected officials to improve awareness of gender issues.
Rates of suicide, homelessness and bullying are all higher among transgender, queer and gender-nonconforming youth. The current administration has formally stated that it won’t consider discrimination complaints from these youth based on access to facilities like bathrooms.
Many trans teachers NPR spoke to for this article told us they were bullied as students, and they feel that their work in the classroom can be, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
A quick note on the terms we’re using here. Gender nonconforming is an umbrella term that can refer to anyone whose appearance or behavior doesn’t fit stereotypes of the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender and gender nonconforming people may identify as men or women. Or they may use terms like nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, transmasculine or transfeminine, or simply trans. They may use a variety of pronouns: he, she, they, ze. They may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, queer or any other possibility. Cisgender, meanwhile, refers to those whose gender identity does match their sex assigned at birth.
Forming a Network
Across the country in San Francisco, around the same time that Shanley felt his call to action, a former teacher named Harper Keenan, also a transgender man and an education Ph.D. candidate at Stanford, experienced the losses of some trans people he knew personally to suicide.
He realized, “We have to do a better job of making sure that transgender people aren’t isolated. And I thought about my own work as an educator. Teaching is a pretty isolating job.” And, he says, it complicates matters that teaching is one of the most gendered professions.
Teachers of younger students in particular are overwhelmingly women. Schools, meanwhile, Keenan points out, often sort students into boys and girls — when lining up, in the bathroom and locker rooms, in sports and phys ed. These are all points of friction for those who don’t conform.
He posted on Facebook to start a professional and social network for anyone who worked with students in K-12 and whose identity did not “easily fit” into the gender binary. They became known as the Transgender Educators Network. Before they knew it, they had around 200 members and chapters that now meet in five places: the Bay Area, New York, Baltimore/Washington area, the Pacific Northwest and Minneapolis.
Chris Smith, a high school teacher and member of the New York chapter of TEN, says they come together to discuss issues like: “how to have conversations with your students. A little bit of safety. What school districts to avoid, what states to avoid. Some emotional support. The best time to come out.”
As a group, TEN members have marched in rallies, written op-eds and submitted a “friend of the court” brief in support of Gavin Grimm, the Virginia high school student who sued for the right to use the bathroom that conformed with his gender identity.
When these teachers were growing up, largely in the 1980s and 1990s, they had few role models. Two mentioned that the only place they saw people with non-cis gender identities were on the talk show Jerry Springer. School was not always an accepting place.
Milo Chesnut says while in high school in an upstate New York town, they “had very low opinions of teachers who did not intervene in bullying and refused to teach LGBT content.”
Chris Smith’s father was an evangelical minister, and they “didn’t have a lot of friends,” at school.
“I was reluctant to become a teacher because I hated school,” says Keenan, who recalls being severely bullied in rural Maryland. “It turned out to be the best job I could possibly imagine,” because, he says, he saw himself making a difference every day.
Others, like Dylan Kapit, grew up wanting to teach. “I’m an educator first,” they said. “I have wanted to be a teacher way longer than I knew I was trans.”
Jae, an educator who didn’t want their last name used, is carrying on a family tradition of both of their grandparents.
Gender nonconforming educators around the country are often educators in more senses than one. They deliver instruction in science or English, as school librarians or special education teachers. And because of their identities, they are often called upon to be role models, peer educators, activists, to uphold students’ civil rights, help enforce and explain district guidelines, and to teach about LGBTQ facts, respect, rights, and issues.
When I sat down with members of TEN’s New York City chapter at a busy cafe in Chelsea, they had a range of reactions to the roles that their identities can sometimes thrust on them.
“It often feels like a lot of extra work emotionally for me,” said Kyle Lukoff, an elementary school librarian. “Yes, it’s a lot of work,” chimed in Kit Golan, a middle school math teacher. “But it’s so important and necessary, and someone has to do it. If we can build this next generation to be more accepting, it’s the only way to grow.”
Most of the teachers we talked to were not completely “out” to everyone at work. Keenan says he was typically interpreted as a cisgendered man in his first two teaching jobs.
Jae, a 15-year veteran high school teacher, began just this school year using the pronoun “they” at school, with colleagues and the administration. But Jae doesn’t ask their students to use they, because the students are primarily English language learners, and Jae says the “cognitive burden” would be too difficult. Similarly, Dylan Kapit, who teaches special education, uses the pronouns they/them. But when it comes to their students, “They see me as male, so they address me as male.”
Coming out is complicated for gender nonconforming people. They have different degrees of what is called “passing privilege.” This can be a function of having the money for surgery or hormones, or one’s personal preferences in clothing or makeup. “Unlike my colleagues here, I come out by walking into a room or at least by opening my mouth,” a teacher named Alaina Daniels said.
Jae said, “I get a little alarmed when there’s this idea that teachers should come out and be role models. Because for some people that is a choice that they can make and not fear for their job safety or their personal safety at work. Other people don’t have the power or privilege to make that decision.”
That power and that privilege often depends for these educators on the intersection of several identities. The members of TEN are overwhelmingly white (as is the teaching force in general). And, Keenan notes, their femme, or feminine, members seem to have a more difficult time getting and keeping jobs and being treated on the job with respect. “Schools are especially hostile toward transfeminine folks,” he observes.
Working in New York City provides another kind of protection. The school district has detailed guidelines to protect trans and gender nonconforming students. Several teachers expressed the feeling that the union “had their back” as well, especially after achieving tenure. Kit Golan had a good experience when officially changing the pronoun on his identification — it was simple to do, and the city sent a letter of congratulations. But Smith, noted that at the city’s Department of Education headquarters, there are no single-stall bathrooms to use.
Trans and gender nonconforming teachers around the country told us about different concerns. In our national survey, some mentioned moving to a more welcoming area, or putting off transitioning to keep their jobs.
“My gender is a non-issue in class, but my presence as an out, nonbinary teacher is grounds for firing in Texas schools,” Jack Kaulfus, who teaches in a private high school in Austin, told us. “My workplace is supportive and progressive, but I am one of the lucky ones who found a place where I can safely be myself. Most trans and gender nonconforming teachers are not so lucky, and either live in fear of being outed or come out at the risk of losing their livelihoods.”
Those who have taken the plunge to speak publicly about their identities often found benefits.
Kyle Lukoff, an elementary school librarian, says he was “exhausted and terrified” after speaking to his students about his identity, but several parents thanked him afterwards.
Kit Golan ended up speaking about his identity, first to his students, and then at a school assembly. “I debated it for a long time,” he says. Afterwards, he got a letter in the mail from a parent of a former student. The student had a brother who was trans and had never met a trans adult before.
For Milo Chesnut, coming out was the beginning of a bigger education project. Chesnut teaches high school in Brooklyn.
At first, they were excited to share their pronouns — they, them — at school. But having to remind people and correct them again and again “creates a lot of anxiety.”
And they saw that same anxiety happening for their gender nonconforming students as well. “I am an adult and I’ve had many years to think about my identity,” Chesnut said. “I think about students who don’t have that history and don’t have that confidence.” If teachers don’t step up, Chesnut says, students may not speak up.
Chesnut has the unusual experience of working alongside another trans educator — Shanley teaches middle school and Chesnut high school in the same public school. As part of its approach to community building, the school has small groups of students who meet regularly with an advisor in what are called “circles.”
At Chesnut and Shanley’s instigation, all advisors held a circle with their students at the beginning of the school year around gender identity. Students shared their names and pronouns, and advisors took responsibility for making sure other teachers around the building knew them.
It may seem like a small thing, they say, but it’s a place to start. A way to make school more welcoming, to build stronger relationships based on trust. And that seems like an important mission for the educators we talked to. In fact, it seems core to their identities — their identities as educators, that is.
“I’ve heard the argument that we shouldn’t bring [gender] up because it would confuse children,” says Lukoff, the elementary school librarian. “Children are confused by everything all the time. They are confused by why they can’t eat ketchup sandwiches for lunch every day. It is our job as teachers to educate them about things.”
Golan, the math teacher, agrees: “Education is constantly changing, language is constantly changing and it’s important that the students are kept up to date with that.”
Many noted that while schools, communities, and even families aren’t yet safe or accepting for everyone, many students seem more open than the older generation.
Daniels says she transitioned on the job. At the beginning of the school year, she says, “A couple of the kindergartners came up to me and asked, ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ I said, ‘People used to think I was a boy. Over the summer I told them they were wrong.’ And they were like, ‘Oh, Ok, that makes sense. Want to play tag?’ ”