Teachers in Transition
For those who identify as trans, the decision to 'come out' can be incredibly difficult. For trans teachers, writes Jonno Revanche, it can be even harder – but there are glimmers of hope for educators who may still be hesitant about disclosing their identity.
Earlier this year, as a fierce debate around Safe Schools raged, one group at the centre of the conversation was almost completely absent from it: teachers, particularly those on the LGBTQI spectrum – and most notably, those who identify as trans.
Perhaps this isn’t surprising. Over a short period of time, Australia’s focus on trans people has come to settle predominantly on teens, too frequently typecast as ‘special snowflakes’ with mental illness and too much spare time. When trans adults are imagined, the image tends to morph across a series of more insidious caricatures.
Of course, transgender people of all ages and backgrounds exist around us. In a school environment, they’re not just students, but teachers and parents, too. If our image of trans people skews younger, that may be because the hard-fought successes of the trans visibility movement are felt by the young more than the old: acceptance of gender non-conformity improves, gradually, with every passing generation.
In terms of Safe Schools, the erasure of trans teachers from discussions about trans students is just one part of a broader erasure: a remnant of a long past in which ‘passing’ as cisgender, and silence about transgender issues, was necessary for trans people to guarantee their safety. At the same time, as the cultural tides shift, it is becoming clearer that the presence of older trans role models and allies is important for the young.
It’s possible that parents find it worrying that authority figures might be suffering from the same issues as their students, and leap to believing that someone who can’t help themselves won’t be able to help anyone else. But of course, it’s more complex than that.
If we recognise that, of course, queer teachers exist, it’s worth interrogating how these educators navigate the process of deciding how to ‘come out’ in the classroom. In a recent piece in Archer, queer-identifying teacher Sam Rodgers grapples with the issue. ‘In any profession, how one navigates the public knowledge of their personal life is up to the individual,’ he writes. ‘But when it’s a classroom, when I’m wielding the right to ask hundreds upon hundreds of students’ intimate details of their lives in the name of learning – they want to access my personal life too.’ Still, he notes, ‘subversion has become the crutch that helps me through my professional double life […] a renegade queer teacher can be weeded out.’ In other words, it’s complex.
Harri Harding is a teacher who transitioned during the course of his employment at a school. ‘I’m a very optimistic person,’ he says. ‘But of course it hurts to see any transphobia in society, and it particularly hurts to see it aimed at young people – who are already at a higher risk in our community.’
There’s no doubt that rules and laws that discriminate against transgender students similarly affect the self-esteem and confidence of transgender teachers, who internalise the same discriminatory messages and are liable to witness younger transgender students experiencing transphobia in close proximity. For trans teachers, juggling the emotional labour that comes with having to negotiate their own identity in open settings – while feeling an attachment to students who may be going through what they have – can be particularly challenging.
Deciding on what constitutes appropriate distance when it comes to assisting trans students would be difficult for anyone, but can be doubly difficult for trans teachers. Still, Harding has decided that affecting change is an integral part of his work. ‘I hope to stand tall as an example to young trans people that it does get better and anything is possible,’ he says, noting that society is changing at a rapid pace. ‘Most people are open to changing their opinions and once they understand trans people better, they can easily become allies and advocates for equality.’
Studies reveal that more than a third of Australian LGBTQI people obscure their sexuality or gender identity at work, and this is almost certainly higher in schools – environments where, as Rodgers has noted, identities are policed both by students and faculty.
Harding’s experiences may not be the norm, but they’re proof that embracing one’s truth, and making the decision to transition publicly, may lead to positive outcomes despite overarching cultural transphobia. For many trans people who are thinking about shifting towards expressing their true selves, though, the positives often need to be carefully weighed against the negatives: Is it worth becoming more susceptible to violence, harassment and exclusion in order to transition and lessen the effects of crippling gender dysphoria?
Outside of schoolyards and campuses, psychologists, doctors and aged care professionals risk a unique form of ostracism for inadvertently revealing their private lives to patients. The effects this has on workers – feeling they aren’t allowed to appear flawed or complex – is often cruelly detrimental to their wellbeing. It’s possible that parents and superiors find it worrying that authority figures might be suffering from the same issues as their students or patients, and leap to believing that someone who can’t help themselves won’t be able to help anyone else. But of course, it’s more complex than that.
The Gender Centre is an organisation that provides workplace training for trans people in Australia but, at present, no other local services exist that primarily focus on supporting transgender adults in the workplace. In addition, public understanding of gender outside of a binary can impact teachers in other significant ways. What pronouns should be used? What title should teachers go by? In an elementary school in the US, Leo Soell, a transmasculine teacher, was awarded $60,000 by their school district as compensation for harassment as a result of coworkers deliberately using incorrect pronouns and ‘conspir[ing] to prevent Soell from using the school's lone gender-neutral bathroom’. There is hope that there will be strategies put into place at this school to ensure that it’s a fair, respectful environment for trans teachers.
All teachers struggle to keep their public and private lives separate, especially since modern search engines can collapse the difference within seconds. For someone who is trans, this challenge can be even more exhausting, as artifacts from their ‘past life’ can threaten to reappear at any time – records of a person who, in some cases, doesn’t really exist anymore. For many trans people, this reminder can compromise their sense of selfhood, and is often a disorientating experience.
When asked about the response to his transition, Harding was almost wholly positive. ‘I’ve had such beautiful feedback from many of my students' families, thanking me for sharing my experience with the kids and being a positive and encouraging force in their lives,’ he says. ‘I have the same passion for education as I always have, so in most practical regards things are exactly the same, [and] all the changes are superficial in terms of a working relationship – new pronouns, new “look”, et cetera!’
By giving teachers the ability to feel at home in their skin, perhaps we’ll see a shift toward a new kind of education system – one that can meet the unique needs of everyone who passes through it, no matter what their identity may be.
Interestingly, Harding notes that the unique challenges of transitioning that might enable him to do his job even better. ‘I believe being a trans teacher can help you connect with [all] students – not just students who are questioning their gender or sexuality,’ he says. ‘I’ve found that my experience living as a woman in society for 26 years helps me understand girls and women, yet now living in society as a man helps me connect with the boys and men that I work with. I like being “out” at school, although I know not everyone has that luxury.’
Harding has experienced ‘only good things’ as per his employment. But he says this isn’t the reality of a lot of other transgender teachers, who have been fired, excluded or harassed within their workplaces. ‘I know when I was first deciding to transition, I looked up trans teachers online. I was shocked – all I read about was teachers getting fired or bullied until the point of suicide. That was really frightening for me. Trans teachers face a lot of discrimination, ranging from outright sacking, especially if you work in private schools, to more subtle forms of bullying or just not being accepted for who you are. We can’t forget the burden that trans people carry in society, and how that affects all trans people regardless of their job title. Violence against trans people is rife – physical, verbal and systemic, in obvious and subtle ways.’
While the experiences of transgender teachers are dependant on their place of employment, gender presentation, and ability to adapt, Harding’s testimonial reveals that there can be hope for teachers who might be hesitant about disclosing their identity. By giving teachers the ability to talk about their needs, to feel at home in their skin and be transparent with those who work with them, perhaps we’ll see a shift toward a new kind of education system – one that can meet the unique needs of everyone who passes through it, no matter what their identity may be.