Transgender teachers face similar discrimination, harassment of students

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An NPR survey recently reported — based on the response by 79 trans and gender-nonconforming teachers from the U.S. and Canada — that more than half of transgender teachers face harassment or discrimination in the workplace.

The report found that the harassment the educators are experiencing who are out at work ranges widely: from 20 percent who reported verbal harassment, to 17 percent who said they’d been asked to change how they present themselves (such as their clothing), to two teachers who said they’d been fired.

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

Chris Smith, who teaches immigrant children in New York, and 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.'” Their typical response: “Try, it’s actually not that hard. We learn new groups of students’ names each semester — there should be no excuse.”

“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,” confessed a middle school math and science teacher in the Midwest.

While most respondents are out at work, the others who are not say coming out is complex. 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’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. “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.”

In contrast, the survey also shows 40 percent of the teachers said their students were more accepting of them than were the adults at school.

“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 NPR.

Despite the challenges they face, a majority of these teachers also said they have tried to integrate LGBT-related topics into their teaching, according to NPR. Many also mentioned advising LGBT awareness groups for students, training peers or addressing the topic in venues such as school assemblies. Many of these educators expressed a broad sense of mission. Whether they work with special needs students or English language learners, teenagers or young children, they are also role models. Others said they felt they play a vital — even life-saving — role through their visibility.

Sometimes in surprising ways.

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