ON TRANSGENDER STUDENTS COMING OUT OF HIDING AT LAST
He walked right up to my desk. “Hey, Mr. Andoscia. I realize I never told you this, but I think you should know that I prefer they/them pronouns.”
“Oh,” I responded. “Thanks for telling me. I only ask that you give me some time to adjust. I’m pretty good with names, but pronouns…well, I’ve been using pronouns in a particular way for fifty years, so they are a little more difficult for me. I will try. Just remind me if I slip up.”
They laughed. “Will do,” they said as they walked to the door.
Their friends were waiting by the door as we were having the discussion. One of the interjected, “Actually, Mr. Andoscia, the fact that you are willing to try makes all the difference to us.”
“Yeah,” the other friend commented, “there are a lot of teachers who don’t even do that much.”
I tried to cover for my peers to a certain extent. I explained that their visibility and willingness to assert their own preferences was something new to old folks like me. We came up a different way and we find it difficult to navigate these cultural changes. Like many people, when we find something difficult, we often resist, we often lay blame upon those who are challenging us and the way things have always been. Eventually, we’ll come around.
Or some of us will never come around. I didn’t say this to my students, but teachers are not immune to ignorance and bigotry. The only thing we can say about such people is…well…everyone dies. When someone dies with an outmoded idea, that’s not such a tragedy. Regardless, eventually enough of the old guard will die off, and enough of the old progressives will do our part to limit regressive ideas that, at some point, the bigots will be a quiet minority and no longer important in the larger discourse. Eventually, like fear of witchcraft, medieval fears will fade into an historical footnote.
Getting there is the challenging part.
As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to expand the narrative of human potential as much as I can. It may be a struggle for me to get the pronouns right. I’ve now had to go back a couple of times and edit out the “him/hes” and replace them with “they/thems”. It doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s awkward and cumbersome…
…but I’m going to do it because teaching is about opening doors for everyone, my own comfort be damned.
The hardest part for me, however, is not the pronouns. No. The hardest part is thinking back on the years in which I was, albeit unknowingly, part of the problem.
You see, it’s only been the last few years that I’ve had students who were openly transgender. I remember the first time I divided my class into male and female groups and one student, phenotypically female, without so much as batting an eye joined the male group–and took charge of it! I realized that I had to rethink my approach to this an other activities. This event was only about five years ago.
I’ve been working with youth for almost thirty years!
Where were the transgender students for the first two and a half decades of my career.
Well, they were there. Solid research is hard to come by, but data to this point suggests that about one half of one percent of the country identifies as transgender. Call it about one person per one-hundred and fifty. As a high school teacher with more than a hundred and fifty students per year, I should have at least one student a year who is transgender. My numbers are currently higher than that. This may be a distortion based on the fact that my particular high school, in a district with school choice, has a reputation as being a relatively safe school for LGBTQ+ students. I also have a reputation for being progressive when it comes to gender issues. So, it’s is reasonable to expect that I will have a disproportionate number of transgender students.
And I do.
But where were they five years ago. Ten years ago.
Statistically, they were there. For the last thirty years I’ve had at least one student per year who was transgender. Perhaps more. That’s more than twenty-five students who sat silently when I was dividing the room by gender, or passively accepting an identity that they did hold. They were there with other students, boys and girls, who were able to interact with and grow with their teachers more or less on their own terms. For twenty-five years these young people sat in my class…
My students…MY students! felt that they had to be silent out of fear of expressing who they were.
My only solace is that I can credibly claim ignorance.
But I can’t claim ignorance any more. None of us can. That means any student who is silently sitting in our classroom afraid to be themselves, hiding in their own skin because they respond to a different pronoun is being victimized by us. It is our responsibility as teachers to make our classrooms inclusive to everyone regardless of their chosen pronouns.
That students are telling me that some teachers aren’t even willing to try is something that I cannot just pass off as “just one of those things.”