We Begin to Know Each Other
BY MAIYA JACKSON
I first heard about Laura when she applied for 8th grade at Manhattan Country School, where I am upper school director. Laura was being pressured to leave her school because someone from her previous school was transferring in. At her current school, everyone knew Laura as a girl, but in her previous school, everyone knew her as a boy, the gender she was assigned at birth. Not ready to deal with the questions that would arise from Laura’s secret being out in the open, the school had asked Laura to leave. When our admissions director told me about Laura’s situation, I was appalled.
Manhattan Country School (MCS) is a pre-K–8 progressive school in New York City with a social justice mission. Our student body has no racial majority, and we have a sliding-scale tuition system that supports socio-economic diversity.
Our admissions team wanted to trust that our school would be a safe, welcoming place for Laura. But we weren’t sure if the staff — or the wider school community — would be receptive to talking about transgender identity. We had talked about gender equity, but mostly through the lens of how we teach boys and girls.
The team talked about how other students might react and what questions they would have. We also considered our school farm, where students spend three weeks out of the school year. Would families feel comfortable with transgender students on overnight trips? Would Laura sleep in a boys’ room or a girls’ room?
We wanted MCS to be a place where Laura could be her complete self for a year before moving on to high school. Even though we had questions about the path ahead, we made a commitment to welcome and support Laura in our community.
With her warm, easygoing manner, Laura was a remarkably straightforward and self-aware 8th grader. She loved softball, was a good friend and math student, wasn’t sure about her study skills, and was thrilled to be going to a new school. She knew a little about MCS because of Cometfire, a citywide group for LGBTQ middle school students and their allies. Sophia, a rising 8th grader at MCS who had been out as a lesbian since the 5th grade, went regularly to Cometfire, often bringing other MCS students for support.
Laura was relieved to finally be in a place where she could be honest about her identity. She talked about being ready to be out as a transgender student for the first time, and she knew it would not be easy.
The admissions team met with the school psychologist to talk about Laura’s adjustment and how we could support her and the MCS community as we learned about transgender identity. Laura was entering a class with three gay families; Sophia had already blazed a path to talk about gender and sexuality. The class’s 6th-grade activism project had been lobbying for marriage equality at a state senator’s office; their 7th-grade project was leading a campaign to stop bullying of LGBTQ students. We knew this class was ready to welcome Laura.
But we also knew there would be inevitable challenges — uncomfortable questions and occasional teasing. When I talked with Laura before school started, I was careful to communicate that there would be teachers who would be her unwavering supporters, and that any time students were being rude, cruel, or offensive, Laura should come to me right away.
Taking Our Lead from SJ
Just as we were getting ready to begin the school year, I received an email from Janet, Sophia’s mother. She wrote that Sophia had gone to a camp for gender nonconforming kids that summer. “At camp Sophia made a transition to being called by her initials, SJ, and tried on living in a masculine spectrum (camp words). This was very meaningful and important, and SJ would like to continue in this transition identity this year at school.”
SJ had expressed questions about his gender identity before. In the 1st grade, he asked to be called Patrick, which his teacher and classmates honored. This situation was different. SJ was entering 8th grade, and we knew there would be lots of questions.
Laura would be coming to our school having already made her transition. SJ was someone we knew, and we would all have to get used to his new self. Janet offered the following: “SJ knows that it takes time for people to adapt, and that people forget, especially those of us who have known Sophia for so long. In fact, SJ has chosen these initials as the transition identity so people don’t have to adapt to a more masculine name that is completely different.” Taking our lead from SJ, we prepared for the year ahead.The 7th- and 8th-grade teachers spent a lot of time talking about bathrooms. All the bathrooms in the school were unisex until the 7th and 8th grades. There are two bathrooms on their floor, each one a small room with a stall that locks and a sink. They were labeled with roughly hewn “boys” and “girls” signs made during a shop class. We wanted to remove the signs and take this daily choice out of the equation, but that would mean that students would need to lock the door to protect their privacy. It made us nervous to think of middle schoolers being able to lock the outer doors. We finally settled on a solution of creating laminated “Ocupado” (occupied) signs that students would hang outside the door. The system was flawed; the signs were frequently forgotten and often went missing or had to be repaired. (This year, we just have big signs that say “Please knock before entering,” but students still have trouble protecting their privacy.)
Talking with Staff
In preparation for the opening staff meetings, I met with the director and the school psychologist to talk about how we would discuss gender variance and transgender identity. The psychologist suggested that this could be a challenging topic for many staff members and to go slowly without making assumptions that everyone would be immediately accepting. The lower school director, whose daughter was in the 7th grade, shared some of the chatter that was already happening among students on Facebook; so far it mostly reflected excitement and curiosity. The admissions director and I spoke about Laura’s family and their process in supporting Laura’s decision, one that had included several bumps along the way.
There were other, more informal conversations. We kept coming back to how young SJ and Laura were; they were making such life-changing decisions at an age when we remembered being barely aware of who we were. After listening to everyone’s feedback and reading all the articles I could find, I developed a workshop using elements of the Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED) model that was already familiar to our staff.
The first staff development session about gender identity opened with a writing exercise: Write about the first time you were aware of your gender. Small groups talked animatedly, but few wanted to share with the larger group.
The rest of the session was mostly informative. I read the email about SJ’s transition and told the story about why Laura sought out MCS. There were questions about bathrooms, when we would tell the other children, and how we would tell families. Some people expressed nervousness about students’ reactions. Teachers told stories about other students they had known dealing with gender variance — including a boy in pre-kindergarten who came to school in a red velvet dress. The school psychologist had coached me to communicate that we were open to different reactions among the staff as well as students, and to acknowledge that people would need time to process and ask questions.
I was relieved at the end of the meeting; no one resisted the idea of having transgender students at our school, though there were lingering questions. I gathered the articles I had read into a binder of readings for staff.
The 7th- and 8th-grade team prepared to help students support SJ and Laura. We decided the 5th- and 6th-grade teachers would also tell their students, and then we would wait and see if there were questions from the lower school students.
Coming Out to Classmates
On the first day of school, as all of the 7th and 8th graders sat in a circle, I made my opening remarks for the school year. I talked about the importance of community. Then I introduced SJ: “We have a member of our community who has asked me to share something for him. Over the summer, Sophia made a decision to live as a boy. He would like to be called SJ and he prefers male pronouns. I’m sure some of you have questions, and that’s OK. We will be talking about this more in advisement on Friday.”
The room was quiet for a beat. Some students already knew this was happening and nodded. Others looked a little confused. Some just looked bored.
We moved on to an icebreaker — everyone said their name with an action after repeating all previous names and actions. When it was SJ’s turn, he did all the other moves that came before him, then made an energetic lunge with his hand in a fist and blurted out: “Sophia! I mean — SJ!” We all laughed together, and felt a little more at ease. If SJ himself was still getting used to his new name, it was OK if we occasionally made mistakes, too.
A few days later, Laura told her story to her advisement while the rest of us told our groups. We explained what transgender meant and that Laura, like SJ, identified as transgender. In my group, it took a couple of tries for everyone to understand what I was saying, since there was nothing about Laura that would have made anyone question her gender. Students had questions about the farm first: How would it work? We talked about the privacy rules that we already had in place.
Students had lots of questions about changing gender: How did they pick their new names? Were they going to have surgery? Were they taking medication? What if they change their minds? And what about the boys who thought Laura was cute?
Some students were confused or wanted to know more about Laura, including her name when she was a boy. We explained that respecting Laura meant accepting her new identity, that she would just be Laura to us. For the most part, students accepted the news with a fairly matter-of-fact attitude, and we moved on to the business of school.
When a teacher saw Laura later that day, the teacher asked her how it went in her group. “Amazing!” Laura exclaimed with a huge smile and a high five.
Teachers Share Reactions, Stories, Questions
The second teacher workshop opened with a prompt asking us to share reactions, stories, and questions. We discussed articles and watched a film about parents raising transgender children. I shared a little about how things were going for SJ and Laura, and then we opened up the discussion.
Some asked questions about medication and what it meant to transition at such a young age. Another shared a story about an alumnus who transitioned in adulthood and wondered if he knew during his time at MCS. We also talked about the importance of integrating identity into the curriculum as a way to support children.
The people who shared aloud were feeling positive about our school taking on this issue. But not everyone wanted to share, and I left with the lingering feeling that people still had questions they weren’t asking. In their reflections, there was a range of responses:
I admire Laura and SJ for their bravery to be so open and honest to share their experiences as transgender youth with the community. SJ is being incredibly patient and open with friends. I am honored that they are part of MCS and have created discussion on this topic.
I have questions about adolescents taking medication that will change their bodies. This is such a volatile time for kids, when they are trying on lots of identities. Why would their parents let them make a choice that can’t be undone? It’s fine for them to live as a boy or a girl, but what if this is just a phase?
My biggest questions are about the kid world, the layer beneath what we — the adults — see. How do [the students] negotiate Laura and SJ’s gender identity expressions in the time of crushes and dating and the development of sexual identity? Do other students figuring out their own sexual identities feel somehow left out of this current conversation?
This has been a welcome reminder for me, as an educator and a parent, how much we have to learn, as adults, from children and how resilient and open and mature they can be.
Ongoing Discussions with Students
Although students were accepting in the beginning, over time other reactions emerged. It became clear that students would need workshops as well.
A couple of students who had strong Christian beliefs had serious questions about changing the body that was given to you by God; they weren’t sure if the acceptance we were asking for contradicted their religious beliefs.
In other cases, being transgender became an easy target for insults when kids were upset. When a student didn’t like Laura or SJ, was it because they were transgender or because it was annoying when one of them talked too often in class?
Teachers rarely heard open confrontations or insults, but occasionally students would share what was being said beyond our earshot. Some students felt Laura had an unfair athletic advantage as a girl. SJ was pressured to play on the girls’ basketball team because the girls thought they needed him to win, even though he told us before school started that he wanted to play with the boys. And there were uncomfortable jokes about crushes and dating. The 8th-grade girls kept asking a 7th-grade girl why she wasn’t interested in dating SJ, who had a crush on her. “But he’s a boy now,” they kept saying, implying that she was being a bad friend by not choosing to go out with him. We had several meetings throughout the year, starting with written questions from the students:
- How do you know if you are transgender?
- What happens when a transgender girl gets turned on?
- Does it bother transgender people when people they knew before call them the wrong gender?
- Did Laura get made fun of at her old school for being transgender?
We spent a lot of time defining terms. The “New Diagram of Sex and Gender” (see Resources) was a helpful framework, but it seemed almost impossible to get some students to understand that biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation could all be different things. We read an account of being transgender from curriculum developed by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and the Anti-Defamation League. Some students left the room during the sessions because they were uncomfortable, which was both better than saying something disrespectful and a statement of silent protest.
After the first session, we separated the 7th and 8th grades, since the 8th grade had done so much more work on these issues and was able to have more nuanced discussions. The 7th graders were stuck on questions about bodies, surgeries, medication, and the meaning of choice. We tried to answer all of their questions without sharing specifics about Laura’s and SJ’s experiences, in hopes that it would quell their curiosity. Instead, it seemed to push them to ask questions that became offensive. We backpedaled, focusing on language and respect instead. It was the only diversity issue in my time at MCS when we asked for tolerance rather than acceptance.
Part of me knew that being in a diverse community meant respecting other points of view. Another part of me was sure we could convince students that being transgender was OK. I stubbornly left definitions and charts hanging on the wall, so students would know that this topic was important and that we would keep struggling with it. Still, we had to find ways to make room for all of our students. We also had to remember that our students were in middle school, a challenging enough time to think about identity without upending a category most of them had taken for granted. Our group was young to be taking on these topics. They needed time, and we had to be patient.
The one group we did not have as many discussions with was parents. I told parents during a meeting in the opening weeks of school that we had two transgender students in the 8th grade and that we would be talking about gender identity throughout the year. There were a few questions but not many. We tried to put together a parent forum to talk about gender issues, but it never got off the ground. One parent emailed me when his daughter was becoming close friends with Laura. He was fine with their friendship, but he wanted to know more about transgender identity. And he had some lingering doubts about slumber parties. We talked and I sent articles. Sometimes, the lack of questions and conflict made us wonder if it was too easy. It was hard to know if we were pushing the community as much as we should be.
Toward the end of the year, I asked Laura if she wanted a chance to talk to the 7th and 8th grades about being transgender. She had expressed a desire to talk to the whole group before school started, but we had thought that would be complicated before we had done the work of exploring gender identity with students. By this point, we had reached a shared understanding, but there were lingering points of discomfort among the students. The teachers and I hoped that hearing Laura’s story might be a helpful step. Rather than sharing the stories of others, this would be the story of a friend, which engenders a different kind of empathy.
Laura jumped at the chance. She came to school the next day with a four-page speech. As Laura read to the group, it was obvious that she spoke from the heart, and that she had a depth of courage, strength, and grace that was hard to fathom in a 14-year-old.
Many people think that being transgender defines a person, but it really does not. I am a girl. I never thought of myself as a boy. There are many struggles that I have gone through to accept myself as the female I am today. . . . Now I feel as if I have finally found my place. I understand many of you do not feel comfortable with the idea of a person being transgender, but really we are no different than any boy or girl in your class. When people say that I am technically a boy it’s not true at all. I am a female from head to toe.
I want all of you to close your eyes and imagine seeing yourself in the mirror, but instead of seeing yourself as your biological sex, imagine you are the opposite sex. If you are a boy, imagine yourself as a girl. If you are a girl, imagine yourself as a boy. Now open your eyes. Some may have liked the image they saw and some may have not. If you did not like the image you saw, imagine what it would be like to live 11 years of your life as that image. Would you want to be unhappy as your biological sex or would you come out and say “Wait, I am actually a boy or a girl!”
I understand that feeling comfortable and accepting a transgender person does not happen overnight or right after a person writes a speech about being transgender. But I ask that you treat me and anyone that you meet who is transgender with respect and not treat them differently just because they were born a different sex.
When Laura finished speaking, everyone clapped. There were questions, but they were thoughtful, sensitive questions about her life experiences. It was a moment of enormous pride, not just for Laura and SJ, but also for the whole community. It had been a year of tough conversations, and this process of exploring transgender identity had pushed us out of our comfort zone in valuable ways.
In the months that followed, we reflected more on the intersection of race and class with gender. How was the experience of SJ, a student of color, different from Laura’s, who was white? Was it more difficult for SJ to be accepted by boys than it was for Laura to be accepted by girls? Were we too quick to decide that students of color who had trouble accepting the concept of gender identity were transphobic? As a person of color, I found that I was wary of the students of color being pigeonholed by an assumption that Black and Latina/o people were more likely to be homophobic or transphobic, even as I wanted them to change their points of view. We are still unpacking the events of that year, and the conversations about gender identity are ongoing.
When we first started talking about Laura and SJ being transgender, it was an idea, a concept to wrap your mind around. By the time Laura read her speech, she and SJ were individuals, with all the complexities that go beyond one facet of identity. Their stories underscore what happens in school when we live our lives together, so that we begin to know each other. ◼
- Anti-Defamation League, GLSEN, & StoryCorps. 2011. “Unheard Voices: Stories of LGBT History.”glsen.org/unheardvoices.html.
- Bryan, Jennifer, and Sebastian Mitchell Barr. 2011. “New Diagram of Sex and Gender.”nysais.org/uploaded/diversity/new_diagram_copyright.pdf.
- Lee, Susan. “When It Counts: Talking About Transgender Identity and Gender Fluidity in Elementary School.”genderspectrum.org/images/stories/Teaching_About_Gender_Identity_and_Fluidity_in_Elementary_School.pdf.
Maiya Jackson is the upper school director at Manhattan Country School. She chaired the 2015 Progressive Education Network national conference, “Access, Equity, and Activism: Teaching the Possible.” All names have been changed. Alaura Seidl’s work can be found at alauramegan.com or theartwritecollective.org.
Originally published at www.rethinkingschools.org.