Survey Finds Many Transgender Teachers Face Discrimination On The Job

Mar 8, 2018
Originally published on March 8, 2018 9:49 pm
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Much of the national focus on transgender rights has been on students. But for the growing number of transgender educators, there are different questions and different challenges. The NPR Ed team conducted a national survey to find out about the experiences of transgender teachers as a group. We found that many face discrimination on the job but find inspiration in the classroom. NPR's Anya Kamenetz spent time with transgender teachers in New York City.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: At The Grey Dog cafe in Chelsea, seven teachers sit down over macaroni and cheese and beers.

KYLE LUKOFF: So I do have a lot of shouting sometimes.

KAMENETZ: They chat about the kids' moods that day, how peaceful silent reading period can be. And I ask them about the one fact that connects them all - being trans or gender nonconforming. Kyle Lukoff, an elementary school librarian in Manhattan, is a transgender man. And he's talked openly to students about that.

LUKOFF: I've heard the argument that we shouldn't bring this up around children because it will confuse them.

KAMENETZ: But children, he says, are confused by everything all the time.

LUKOFF: They are confused as to why they cannot eat ketchup sandwiches every day. Like, they are confused about a lot. And it is our job as teachers to educate them about things.

KAMENETZ: How and when is it safe to come out? That's one of the big topics these teachers discuss when they get together for meetings of this national group called the Trans Educators Network (ph). Jay (ph), who didn't want their last name used, is a 15-year veteran high school science teacher and an activist for LGBT rights. Jay just started using the pronoun they at the beginning of this school year but only with colleagues.

JAY: Many of us can't be the same person in all the places in our lives for various reasons. Sometimes we have to protect ourselves and pretend to be something that we're not.

KAMENETZ: They haven't asked their students, who are mostly English language learners, to call them they - at least not yet.

JAY: I'm trying my best to be the same person in as many places as possible.

KAMENETZ: Our survey of 79 educators found that nearly three-quarters were out to colleagues if not to everyone. However, over half said they experienced some form of discrimination on the job from people using the wrong pronoun to being fired. Many districts, especially in large cities, have detailed policies protecting trans students, but others do not. As for teachers, only 19 states and Washington, D.C., explicitly prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The experience of trans teachers in the middle of the country can be tough, as Lauren Heckathorne in Evanston, Ill., told us. They experienced long-term harassment from a colleague.

LAUREN HECKATHORNE: I'm not a tenured teacher. And so could this cost me my job? Then there were other times where it just really didn't feel like my emotional and physical safety was a priority. And so there were times where I needed to sit down and think, you know, is this a job that I can keep?

KAMENETZ: But for students who struggle with their identities or whose families don't accept them, having a powerful role model can be lifesaving.

KIT GOLAN: It is extra work, but it's so necessary. And somebody has to do it.

KAMENETZ: Kit Golan teaches middle school math in a public school in Manhattan. He wants to reach the kids who feel the way he did growing up.

GOLAN: I went to an all-girls Catholic high school. I was, like, a tomboy. And I didn't know what I needed from teachers 'cause there wasn't anything in the media that represented my experiences.

KAMENETZ: The only trans people he saw around him were on the talk show "Jerry Springer."

GOLAN: If anything, it felt more like I was just invisible.

KAMENETZ: Golan came out to the entire school last year at an assembly. Afterwards, he got a letter in the mail from the parent of a former student who had a brother who was trans but had never met a trans adult before.

GOLAN: For me, the kind of educator that I want to be is one that's making that visible to my middle school students. You don't have to be a boy like this and a girl like that just 'cause that's how your parents tell you it has to be.

KAMENETZ: Golan says times are changing, and being more visible is part of his mission as a teacher.

GOLAN: If we can build this next generation to be more accepting, it's the only way to grow.

KAMENETZ: Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.