By: Tynan Power/TRT Columnist*
Even though I’ve been out of school for years, the school session still governs my calendar. This year, as school begins, both of my two sons head to college and my partner prepares to start another year of teaching. My sons’ minds are consumed with the excitement of new classes and their extracurricular engagements, my partner is thinking about seating charts and lesson plans, and I’m thinking: I wish the Speakers Bureau panel at the high school came at the start of the year instead of the end.
Each year, the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts gets numerous requests for LGBTQ speakers to speak at schools in the area. The need is so great and the Speakers Bureau so valuable that requests come from as far as New York and Connecticut. I’ve spoken at a number of schools over the years, including a local high school that often has a Speakers Bureau panel visit as Northampton Pride approaches in early May. Each year, I wish it came in September. For that matter, I wish every school had a Speakers Bureau panel in September – maybe not for the students, but at least for the staff.
There are many teachers and administrators whose hearts are in the right place – teachers who want school to be safe for all, principals who want LGBTQ students to be treated, like any other students, with dignity and respect. Yet even among those with the best intentions, there can be a lack of information and hazy understanding – especially about transgender.
I think most teachers could give a rough definition of transgender and could picture in their mind’s eye what a “transgender youth” might look like. They might picture Christine Jorgenson, the American GI who had one of the first sex changes in 1952. They might picture the more current image of Chaz Bono posing with his mother, Cher. They might even have a plan of action in mind of what they could do to support such a student.
The trouble is, many transgender youth don’t look like “transgender youth.” Imagining a young trans person, most people don’t imagine the young George Jorgensen or a tiny, blond Chastity on the “Sonny & Cher” show. When I think back on my own youth, I know there were few signs that I would someday transition. While many trans men go through their teen years and early adulthood looking like tomboys or butch lesbians, some – like me – seem to fit the Barbie-doll heels assigned at birth.
What’s more, for as many trans people there are in the world, there are an exponential number of family members and friends impacted by how the world views us. You couldn’t tell by looking at me in high school that I would someday identify as FTM, but you also couldn’t tell by looking at my sons in high school that their mother is now a man.
It’s true that LGBTQ people seem to be coming out younger these days. There is a lot more support inside and beyond our schools. Yet that doesn’t guarantee people will come out, publicly or even privately, to themselves. Adolescence is a time of self-discovery in many ways. Self-knowledge doesn’t come overnight. Plus, sex and gender identities can change, emerging or evolving later in life.
My partner tells a story of overhearing a teacher talking to a class about different kinds of identity that are “changing” or “unchanging.” Gender was labeled “unchanging.” A student shouted out “Unless you have a sex change.” Instead of grabbing that teachable moment, the teacher laughed and said that was a ridiculous thing to say. Later, when asked why, she said transgender wasn’t something the students needed to know about – it wasn’t their issue.
Yet sitting in that classroom, there might well have been a young George Jorgensen, a Chastity Bono, or a Tara Power. There’s no way any of us, looking around the room, could ever know. There’s no way to begin to estimate the impact of LGBTQ invisibility in schools, but talking about it from day one – in September – would be a good place to start.
To find out about bringing a Speakers Bureau panel to your school or organizations, or to become a speaker, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Tynan Power is a parent, a writer, a progressive Muslim leader, an interfaith organizer, a (very slow) runner, mostly a big goof, sometimes taken too seriously, loving, gentle, queer and queer-cultured, a pen geek, often dehydrated, and full of wanderlust. He also happens to be a transgender man. He can be reached at email@example.com.