Today I learned that a British transgender teacher was found dead in her home. Its believed she killed herself. I can’t stop thinking about her and my tears have now run dry. Despite the bright sun and welcome spring-like weather, it feels like I’m suffocating in a dark grey cloud of sadness. Usually my long Sunday run is rejuvenating, triggering endorphins and brightening even the darkest days, but it didn’t today. I never met this woman and only saw a picture of her this morning. I recall reading a few blog posts earlier this year about her and how she began to transition in school. I guess I had a personal interest and it was encouraging to learn of her story, especially that she had her school’s apparent support. But the bloodthirsty tabloid press constantly hounded her from the time her private details became public, and her life was never the same again. Nearly two years ago, I came out to my school community,
informing my colleagues and students of my intentions to transition. My journey was and remains challenging and unpredictable, but at the outset, I thought I would be prepared for the hardships and any attention if it came my way. My path was uncharted in Maine. As far as I knew, very few, if any public school teachers have successfully transition on the job.
For me going to school while transitioning was stressful to say the least, but I went. The awkwardness I felt during the early stage was not pretty and there were countless times that I just freaked out trying to put my self together in the morning before going to school. I hated looking like anything like the man I used to live as, and the sight of an overtly male piece of clothing sent me into a tizzy. I just hoped people would at least see me as androgynous. I was insistent with myself to show something feminine about my true identity everyday and everywhere I traveled. Yet the image I saw in the mirror and in photos was causing distress all of a sudden. I guess I had crossed a line in my mental point of view, and started to allow myself the freedom to feel and express my true identity. The dysphoria I had masked for years was back, loud and clear. Coming to terms with a lifetime of suppressed emotions can be quite powerful and unsettling. I wonder what my friends and colleagues were thinking?
That year, a student whom I knew for years was struggling with her own issues. My heart was crushed to learn of the horror she endured at the hands of an abusive boyfriend. How could I be so blind to the fragile young lives around me, was I that self-absorbed, was I indifferent, or just distracted? Her emotional strength to share her story with me, made me rethink my own struggles with self-esteem. We made an unspoken deal to be there for each other. I decided if she could come to school living with her own emotion distress, I certainly could come to school through my awkward transition.
Before the school year ended, I tried to set the tone for returning to school in the fall. To do this required being open with my students, colleagues, and athletes. I was the head track and field coach as well. As a coach my transition became immediately more public, reaching beyond my school community. The fear I felt was real as I traveled to track meets in more rural parts of the state, and I remember being terrified to step off the bus into the unknown. But I also imagined how difficult it would be for queer students to come out. I found strength thinking about their lives, and felt more empowered to be myself. I tried to stay positive and focus on why I was there; to do the job I loved so much, coach track, hopefully without much derision. While there were some stares and a few careless whispers, I was impressed by how professional most of the other athletes and coaches were. They were too busy doing their job and competing to care. I learned a great lesson in my travels as coach that season; I wasn’t the center other people’s lives, just my own.
At the end of the season, the school hosted the annual spring sports awards, which was open to the community, athletes, coaches and parents. As head coach it was my responsibility to address the crowd, which usually filled half the gymnasium. This wasn’t new for me, I’ve always been relatively comfortable in front of large groups, but now there was a tangible difference and I felt the anxiety. The gym was warm on that June evening and sweat started to form on my upper lip. The makeup covering my face and 5 o’clock shadow began to slide and I envisioned my features melting like the Nazi soldiers’ in Raiders of the Lost Arc as the angry spirits released their furry. I usually volunteer to go first to get it out of the way, but that didn’t happen that night. I sat in a row of seats next to the other coaches facing the entire crowd sitting in the bleachers starring at us. I was wearing mostly feminine attire and a wig. Finally it was my turn. I bounced up with my usual enthusiasm and with an attempt with a new voice tried to break the ice, “does anyone know any good blonde jokes?” After a little laughter, I felt more comfortable and I could sense the audience did too. The rest of the presentation was a piece of cake, so to speak.
There were several important issues remaining before school closed for the summer. First, I was asked to talk with the newly announced school principal. We had been colleagues for 8 years, even traveling to conferences together. It was brought to my attention, through a secondary source, that she was curious about what was happening in my life and wanted to talk, so I did. Our conversation was brief. I explained my gender identity to her, that I had started my transition outwardly becomes a woman, and my new name would be Gia. I also mentioned that I would forward some information regarding creating a safe and supportive work environment for trans* people. She said little and that was it for now.
The second item was writing and sending out an email to the entire staff. I don’t remember the exact words anymore, but it was short and to the point. I recall mentioning my lifelong struggle and feeling safe and secure within this community to begin my transition and embrace my transgender identity. If anyone had any questions, they could ask. So, there I was at the end of the school year, a newly open trans* teacher, living, teaching, and coaching in a very conservative New England Town and finding some support. I started to believe this could actually happen. People hadn’t run away screaming in horror yet.