Be the change, being a teacher

The Power of Stories and Compassion: How Literacy Educators Can Support Trans and Gender Variant Students #WontBeErased

For those of you who follow this blog, you know that I don’t often have guest posts.  Yet, today, the truth that my friend and mentor Dr. Dana Stachowiak is about to share is probably one of the most important posts I have shared on here.  I am so grateful for the words and the trust in me as a steward of them.

Why This Topic?

Yes, the Trump Administration’s disgusting memo calling for an erasure of transgender as a gender identity lit a fire in me to write this post. But, a few months back, Pernille asked me to write a guest post on “Trans 101” for her literacy blog. I am used to a request like this, and I love Pernille, so I agreed. I put off writing the post for her because I wasn’t in love with the idea; talking about the ways in which educators can support trans students is so much more than knowing and using the terms and definitions.

Learning these things don’t require what is most needed though: compassion. Yes, most educators have empathy and compassion, and that’s what drives them to want to learn so they can support trans students. Empathy and compassion are often conflated to mean the same thing, and though related, they are slightly different.

Building empathy (resonance with another’s feelings) is abuzz in the world of education. It’s important work, but it’s also taxing work to maintain. It requires us to constantly attempt to relate to others’ experiences. While this effort is important and good, unless we accept the reality that we’ll never really relate fully to another, we will keep spinning. And eventually, we burn out.

This is where the Trans 101 blog post requests come in: reach people’s empathetic nature and give them some concrete type of action that they can go do in their classrooms – like giving a list of trans-related books or providing ways to assess classrooms for gender equity (I’ve done these things. A lot). Learning these things is a way for people to feel better about themselves because they have more knowledge about trans folx, AND it gives them a way they can help. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no harm in this – and people should feel good when they do this work. Keep doing this work!

What’s missing in all of this, though, is that critical piece of compassion, the glue that holds this work together. It is what we need to do before (and perhaps as) we burn out on our empathy work. Compassion requires us to hold empathy (for others’ feelings), accept it for what it is (that we’ll never really ‘get’ it), and then take some action to support who or what it is we were trying to empathize with.

Compassion is a matter of the heart. I study mindfulness, and in my learning, one of the most compassionate things a person can do is to be fully present and listen to others. When we do this, we are simultaneously building empathy. We are often so hungry to fully empathize with others and help them, however, that we forgot to stop trying to solve all the problems and just really listen to peoples’ stories, especially those of minoritized people like trans people (I can say all of this with confidence because I am guilty of listening without compassion at times – I know this hard work first-hand).

But if we truly don’t get to know people’s stories, their experiences, their realities, we remain forever detached from the person. That’s where the trouble lies.

So, instead of sharing with you a quick-read “Trans 101” that you can implement in your classrooms right way, I am going to invite you to sit with the story of my gender journey, be fully present, and listen as you read.

Small disclaimer: Sharing this terrifies me. Only a close few know many of the pieces I share here (it’s not everything, but it’s a lot). I know it’s going to be long, but I do hope that you will take the time to sit down with me, get to know me, and then make your own important decisions about how you can grow your compassion with trans people. From there, I truly believe that all the future 101s and 201s and encounters you have will be deeper and create positive, transformational impacts.

The journey I have taken with my gender has been a long one, a difficult one, a fulfilling one.

Tomboy with a Capital “T”

I can distinctly remember, at 4 years old, running around the backyard of the house of grew up in, wearing my brother’s underwear – fastened with a diaper pin so they’d fit – in the hot summer sun, no shirt and bare feet. I distinctly remember this because I felt so carefree, so happy. I can almost still feel the smile stretched across my face and the happy contentment radiating from my chest.

It wasn’t until in adulthood that I’d learn that my parents took me to my pediatrician that summer because they thought something was wrong with me; I always wanted to dress like a boy. The doctor laughed, told them I was fine – I was just a tomboy.

My early elementary school years were happy. I remember loving school and wanting to please my teachers in kindergarten through second grade. Although hardworking and shy, my classmates always told me they thought I was goofy – I loved to crack jokes and make people smile. If you’ve ever met me, you know this is who I still am today as an adult. If I can help make something hard or sad or difficult a little bit lighter, I’ll swoop in with something that will catch you off guard – something goofy – to ease the tension. I love when people are happy.

I had all sorts of friends those years, but my very best friends were Dan, Scott, and Jeff. Back then, the adults thought we were boyfriend and girlfriend. I guess we thought we were, too. I was a tomboy through-and-through. I don’t ever remember thinking, “I’m a girl!” I just remember thinking I was a kid. I was happy. I remember laughing and smiling a lot.

Slowly Silenced

Third and fourth grades were weird transition years. The pressure to be “more like a girl” was mounting. The boys who were my friends weren’t my friends anymore; they were replaced by girls. My hair was now long, and I spent a lot of time studying the way other girls and women, especially my teachers, acted. I did my best to mimic their ways, but it always felt clumsy, awkward, wrong when I would try it. I was still relatively happy, but school, which I had always enjoyed, started to get harder, and my understandings about the ways I was supposed to be in the world were confusing. I remember immense sadness growing in me when I was in the fourth grade.

By the time fifth grade hit, I was a mess, a ball of anger. My fourth-grade teacher was male, and I loved that. My fifth-grade teacher, however, was a female, and she was different from my other female teachers – she was butch. She wasn’t married. She was confident.

I hated her.

I hated fifth grade. I started acting out and was angry all the time. I grew up in an incredibly loving, stable, and happy home (my parents just celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary, my Mom is my best friend, and my Dad is my biggest protector). I was always a little short-tempered, but no one really knew where all of my anger was coming from. Nothing traumatic had happened to me to cause such angst. I didn’t know it at the time, but in hindsight, I was struggling with my gender identity. Society was telling me that I needed long hair and dresses and boyfriends, while my heart was telling me that I wanted short hair and jeans and girlfriends.

And I hated my fifth-grade teacher because, at a time when I was really searching for an understanding of how to be a female, she – who I saw more hours a day than my Mom – couldn’t provide that for me. Instead, she provided me with more confusion. I hated her for it.

Middle school was awful. I wasn’t known for being that quiet but goofy kid in the class anymore; I was known for having a short fuse, talking back, and being emotional. I was teased so badly – by the very people who called me their friends. I was shoved into lockers. Kicked. Harassed. One time, some girls poured perfume on my clothes so I could “become a real girl.” Some girls broke into my gym locker and took my clothes out, smeared them all over the floor, and threw them in the bathroom stall. When I got to the locker room and found them, the girls who did it laughed and said a dyke like me deserved to wear dirty clothes and should change in the bathroom stall. I began tumbling emotionally; I internalized everything.

Making It Work – For the World, Not for Me

I was able to find somewhat of a refuge in sports, music, and dance. I wasn’t very good at sports, but it was a place where I could let me inner “tomboy” out. It just led to more confusion though. On the basketball court, dressed in a uniform that looked more like boys’ clothing than girls’, I felt unstoppable – like that kid running carefree in boys’ underwear and no shirt. But when I had to take that uniform off (and, I took it off in the bathroom stall and showered after everyone else was gone because I had learned my lesson about “dykes like me”), I had to go back to being a person I didn’t recognize, walking the earth in a body that didn’t feel like mine.

And dance. Oh, dance. I loved it. I could tap dance forever. But, goodness, did I also hate it. My body didn’t move as freely as the other girls’, and the leotards I had to wear each week to class drew unwanted attention to my budding, albeit slender, female figure. I hated looking at myself in the mirror. Tapping felt masculine; those leotards felt humiliating. I loved and hated dance.

I was good at music, and I excelled at in high school – it is what saved me, I believe. I was the drum major of our high school band, first chair in my section, and I was even voted “Most Musical” for our Senior Year Mock Elections. Music, for me, didn’t remind me of my gender identity. It was a place for me to escape. Sports slowly dropped from my world; I didn’t have close girlfriends, but Dan (from my early elementary days) became my best friend again, and I kept to myself in high school. I was still teased and picked on relentlessly. I went through the motions of having prom dates, and I let myself focus on music and school – and I stayed numb to my gender. And I was a usual happy-unhappy-happy-unhappy angsty teen of the 90s.

Undergrad and grad school were much the same. I went through the motions; did what I was supposed to do; hid what I wasn’t supposed to feel/think/do (I’m talking about my sexuality here, which is not tied in any way to my gender identity, so, besides mentioning it here, it remains separate from this sharing). Then, I became a teacher.

Let me rephrase that: I became a female teacher.

I had long curly hair. I wore skirts and heels. I was a good female teacher. I was such a good teacher that, very early in my career, I became a curriculum coordinator of literacy for middle schools in our large county. This came at the perfect time because it was around the same time when “power suits” were in for women. This was such a godsend because I got to dress a little masculine but still fool everyone. I was secretly watching the L Word at home so I would buy power suits like the one Bette wore (check this out if you don’t know what I’m talking about here). I lived one life at work and a completely different life at home.

Loss, Finding, and Letting Go

Then a day came that changed me forever: I was outed by a colleague. Someone saw my life at home, and they brought that life to the school board. On paper, I lost my job because of “budget cuts.” But in the Superintendent’s office, with the district lawyer sitting next to me, I was told that there “wasn’t a place” for people like me in their schools. I was too young, but I knew I wasn’t a protected class in my state. What they did was completely legal. Because I questioned it, though, I was offered a teaching position. I took that for a year.

And in that year I spent back in a middle school literacy classroom, I stopped hiding little by little because I realized that no matter how much I hid, I would be found out. And I couldn’t hide and lie any longer. I cut my hair. I stopped wearing dresses and heels. I pushed teaching boundaries. I started teaching more lessons on reading and writing for social justice. I chaperoned the 8th-grade prom – in a suit and tie. At the end of the year, I took out my retirement and went to get my Ph.D. full-time.

I promised myself that I would never compromise myself again. I would never internalize oppression or hide who I am again. Getting my doctorate brought me into classrooms where I was able to freely talk and philosophize about gender identity and equity freely for the first time. I took it all in, hungry to know and understand. I still was a little confused about my gender identity. I didn’t really identify with “female” or “male,” and I didn’t really identify with “transgender.”

One day, a classmate of mine, who identified as a trans male, told me about how he was trans because he “didn’t want to be the last genderqueer standing.” I had no clue what genderqueer was, but I acted like I did…and then went home and Googled it.

I FOUND ME.

I let go.

For the first time, I found a gender identity that fit everything I had felt about myself. For me, genderqueer means being neither male nor female, sometimes more masculine, sometimes more feminine, sometimes a combination of both. But mostly, I am just me. For the first time, I felt again what I felt when I was that 4 year old in my brother’s underwear – free, happy, full. Me. Not female. Not male. DANA.

This S— Is Hard

Today, I walk through this world and identify as a non-binary genderqueer (I encourage you to begin your “Trans 101” by looking those terms up. What does “non-binary” mean? What other definitions exist for trans? For genderqueer? How is genderqueer related to trans?). Today, I am visible. I have a supportive wife who loves me for the genderqueer that I am, and she encourages me every day to be me. I have surrounded myself with friends who do the same and who love me for who I am completely.

Make no mistake: being visible is also hard. There are incredibly difficult days. Like the day a colleague informed me that others in my building feel uncomfortable around me because they “don’t know what to do with me.” The days when I’m looked at with disgust in the women’s restroom. Or the days I’m told to leave the women’s restroom. The days when people do everything they can to avoid touching my hand when I give them my credit card, or they sanitize their hands after the transaction. The days I’m terrified to get out at a gas station. The days I’m called a faggot. The days I’m threatened by men who want to beat me up. Those days can sometimes get me really down.

Some days, admittedly, I give in. I don’t have it in me to fight sometimes; it’s so overwhelming. Like the day two weeks ago when the insurance adjuster came to my house to assess hurricane damage. My wife, who is very feminine, was not home, and I was terrified that the adjuster might treat me unfairly because of my gender identity (this has happened before). Sobbing, I went to my wife’s closet, put on one of her bras that gave me breasts, slid one of her V-neck shirts over my head, put on some earrings, feminized my hairstyle, and put on jeans that showed the outline of my small hips. And sobbed some more. But I couldn’t risk not getting a decent settlement because the adjuster didn’t like who I am. He told me I pulled off a great Demi Moore. Whatever that means. But it meant that he thought I was feminine enough, and that’s all I needed that day. I sobbed some more when he left. It was a draining day.

As tough as those days are, as hard as visibility is, I wouldn’t trade it for the years I suffered in silence and hiding, when I wasn’t being me. These hateful things that happen to me are because other people don’t have the understanding and compassion to have someone like me in the same spaces as them. It’s about them, not about me. This has taken me a very long time to understanding (and I’m still growing in understanding that too – this s— is hard!). And, for as much as I am visible for me, I am visible for others who can’t yet be visible. I can only hope that my being me and in this world, offers others like my younger self some hope, courage, and strength.

#WontBeErased

The Trump administration would like to make trans identities like mine and many others disappear (see article here). The reality is, they can’t erase us, but they sure can make our lives more difficult. By doing what they are proposing, I will inevitably have more days like the ones I’ve described. And so will our trans and gender variant kids.

Trans people #WontBeErased! https://t.co/Hb4oftdq8v
Image from Scoopnest

This is where you can come in as an educator. #WontBeErased isn’t just a campaign that trans folx can participate in; it’s a campaign that cis folks can support and participate in. You can pledge to not be a part of this in as many ways as possible. Here are only a few:

  • Change your social media profiles to include an “I support trans people” frame.
  • Use the hashtag #WontBeErased to spread support.
  • Read/view more stories of trans experiences (like the ones found here ).
  • Work with a trans organization in your community or online (like this one or this one).
  • Watch Katie Couric’s special on gender (it’s on Netflix as I write this).
  • Check out my work from this summer for the International Literacy Association. I wrote an article (found here) and a related blog series (found here) that provide you with easy tips to think about gender equity in your literacy classrooms. They’re short and accessible, a place to start.
  • Seek out other trans writers to learn from (like Janet Mock).
  • Will you be at NCTE this year? I will. Are you in North Carolina? I’m keynoting the SafeSchoolsNC Conference. Come talk to me. Say hi, invite me to coffee, come to my sessions. Show up to other sessions with trans or LGBTQ topics. I do consulting. Invite me to do work in your school. If you can’t get books about trans people in your classroom libraries, why not bring a trans person into your classroom?

These things will grow your compassion. These things will amplify #WontBeErased. These things will change procedures, policies, and hearts. These things will save lives.

Getting to Know Me

I feel like you already know me, but if you want to get to know my work and scholarship, you can find me on Twitter (@DrStachowiak), at The Educator Collaborative, and at UNCW.

Thank you, Pernille, for gifting me your tremendous platform, for asking hard questions, building your compassion, and loving me for who I am. Those around you are lucky to have you. We all are.

Thank you, the reader, for sitting with me, listening to my story, and growing your compassion. I’m excited to hear where this takes you, how it moves others, and how it transforms lives.

Addendum: My Positionality

As a critical pedagogue and social justice educator, it is important that I take time to recognize and name my positionality, particularly my privileged identities. My gender identity, as an oppressed identity, meets at the intersections of my privileged ones, thus creating a complex assemblage of opportunities and experiences for me. 

 I am white, middle-class, and able-bodied, and I come from a supportive family. While the small number of experiences I have shared are by no means to be taken lightly (after all, they have been oppressive because of my gender identity and sexuality), I recognize that there is inherent power and privilege that contributes to the oppression of minoritized people within the same systems that have afforded me opportunities and access.

Murders of trans women of color is astronomically high (and steadily on the rise), and the media coverage on this community is astronomically low, practically non-existent. Please consider supporting and amplifying of the voices of these women and related organizations in your journey of becoming a more compassionate and inclusive human and educator. Trans Women of Color Collective is a great place to start.

5 thoughts on “The Power of Stories and Compassion: How Literacy Educators Can Support Trans and Gender Variant Students #WontBeErased”

  1. I enjoyed this experience of compassionately listening to your journey. Your story needs to be heard – thank you for being a passionate educator and change agent.

  2. Dr. Stachowiak,

    Thank you so much for sharing your story! I am the father of a 20-year-old transgender man who is a compelling trans advocate. Your story parallels his in so many ways; I found myself blinking back tears as some of his struggles flooded my memory.

    He and I are co-teaching a course for district staff on creative safe, inclusive, and welcoming school environment for LGBTQ+ students. I’ll be directing those taking the course to this post.

    Thank you!
    Rob

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