Here’s another article from our Fall 2018 Pride Guide, released in conjunction with 2018′s VA PrideFest. Get your copy of the print edition at your favorite shops around town, or check out the digital version here.
When parents send their kids to elementary school, they do so with the expectation their children will receive top notch education, learning their ABC’s and their 123’s in a safe and comfortable environment. But for parents of transgender youth, this process can be deeply unnerving. From concern over how staff and other students will treat their child, to the many highly-publicized issues around transgender children’s access to school bathrooms, parents have good reason to worry.
Emily Powers, an elementary school music teacher with Chesterfield County Public Schools, completely understood these concerns. Powers, who uses they/them pronouns, struggled with these issues during their own childhood in a conservative religious household in their hometown of Hanover, VA.
“I had no role models,” Powers said. Their attempts to navigate issues with their own sexual orientation and gender identity had an isolating effect, and they didn’t feel safe coming out until they’d reached college and found a supportive friend group.
Having completed their education and entered the workforce, Powers was entering their third year of teaching as the 2017-18 school year began. As they settled into their role as a teacher, they worked to emphasize the sorts of values they’d sought during their own fraught adolescence.
“My second year is when I started thinking, OK, I need to teach character and coping skills,” they said. “In this day and age, you’re not ever just going to be a teacher — you always have to attend to a child’s emotions and needs first.”
Unfortunately, doing so was not always so simple — especially in the case of LGBTQ students. Powers found this out when a minor interaction in class had some long-lasting ramifications for their career.
At the beginning of a lesson, Powers asked one student to be the “sound man.” Other students quickly corrected them, saying, “She’s transgender!” and “She’s not a boy, she’s turning into a girl!” “I asked, ‘Is that true?’” Powers said. “‘What pronouns do you want me to use?’ The student replied, ‘I want to be referred to as a girl,’ and I said, ‘OK, is your name changing?’ She said, ‘No, that’s staying the same.’ I said, ‘OK, great.’”
As a member of the LGBTQ community, though, Powers was concerned. And as a teacher, they felt a responsibility to ensure that their student was safe. So at the end of class that day, they pulled the student aside to ask a few more questions about how the student was doing. And it was this conversation that led to trouble.
“[I asked], ‘Do your parents know? Can I refer to you as she/her in front of other teachers?’,” Powers explained. Then they led the student know she was safe in Powers’ classroom, saying, “‘If you have any sort of issue, if you need a safe place to come, a safe person to talk to, come talk to me. I’m gay, my girlfriend is transgender, so I get where you are coming from, and I can be that contact for you.’”
Not long afterward, Powers was called to the principal’s office.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh my god, did I make this child uncomfortable? Was she not ready for this conversation?’”
But this was far from the problem, as they soon learned. The principal repeatedly misgendered the student during their discussion, making clear that he did not take the student’s gender identity seriously.
“He said most children this age don’t fully know who they are yet, so it seemed to me like he was almost implying I had somehow encouraged this idea and this child’s identity in a way that swayed them.”
Powers was told that they had acted unprofessionally; the principal said “that I had taken a picture of the student for non-educational purposes,” they explained. “Our kids are cute and we take pictures of them all the time, but he sort of pathologized it as though I was grooming this child, or taking a picture of her for unsavory reasons. Which was weird, because he would never say that if it was another teacher.”
Powers was upset by this accusation. Eyes welling up with tears, they were asked to write a statement about the conversation they had with the student.
“The entire reason I had a conversation with this student is because I wanted to make them feel safe and welcome and included in my classroom,” they said. However, during a meeting with a representative for Virginia Education Association who acted as Powers’ advocate during this proceeding, Powers learned that administration officials were framing their mention of their girlfriend as unprofessional.
“[The representative] didn’t personally think it crossed a line, but she said that’s the perspective the school was looking at it from, and that’s why they were able to say I crossed a professional line,” Powers explained. They found this frustrating, and a double standard.
“Straight teachers bring their partners to school all the time,” they said. “They are able to casually mention their husbands and children, and use elements of their personal life to build a rapport with students. And yet, when I share that my partner is a woman who happens to be transgender, I have ‘crossed a professional line.’”
Powers was informed that the student’s parents were aware of the student’s transition and were not upset about the conversation they’d had. However, the principal, who had told Powers “we want to see you back next year” only a few weeks earlier, elected not to renew Powers’ contract for the next year, due to “concerns about my professional judgment.”
“Faced with the negative impact of having a non-renewal on my record, I felt I had no choice but to resign from my position,” Powers said.
Our culture has come a long way from the days of Anita Bryant’s anti-LGBTQ Save Our Children campaign, which sought to purge LGBTQ teachers from public schools in the late 1970s. However, even in 2018, incidents like what happened to Powers are not isolated. In the fall of 2017, a Texas schoolteacher, Stacy Bailey, was put on administrative leave and asked to resign for showing her fourth-grade students a picture of herself and her fiancee — who also happens to be a woman — wearing Finding Nemo costumes. The fact that Bailey had won Teacher Of The Year twice in her 10-year tenure at that Texas school was apparently not enough to deter the campaign against her.
Before losing her position, Bailey had worked with her school’s administration to create protections for LGBTQ students — protections for which there is definitely a need.
“LGBTQ kids face a significantly higher rate of homelessness, bullying, and abuse than their straight cisgender counterparts, which leads to a higher rate of anxiety, depression, and attempted suicide,” Powers said. This reality had an important bearing on their situation too. “If [my student] had in fact been lying about the level of parental support at home, then my principal’s decision to out her to her caretakers could have subjected the child to violence and/or emotional abuse.”
Much of the discussion around LGBTQ youth and their safety in school revolves around anti-bullying campaigns, or creating safer bathroom access for transgender students. This is for good reason; in a 2015 GLSEN survey of LGBTQ youth, it was found that “Students attending schools with [affirming and inclusive] resources report having more positive school experiences, including lower victimization, absenteeism, and higher academic achievement.” But the failure to protect potential role models and advocates for LGBTQ youth can have terrible costs of its own.
Writing for the Lavender Health LGBTQ Resource Center, Dr. Michael Johnson writes, “LGBT youth often do not have access to LGBT-specific information or LGBT role models. Much of the information they are exposed to is negative and harmful, and thus only reinforces the feeling of isolation.”
Powers recognizes this situation from their own adolescence. “I remember being a queer kid with no openly gay teachers to look up to,” said Powers. “I can only imagine how different my adolescence might have been if I would’ve had that role model to confide in.” This feeling was part of what led them toward a career in education.
But when teachers like Powers, who care about improving the educational environment for LGBTQ youth and are in the best position to act as the sort of role models LGBTQ youth often lack, are stigmatized merely for being members of the LGBTQ community, it is much harder for LGBTQ youth to have the positive school experiences that are essential to helping them achieve their full potential.
Despite the way things resolved, Powers is not angry about the situation.
“I’d like to believe that the principal had no malicious intent. Rather, I am inclined to believe that his poor handling of this situation was the result of ignorance, which led to incompetence,” they said. “This is why it’s so important to me that sensitivity training be provided for all teachers in CCPS. This should have never happened.”
Powers hopes that those involved in the educational system will learn from what happened to them. They urged that teachers and parents concerned about the rights of LGBTQ students and teachers be proactive in their approach to those issues.
“Even if you don’t know of any openly LGBTQ teachers or students, trust me, they’re around even if they aren’t visible,” Powers said. “Don’t let the LGBTQ kids or staff members in your building come to school/work each day feeling othered.”
Photos by Charm Anne