Existing Outside of the Binary in the Classroom

By Julianna Iacovelli

Illustrator: Borealis

“I read that they’re putting litter boxes in the bathrooms for students who identify as cats. Is your school like that?”

Unfortunately, my aunt was not the first person to ask me a question like this. It appears that many people are under the impression that schools have morphed into transgender training centers. That even though we do not have enough money to put tissue boxes in classrooms, we funnel money into our “indoctrination” plans. That while I try to lesson plan for 100 different students with diverse learning styles and needs, I simultaneously take the time to turn them gay — or transgender. If I had the kind of time on my hands that Republicans seem to think I do, I’d be caught up on my grading. 

As a member of Gen Z, I can’t seem to kick the habit of living through catastrophic events. I was talking to a friend the other day about how I’ve never been able to discern if being 16 sucked really hard for everyone, or if I just happened to turn 16 during the infamous year of 2016. Becoming a teacher in the 2020s while also realizing my gender identity seems to have the same kind of vibe. Every day there is another piece of anti-trans legislation, another state I need to add to the list of places I should not visit, or another person screaming about schools trying to turn their kid gay. As someone who went to Catholic school until 18 years old, I can tell you that it doesn’t matter if the environment is supportive or not — if you’re gay, you’re gay. 

I knew I wanted to be a teacher way before I knew I wanted to explain they/them pronouns to every person I met. I wish I could tell you that there was a light bulb moment, or even a singular “coming out” story for my gender identity. But realizing who you are is never a clean process with perforated edges for a tidy tear. For me, it was crumpled up first drafts with she/they pronouns and bisexuality written in pencil. It’s wondering why being called one of the girls or a woman felt like a tiny ice pick chipping away at my self-image. Discovering the nonbinary identity felt like putting on a pair of glasses for the first time. This scary world that I’ve been dropped into, of no volition of my own, becomes a bit clearer, makes a bit more sense, and feels a bit more like somewhere I could continue living.  

Being out as nonbinary in the high school classroom is a uniquely weird experience. It seems like pronouns have become the new “that’s what she said” of jokes, even though using someone’s correct pronouns is literally suicide prevention. While going through my college program I spent hours thinking about how I would present to my students. I spent time considering whether I would just drop my pronouns with no explanation, or if I would come out as nonbinary but not a lesbian, or if I should just change my name and move away — just start over because everything seemed too hard. While I student taught, news stories came out in my own home blue state about teachers being fired for teaching CRT or having a worksheet with the term “gender identity” on it. My cooperating teacher introduced me to the students as Miss Iacovelli and it just appeared to be the easiest solution. It took me until after Thanksgiving break to ask them to throw in a “they” every once in a while and after Christmas to take away “she” as an option. 

When I use they/them pronouns and ask others to use them, I am outing myself. Obviously, this can be poorly received and even dangerous. While applying for jobs I kept finding myself in awkward positions of weighing the possible consequences of outing myself in an interview. On the one hand, I never want to teach at a school that does not want me to be there. On the other hand, I knew that I could be seen as a liability, not worth the trouble, or a potential issue for parents. And it makes me angry to think that despite my experience, my philosophy, my pedagogy, and my degrees, it could come down to how comfortable the admin would be with my presence. Ultimately, I decided to be open and clear about my pronouns and gender identity. 

Doing so also makes me an easily identifiable safe space for queer kids. While student teaching, I became part of my first GSA and saw modern high schoolers’ outstanding courage and bravery. Of course, not all students welcome a queer teacher with open arms. I am currently working in an inner-city school with a majority Latine population. I am usually the first nonbinary person most of these students have met. According to UCLA’s Williams Institute, 58 percent of nonbinary people identify as white, my race, while Lantine people represent 15 percent. While some kids choose to ignore my identity or reject it, I would always rather have them say the first stupid thing to come into their heads to me rather than a trans kid. However, most students have simply never heard of it before. But, even if not all my students get it, they will slap each other upside the head if one of them says “That’s gay” — and that’s progress! Obviously, there are still students who are gender nonconforming and/or queer, but isolated. It allows me to be some form of representation and to show that we are here in every community. 

Being nonbinary in the classroom is not just a struggle, it’s a superpower and I wanted the school I chose to support that. The kids know that they can come to me with any sort of problem or question without judgment. I insert queer joy and education in my classroom and my identity does not stop when I enter the school’s doors. Showing my students that queer people can grow into happy, successful adults is one of the most important forms of normalization.

Plus I get funny stories like a girl calling me “Miss Mix,” thinking Mx. was my last name, or a boy freezing up while greeting me because he couldn’t decide whether to dap me up or hug me. At the end of the day, I care about my students way more than old people on Facebook, Fox News anchors, or the dumb questions my aunt asks.

Julianna Iacovelli (they/them) is a high school English teacher based in Hartford, Connecticut. Their article “Queer Joy in the Classroom” was previously published in the National Council of Teachers of English’s English Journal.

Illustrator Borealis’ art can be seen at beaux.studio.