One of my 6th-grade students approached me last spring during the independent reading segment of my English language arts class in our Brooklyn public school. He carried Gender Blender, a young adult novel about a high school girl who swaps bodies for a short period of time with a high school boy. When the student reached my desk, he scratched his head in confusion and held the book out for me to see.
“Mr. K., this book says that sex and gender are the same thing, but I thought they were different. Like, sex is what you’re born as and gender is whether you’re a boy or a girl when you grow up. Right?”
My impulse was to ask if he would teach a seminar to most of the adults I know—and some of the adults in our school—about the complexities of sex and gender. Instead, I commented, “That’s an excellent observation. Does it seem like this book shows sex and gender in too simple a way?”
He nodded passionately. “Yes, because on the “Real World: Brooklyn” this season there’s a girl who says she used to be a boy. Is that for real, Mr. K.?”
This 11-year-old had brought up transsexuality, completely unprovoked, at least three times during the school year up to that point. During one lesson a month before this conversation, I had defined homophobia to his class as “a hatred or intolerance of gay and lesbian people,” and he had waved his hand wildly in the air to add “and transsexuals, too, Mr. K.!” It was clear to me that, for whatever reason, he had given the topic a great deal of thought, and that he had some kind of personal investment in it.
Since the end of class was nearing, I told him to stop and see me after I dismissed everyone else. When he came to my desk, I did something I had not yet done all year: I came out to him as a transgender man (a female-to-male transsexual). I explained that he seemed to care about trans issues (at which he smiled), and that I could attest to the fact that transgender people are very real. I explained that I don’t talk much about my history, not because I am ashamed of it, but because it can be a distraction from lessons.
He thought very carefully for a moment and then asked, “So all the stories you told us about when you were in middle school . . . you were a girl then?”
“Wow!” he exclaimed.
After another moment, he said, “I’m going to write about this tonight. I may have some questions for you tomorrow. But don’t worry, Mr. K., I won’t tell anyone. Bye!” Then he ran out the door to catch up with his class.
Gender Matters in Public Schools
If only everyone handled transgender issues in public schools as smoothly and thoughtfully as this student.
Teachers have an unparalleled opportunity to foster this kind of awareness and critical thought about gender and sexuality. And the main point I hope to impart in this piece is how essential it is for educators to create an environment in our classrooms where we and our students are comfortable talking about issues of gender.
In order for this to happen, it is important to weave concepts of gender into our curricula and refrain from a tokenizing approach that isolates gender as a “one day” or “one week” topic. As individual educators, we must do whatever we can, regardless of our personal identities, although we also bear the responsibility of considering how our personal identities shape our pedagogy and our classroom environments. Role models are important—both those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and/or questioning (LGBTQ), and also non-LGBTQ teachers who model that these issues matter to all of us.
It takes a lot of work for teachers to create spaces that are LGBTQ-friendly, physically and intellectually safe, and encouraging of dialogue about difficult topics. But fostering this kind of environment in our classrooms is sometimes a matter of life or death. Many horrific instances of homophobic or transphobic attacks in schools stand out as evidence of this. In February 2008, Lawrence King, a visibly gender-nonconforming 8th-grade student of color, was shot to death by a fellow student in the computer lab of their California public middle school. King’s school could be described as similar to the school where I have taught the past four years; King’s identity and self-expression could be described as similar to that of several 6th-grade students I have taught in that time.
Lawrence King’s death should remind everyone that middle school students are not only ready to examine complex issues of identity and power, but are already forced to tackle them on their own. Homophobia, gender policing, and queer bashing can be witnessed outside my classroom every day, and educators’ ignorance of these realities of adolescent experience can be devastating. Unfortunately, many teachers maintain that middle school students are “too young” or “too immature” to handle discussions and readings about identity that go beyond tokenizing statements like “We’re all really the same inside” or “Gay is OK!”
We cannot simply rely on anti-bullying projects to address this immense, deep-rooted problem. Anti-bullying, as crucial as it is, is limited in scope. Anti-bullying emphasizes “You should be nice to everybody” and “Don’t pick on people,” but it does not build or encourage an understanding of other (“different”) people and their experiences. Anti-bullying is behavior-based as opposed to understanding-based, which means that an overemphasis on anti-bullying can actually deflect students from deeper thinking and understanding. Educators must navigate between confronting problems directly using anti-bullying methods and simultaneously opening discourse about gender and sexuality in our classrooms to proactively provide support for LGBTQ youth.
From what I have seen, educators are reluctant to delve into complicated dialogue about LGBTQ issues with students for several reasons: trouble with classroom management (“If I go there, who knows what will happen?”), fears of reprimand that often depend upon an unfounded projection of feelings onto an imagined third party (“I would talk about the problems with stigma around HIV and AIDS, but my students’ parents would be angry”), or internalized bias.
These fears sometimes prompt administrators to criticize teachers who try to engage students in critical analysis about identity. Last year, I shared a news article about Lawrence King’s murder with my students. In doing so, I posed questions about the decision to try 13-year-old shooter Brandon McInerney as an adult, and about the politics of hate crime legislation. Before doing so, I shared copies of the news article with the staff at my school, explaining in an accompanying memo that I thought they, also, might want to discuss the news with their students. I received admonishments from administrators and some colleagues, who claimed that I should “be careful” because the material was “awfully mature for 6th graders!” Only two colleagues approached me to express appreciation for my decision to share with my students the events taking place at other schools across the nation.
Weaving Gender and Sexuality into the Curriculum
Any educator can bring a critical examination of gender and sexuality into their classroom and curriculum. I’ve found it to be particularly easy to do as an English teacher.
Last year I read aloud to my classes Jacqueline Woodson’s From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun, a phenomenal novel about a 14-year-old biracial boy whose mother comes out to him not only as “queer” (her term of choice) but as in love with a white woman. This text practically creates lessons about identity for teachers.
Throughout Melanin Sun, readers are exposed to LGBTQ experiences that include but also extend beyond simplistic portrayals of bullying, teasing, and homophobia. Kristin, the partner of Melanin’s mother, explains to Melanin that “family” came to mean “a chosen family” for her after her birth family disowned her when she came out as queer (again, her self-identification). This example is particularly poignant because many LGBTQ youth face the very real prospect of being disowned by their birth families because of their identities.
This book encourages students to think about who “owns” language and terms that relate to identity. Woodson tosses out daunting terminology to refer to sexuality: “queer,” “fag,” and “dyke.” The words “lesbian,” “gay,” or even “homosexual” are rarely seen in the book. Some of the issues students brainstormed as we went along were questions: What does “queer” mean, and why do Melanin’s mother and Kristin use it? What does it mean for them to identify as queer? How can Melanin’s mom be a lesbian if she has a kid? Did she choose to be queer? We had full class debates about when, if ever, the words “fag,” “dyke,” and “queer” should be used, and by whom. Instead of brushing off words like “gay” or “faggot” with hasty or offhand reprimands of “Don’t say that word!” I try to walk the fine line of preventing name-calling while encouraging analysis of the varying meanings of words—literally, historically, and colloquially—just as I would in studies of other words students stumble across in texts.
To make my classroom an open and safe space for LGBTQ people and allies, I try to open, and never close, dialogue. This includes incorporating conversation about identity and authorship into my lesson plans. For example, during our poetry unit last spring, I shared several Langston Hughes poems with my students. We read “Dream Deferred,” “Theme for Composition B,” and the following short “Poem”:
I loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There’s nothing more to say.
This poem ends,
Soft as it began—
I loved my friend.
I encouraged students to break down the poems and read between the lines, to try to decipher meaning and make as many inferences as possible about what the poet is trying to say. They had a great time doing this and seemed to love the thrill of approaching poems like mysteries or riddles that they could solve.
At the end of the week, I shared a biography about Langston Hughes’ life with students, and we dove into his investment in civil rights, and in racial and economic justice.
“Oh, and one more thing,” I added at the end. “I find it interesting that this biography doesn’t mention this fact about Langston Hughes: He was romantically involved with men.”
Students went completely silent, deep in thought. Finally, one boy raised his hand.
“Wait, so he was GAY?”
“I’m not sure if he called himself gay, but he dated men,” I responded.
Students seemed shocked by this information, and even more shocked that I would so comfortably bring it up. Instead of focusing exclusively on Hughes’ sexuality, I brought our conversation back to the main purpose of the lesson.
“Now that you’ve learned so much about Langston Hughes’ life and views, do you see his poems any differently? Or are they the same to you? Let’s take them out and re-read them, thinking about this.”
Some students said their opinions and interpretations did not change because Hughes’ identity wasn’t relevant to his art. Some students chose to re-read “Poemo; as (potentially) a tribute to a past lover. Many students re-examined “Dream Deferred” and expressed more awareness of how politically poignant and incisive Hughes’ poems could be. The exercise provided an excellent opportunity to debate the relationship between author identity and written pieces. I don’t think I had seen my students so excited about a week of lessons all year.
My Shifting Identity
Any educator can incorporate this kind of curriculum into their teaching in a way that is geared toward his or her own identity, personality, and rapport with students. However, I must admit that the exercise with Langston Hughes was made tremendously easier because my students this year perceived me as a white, straight, cisgender (born with that gender) man.
My transition, from being Ms. Krywanczyk my first two years at my school to being Mr. Krywanczyk last year, was illuminating. Faculty members and older students at my school are aware that I used to be female-identified, but most of my 6th graders last year remained unaware of my transition. I can’t explain why this was the case. Perhaps the older students had an implicit understanding of discretion, or perhaps 6th graders, as the youngest in the school, just “didn’t get the memo.”
When I was Ms. K. and identified as a butch dyke, my gender non-normativity stood out and seemed to beg questions from curious students: Why did I look like a boy? What happened to my tits? How long had I known I liked girls? My visible masculinity—short hair, wardrobe of button-down shirts and khakis, and butch mannerisms—in combination with my femaleness made it difficult at times to stop conversations about LGBTQ issues. Eventually I implemented a drop box for students to leave any questions they had that were unrelated to the lesson. Every Friday I would set aside five minutes to go through the drop box with my classes and answer a few appropriate questions. I would discuss what my parents thought about my queerness (which is the term I used to describe myself), how old I was when I knew, if I would have chosen to be straight if I could have. My presence and outness as a lesbian in my classroom explicitly helped me make connections with some students and open dialogue.
Last year, my first year as Mr. K., was very different. The more normatively male I appeared over time (as hormone therapy took effect), the more authority I seemed to have in my classroom and the less my 6th-grade students asked about me personally. The power automatically granted me by my students astounded me. All aspects of teaching are definitely easier when one is perceived as straight, cisgender, and male.
It was my first experience being a rare model of a straight, (assumed) cisgender man who comfortably and proactively discussed LGBTQ affairs. Over the course of the school year I came to realize that there are plenty of opportunities for a teacher in my position (straight and male) to be radical, progressive, and LGBTQ-friendly in my teaching practices. If anything, LGBTQ movements sorely lack straight male allies, and I was more than happy to play that role in my classroom. In fact, though it’s frustrating to observe, my students were more open, honest, and comfortable in their engagement with LGBTQ issues with Mr. Krywanczyk than they had been in the past when they suspected Ms. Krywanczyk of dictatorially imposing a gay agenda on them.
My personal identity and history is significant only with regard to how I can best incorporate it into my mission to create a welcoming and supportive atmosphere for all students, regardless of their gender or sexuality. I do not need to be transgender, or out as transgender, to do this. At the same time, exuding confidence as a transsexual in front of students who know my history is important to me, and, in certain situations, coming out to students who do not know has been effective, and even necessary. It is important for every educator in a school to take on these issues, regardless of their personal experiences, but it is also important for students to have role models.
Hence the reason why I came out to the student mentioned at the very beginning of this piece. The day after I came out to him as a transgender man, the student placed a Post-it note on my desk with three questions on it: “What did it feel like to change and was it hard?” “Do you feel better now that you know yourself?” and “Do you ever think ‘Why did this happen to me’?” I wrote the student a pass to visit me during lunch that day, and I took a few minutes to address his questions.
I hope our discussion made him feel supported about his own emerging identity. After all, there are students of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and experiences in every single public school across the nation who can identify in some way with Lawrence King. As educators, we must each determine the best way to individually and proactively demonstrate our openness and support for LGBTQ people in our schools.
Hughes, Langston. The Dream Keeper and Other Poems. New York: Knopf, 1996.
Woodson, Jacqueline. From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun. New York: Scholastic, 1995.