Schools adjust to transgender teachers

WAYNE PARRY

Associated Press

From coast to coast, students, parents and educators are grappling with a new classroom challenge: What to do when Mr. McBeth comes to school as Miss McBeth.

 

As more transgender teachers undergo their transformations, school districts and universities are facing issues many never dreamed of, including new pronouns, chats with students and staff - even bathroom arrangements. The sex-change operation William McBeth underwent in 2005 created a commotion in the conservative Pinelands area when she applied to be rehired as a substitute in Eagleswood Township under the name Lily McBeth. Parents jammed a school board meeting last winter, both to denounce and support her hiring. But by the time she was up for another job at a different district seven months later, the community had gotten used to her, and to the idea of a transgender teacher in the classroom.

 

"There's no doubt about it; they've calmed down," said McBeth, 72, a retired marketing executive and divorced father of three.

 

There are only about 20 or so transgender teachers working in classrooms nationwide, but more are in the process of "transitioning," experts estimate. "The question often arises: Are transgender people competent to be employees, and those questions can come from co-workers, management or students," said Chris Daley, director of the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco. "A lot of that is because there is a lack of information about who transgender people are."

 

David Nielsen, a librarian at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, began living as a woman in the spring of 1998 and came to school one Monday as Debra Davis. She was sued by a co-worker who objected to her using the women's rest room. The claim eventually was rejected by an appeals court, but not before local police got involved.  "I had a sex crimes detective in my building investigating me," she said.  Part of the difficulty was the suddenness of Davis' transformation. "As far as I knew and as far as the school knew, I was among the first people to suddenly do that in a high school who worked directly with children, basically over a weekend," Davis said. "I didn't take a year off, I didn't do it over the summer. Literally, a man left on Friday and a woman came back on Monday." She met with school officials and staff one day, then with students the next to answer any questions they had.

 

"They asked, `What do we call this person?' It's Miss Davis now, it's Debra," she recalled. "It's 'she' now. `What bathroom is she going to use?' The kids did pretty well. Did they come to the library to see their new, improved librarian? You bet they did!" The students were great, she said. Some festooned the hallways with signs of support, including one with the slogan "Hate Is Not A Family Value." Not every adult was as welcoming, though. "The people who struggled were people who struggle with diversity," she said. They were concerned that "the kids would have to have contact with someone like me who's an abomination of God."

 

McBeth said she erred by not keeping her certification as a substitute teacher current while she was out of work during the surgery. That required her to reapply, and set the stage for a contentious school board meeting in Eagleswood in February. One parent took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper urging parents to oppose the hiring. But Scott Rodas, whose son is a third-grader in Eagleswood, said McBeth's hiring "should have been a no-brainer. We should give enough credit to our children to know that someone like this isn't going to hurt them."

 

When McBeth was up for rehiring at the Pinelands Regional School system in September, no one said a word.

 

"I personally don't think there's anything wrong with it," said Katie MacPhee, a Pinelands student. "I can see where some people might have concerns, but people just need to get over it."

 

Another transgender teacher, Jennifer Boylan, an English professor at Colby College in Maine and author of the bestselling autobiographical novel, "She's Not There: A Life In Two Genders," said she was concerned about how students and faculty would respond to her transition six years ago.  "Everyone was extremely supportive and generous," she said. "That surprised me, but maybe it shouldn't have. It's possible that we are all more grown up than we think."

 

In Batavia, N.Y., the school district held a series of information sessions with parents and students to address any concerns about a transgender high school teacher. The way the district has handled the situation with the teacher, who has not wanted to be identified in news accounts, gets high marks from transgender advocates, even though some residents and clergy members object.

 

"This is not about people accepting transgender values or believing transgender identity is a good thing," said Jillian Todd Weiss, an assistant professor of law and society at Ramapo College in New Jersey, who transitioned in 1998, about five years before she began teaching. "This is about how we treat people in the workplace in a civil society. It's not about acceptance, although that would be nice. It's about law and policy, which states that it's illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of gender."

 

Daley, director of the Transgender Law Center, said the same rules apply to transgender teachers as to anyone else. "Just treat them like you would any other employee," he said. "Give them a supportive, comfortable work environment, and you won't have any problems."

 

Boylan, a Pennsylvania native who also wrote the 1997 novel "Getting In," says her gender is no big deal now that none of her current students were there when she transitioned. "A student will say, "Did you know Boylan used to be a guy?' and the friend will say, `Well, duh,' " she said. "My students don't particularly care about my personal history. What they care about is: `Can I help them write?' "