More Than Half Of Transgender Teachers Surveyed Tell NPR They Are Harassed At Work

Mar 8, 2018
Originally published on March 11, 2018 10:14 pm

More than half of transgender teachers face harassment or discrimination in the workplace, according to an NPR Ed survey of transgender and gender-nonconforming educators.

The survey of 79 trans and gender-nonconforming teachers from the U.S. and Canada found that the harassment they face ranges widely: from 20 percent who reported verbal harassment, to 17 percent who said they'd been asked to change how the present themselves, such as their clothing, to two teachers who said they'd been fired.

"I was horribly harassed by a coworker and very little was done about it," said Lauren Heckathorne of Evanston, Ill., who identifies as nonbinary. "The focus was on making [the harasser] more comfortable."

These findings come from our online survey, and follow-up interviews by phone and in person with two dozen of the 79 teachers who responded.

Despite the challenges they face, a majority of these teachers also said they have tried to integrate LGBT-related topics into their teaching. Many also mentioned advising LGBT awareness groups for students, training peers or addressing the topic in venues such as school assemblies.

And, they told us, they see schools as crucial spaces not only of learning, but of safety, for the next generation.

"I don't think I've ever seen a supportive parent for my LGBT kids," says Chris Smith, who teaches many recent immigrants in a high school in New York City. Considering the high rates of bullying, homelessness and even suicide among LGBT youth, these teachers say their work can be a matter of life and death.

Forty percent of the teachers told us their students were more accepting of them than were the adults at school.

There is no way of knowing how representative our sample is of trans teachers around the country, nor how many trans and gender-nonconforming people may be working in schools to begin with. (A 2016 UCLA analysis put the percentage of trans adults in the U.S. as a whole at about 0.6 percent, or 1.4 million individuals.)

With those caveats firmly in mind, these educators gave us a candid glimpse into their lives.

  • 56 percent reported some form of workplace discrimination or harassment. Primarily this came from the administration or colleagues, not from students.
  • 62 percent said they have tried to integrate LGBT-related topics into their teaching.
  • 71 percent said they were out about their identities at work.
  • Our respondents skewed young; 38 percent are under 30. And many are fairly new to teaching: 37 percent have been at it less than five years.
  • 73 percent teach in public schools, meaning more are in private schools compared with the general population of teachers. Just one teacher reported teaching in a parochial school.
  • 56 percent teach high school — a much higher number than the general population of teachers.
  • Our respondents came from 17 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada. Small towns and big cities were represented, but New York City led the list with 13 respondents.
  • Only 11 out of 69 who answered a question about their gender identity, or 15 percent of respondents, said that they were female, femme or a woman (see below for a discussion of this terminology). This is interesting in light of the fact that teaching, especially in lower grades, is one of the most gender-segregated professions in the United States — overwhelmingly, teaching jobs are held by women.
  • More than half, 53 percent, used a word related to "male" to describe their gender identity.
  • 21 percent did not use a word related to one gender — for example, transgender, nonbinary, gender queer, gender fluid.

How they identify

Our respondents used a wide variety of words to describe their identities. For some, simply "male" or "female" fits.

"I identify as a guy," wrote a teacher in Omaha, Neb. who did not want his name used.

Others chose terms like trans man, trans woman, trans femme, FTM (female to male), nonbinary, gender queer, or genderfluid. They may use the pronouns "he" "she" or "they."

While "transgender" includes people whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth, gender nonconforming is a broader umbrella term. As defined by one advocacy group, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, it includes "people who do not follow other people's ideas or stereotypes about how they should look or act based on the female or male sex they were assigned at birth." None of these terms necessarily refers to sexual orientation; trans people may identify as gay, straight, bisexual, asexual or queer, to name a few possibilities.

Cisgender, meanwhile, is the term used to refer to people whose gender identity does agree with their sex assigned at birth.

Coming out

Now let's take a deeper dive into two related topics: being out, and the repercussions of that.

Most of our respondents, more than 7 in 10, said they were out at work.

But being "out" can take many forms, from telling a few trusted colleagues to making a public announcement.

Coming out is complex for trans and gender nonconforming people, they told us. They have different degrees of "passing privilege," which can be a function of the resources available for hormones, surgery, hair or makeup, or simply personal choice.

"I pass as male and work as male," wrote Cuthbert, who did not want their last name used. "None of my current students know I am trans."

For others, "I come out when I walk into a room, or at least when I open my mouth," as Alaina Daniels, a high school science teacher in New York City, told us in an interview.

Sam Long, a science teacher in Denver, Colo., said that his administration initially pushed back on the idea of his coming out, but, "eventually I did come out to students and it had a very positive impact on the community. We had several students open up about their orientation and one student come out as genderqueer. I was glad to have made those students feel safe enough to share."

Teachers in our survey reported being most likely to be out to colleagues, and least likely to have informed their students' parents.

Workplace discrimination

For many trans teachers, coming out carries risks. The National Center for Transgender Equality lists only 15 states that explicitly prohibit, by law, discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Most of our respondents reported some form of workplace discrimination or harassment, whether from the administration, colleagues, or less frequently, students.

Here are some of their stories:

"I am the only out trans employee in my district and there are not the necessary protocols in place to keep me safe," said Lauren Heckathorne in Illinois.

"One colleague thought 'tr*nny' was the correct term to use when referring to trans people," Logan Keane, a high school teacher in New York City, told us.

"I am often subject to verbal abuse in the hallways and have been prevented from accessing the teacher's lounge by colleagues," said Jennifer Eller, an educator in Maryland. "The ... administration transferred me to a conservative area and gave me increasingly more difficult student populations to work with in hopes that I would resign my position. When that failed, they began misgendering me in front of others and disciplining me for correcting them."

Misgendering, or being called by the wrong pronoun, is one of the most common forms of verbal harassment mentioned by our survey respondents.

Several trans people emphasized in conversations with this cis woman reporter that what might seem like a small mistake or an innocent slip of the tongue --calling someone by a different pronoun than the one they request — in fact has a painful impact that builds up over time. And sometimes it's less inadvertent and more a clear expression of hostility, they said.

Chris Smith in New York, who uses "they," is tired of "the cliche response," from colleagues they call otherwise generally supportive: " 'Well, you've got to give me some time.' "

Smith's response? "Try, it's actually not that hard. We learn new groups of students' names each semester — there should be no excuse."

'Daily discrimination'

The second most commonly mentioned form of harassment, after verbal barbs, was being told to change how they presented themselves.

Rochelle, who asked us to use their first name, said they were genderfluid. They described leaving teaching over a decade ago because they felt the need to wear "work drag" such as neutral colors.

"I wonder if I were to teach now whether I could express my fluidity more fully. I have been experimenting with it at my current job (education administration, so public school system, but I don't interact with parents or students), and so far I feel safe. I think the times have changed."

Others mentioned moving schools, or states, or leaving the profession altogether.

"The treatment I received from past administrators ... impacted me so negatively that I almost quit the profession," Donnie, a civics and history teacher, who asked us to use their first name to protect their privacy, said. "Thankfully, I found a much better school."

"Before I taught in Washington State I experienced disrespect and discrimination from colleagues, administrators, and parents during five years teaching in Texas and North Carolina," said McKinley Morrison, now a pre-K teacher in Olympia, Wash.

"I'm leaving teaching because I can't be an effective educator and deal with daily discrimination at the same time. I've been on long-term med leave because of PTSD/depression from several specific events and many daily aggressions," a middle school math and science teacher in the Midwest, who did not want their name used, wrote.

Still other trans teachers said they don't feel safe transitioning in the first place.

"I'm not out yet at all, and not in transition because in Indiana I have no legal protections, and I am the provider in my household," said another teacher who did not want their name used. "I need to keep my job so I can eat, pay off student loans, pay rent, etc. I don't know when it will be safe to come out, for me. I don't know if I'll ever feel comfortable being trans at work."

"No one knows about me and I would like for you to keep this in the strictest confidential," said a third teacher who also requested anonymity.

Despite these negative experiences, there were bright spots. As noted above, 40 percent of our respondents said their students were more accepting of them than others at school.

Some said they felt times have changed, with people more understanding and accepting than they were even a few years ago.

"I would not have been comfortable being out with my students during my first few years of teaching, mostly because mainstream cultural understandings of trans topics was much, much lower," Lewis Maday-Travis, who teaches eighth-grade human biology and health in Seattle, told us.

And despite all the difficulties they noted, many of these educators expressed a deep sense of mission. Whether they work with special needs students or English language learners, teenagers or young children, they are also role models.

Many said they felt they play a vital — even life-saving — role through their visibility. Sometimes in surprising ways.

Like Chris Smith, who teaches mostly recent immigrant students at a public high school in New York City. They asked their students to call them Teacher Smith. "A former student was involved in sex work previously. He'd never been tested, didn't know what HIV was," Smith said. "And he opened up to me because he was comfortable about it."

It wasn't necessarily directly related to gender identity, but, Smith says, "I have noticed a lot of social responsibility in trans and [gender nonconforming] communities. It's a value that has a strong current in our community. Maybe because we were the folks who needed it the most growing up."

NPR's Ariana Figueroa and Carl Boisrond contributed to this report.

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We have a glimpse now into the lives of transgender teachers. There has been plenty of discussion in this country of transgender students. A survey conducted by NPR may be the first national survey of this population of teachers. Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team has details. Good morning, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why do this survey now?

KAMENETZ: Well, as you mentioned, schools have really been a focal point for battles over the civil rights of transgender people. There's a lot of talk about students' rights, and we wondered about their educators. You know, the role models, the other generations of trans and gender nonconforming people in schools.

INSKEEP: So you did this survey. And what did you learn about transgender teachers in the United States?

KAMENETZ: Well, you know, we can't be sure what proportion we reached, right? We reached out online to networks of trans and gender nonconforming people. We heard back from just about 80 educators, but they were in 17 different states and also Canada and Washington, D.C., so it was a broad spectrum in terms of location, at least.

INSKEEP: So this is not a scientific poll, but it is definitely a wide-ranging survey where you get interesting perspectives from across the country.

KAMENETZ: That's exactly right. And, as you can imagine, you know, many of them are located in large cities, but we also heard from people in small towns and rural areas. Over half of them teach high school, which is interesting. It's different from the general population of teachers. And they use a really wide variety of terms to describe their identities. Some just say, you know, I'm a guy, I'm a woman. Others say trans, trans man, trans woman. Others say gender nonconforming or nonbinary. So there's really a wealth of terms in use for people to describe their identities.

INSKEEP: There must be some people who, they've already made the transition and so there's no sign that they're transgender if they don't want there to be. There must be other people for whom it's very obvious and it's out in public, and they have to deal with it.

KAMENETZ: Trans people we talked to talked about passing privilege. So some people, because of their access to hormones or surgery or how they choose to present themselves, they can teach as the gender that they feel like inside. Other people, someone in New York City told me, I come out when I walk into a room, or, at least when I open my mouth. And so your degree of exposure to harassment, to discrimination, in some ways is determined by the way that people perceive you. And that's something that trans teachers told us they negotiate every day.

INSKEEP: Now, I see this figure from a survey that 56 percent, more than half, feel that they have experienced some kind of harassment or discrimination. I'm curious if that is coming from their fellow teachers, from their supervisors or even from the students.

KAMENETZ: Well, unfortunately, we heard that this is mainly coming from above, or at least from colleagues, not necessarily from students. So about 1 in 5 said they were verbally harassed. Nearly 1 in 5 were asked by supervisors to change how they dressed or what pronouns they used, and 2 percent reported being fired. And, of course, we also heard from others who either left the profession or else changed states and districts to find places that they hoped would be more accepting.

INSKEEP: Was there an upside?

KAMENETZ: You know, despite all the issues that the teachers reported, many of them told us that, first of all, 7 in 10 are out at work, at least to some of their colleagues. And many of them told us that they're taking leadership roles in their schools. They're in the gay-straight alliances, they're integrating LGBT-related issues into the curriculum. And they see themselves as role models, the role models that, in some cases, they themselves didn't have when they were in school.

INSKEEP: And do they just want to be trans role models, or role models, period?

KAMENETZ: Well, it's really interesting. You know, some of them told us that, you know, they see themselves as activists. But in other cases, you know, like Dylan Kapit, who's a special education teacher in New York City, told me, I'm an educator first. I've wanted to be a teacher way longer than I knew I was trans.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team. Anya, thanks very much.

KAMENETZ: Thank you so much, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.