On Dec. 28, 2014, Leelah Alcorn died after walking into traffic on a highway near her hometown of Kings Mills, Ohio. The 17-year-old identified as transgender, and in a suicide note published online, which became national news, Alcorn wrote:
"The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren't treated the way I was, they're treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something."
Devon Shanley read in those words a personal call to action. He is a transgender man teaching seventh-grade English in New York City. He resolved to become more vocal as a teacher and activist. While realizing that some trans people do not want to be out, and for others being out may threaten their safety, he believes, "this is what is killing us, this silencing."
Awareness of gender diversity has been growing. And schools in particular have been a battleground for gender rights. In interviews with 15 individuals, and in an NPR Ed survey of dozens more trans and gender-nonconforming educators around the country, teachers like Shanley told us they are becoming more visible, more active, more organized.
They are marching, writing lesson plans, changing the signs on bathroom doors and, alongside their students, pushing colleagues and school administrators and elected officials to improve awareness of gender issues.
Rates of suicide, homelessness and bullying are all higher among transgender, queer and gender-nonconforming youth. The current administration has formally stated that it won't consider discrimination complaints from these youth based on access to facilities like bathrooms.
Many trans teachers NPR spoke to for this article told us they were bullied as students, and they feel that their work in the classroom can be, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
A quick note on the terms we're using here. Gender nonconforming is an umbrella term that can refer to anyone whose appearance or behavior doesn't fit stereotypes of the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender and gender nonconforming people may identify as men or women. Or they may use terms like nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, transmasculine or transfeminine, or simply trans. They may use a variety of pronouns: he, she, they, ze. They may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, queer or any other possibility. Cisgender, meanwhile, refers to those whose gender identity does match their sex assigned at birth.
Forming a Network
Across the country in San Francisco, around the same time that Shanley felt his call to action, a former teacher named Harper Keenan, also a transgender man and an education Ph.D. candidate at Stanford, experienced the losses of some trans people he knew personally to suicide.
He realized, "We have to do a better job of making sure that transgender people aren't isolated. And I thought about my own work as an educator. Teaching is a pretty isolating job." And, he says, it complicates matters that teaching is one of the most gendered professions.
Teachers of younger students in particular are overwhelmingly women. Schools, meanwhile, Keenan points out, often sort students into boys and girls — when lining up, in the bathroom and locker rooms, in sports and phys ed. These are all points of friction for those who don't conform.
He posted on Facebook to start a professional and social network for anyone who worked with students in K-12 and whose identity did not "easily fit" into the gender binary. They became known as the Transgender Educators Network. Before they knew it, they had around 200 members and chapters that now meet in five places: the Bay Area, New York, Baltimore/Washington area, the Pacific Northwest and Minneapolis.
Chris Smith, a high school teacher and member of the New York chapter of TEN, says they come together to discuss issues like: "how to have conversations with your students. A little bit of safety. What school districts to avoid, what states to avoid. Some emotional support. The best time to come out."
As a group, TEN members have marched in rallies, written op-eds and submitted a "friend of the court" brief in support of Gavin Grimm, the Virginia high school student who sued for the right to use the bathroom that conformed with his gender identity.