In spring of 2018, I wrote about my early experiences working as an instructional assistant in my city’s public school district. Though I didn’t know it then, I would continue in the same line of work for almost two more years. The first of April marked the second consecutive month that I haven’t been paid by the school district, which is to say I’ve been transitioning to different work recently. For that reason, I think it is an appropriate time to write some reflections beyond the ones I made during my early days on the job. What follows is a selection of some impactful memories, mostly from the past year-and-a-half.
Back in January 2018, I nervously showed up for my first day of work at an elementary school. Not only was my new job daunting because I hadn’t spent any significant time around young kids since I was in middle school myself, but also because my gender presentation was in a period of intense change. As that original essay describes, I started the job being overwhelmingly read as a woman. By the time March rolled around, my third and fifth grade students had become inquisitive, my coworkers silently perplexed. The tensions deepened through April, May, and June.
I looked forward to the next fall, when I would start working as a substitute throughout the district, with an opportunity to make a new first impression, this time on the masculine side of the gender binary. Over the years, this belief continued, that the next school, the next classroom, the next batch of coworkers would add up to a less stressful situation. And that my body would eventually conform in a way that didn’t feel like a distraction. The flavor of the challenges changed, but they never faded away.
Though I never intended to work in education, this promise of change kept me loyal to the regular hours and solid pay, and I told myself there was no rush to try to find another job. I didn’t love the work, but the kids had their moments, and each passing month padded my resume with experience.
Now, not having entered a school for three-and-a-half months, I have started to come to an understanding not just of how widespread the gender-related stress was, but of how deeply it impacted me. Whenever I’m tempted to misremember what working in the school district was really like, my chronic back/neck/shoulder pain chimes in to remind me. This pain became a part of my life in January 2019 (during what I consider the peak of my workplace tensions), and I am still managing it with exercises and stretches. According to the physical therapist I saw for eight months, the ribs under my left shoulder blade became aggravated from an extended period of shallow breathing, the kind usually brought on by high stress levels. Even though I’d known that poor mental health can negatively impact one’s physical health, I was jarred to witness the connection playing out in my body.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me drop back into that moment in which I still looked forward to the newness of the coming fall.
The New Fall
As I had suspected, as I served as a substitute during the next school year, students and coworkers alike overwhelmingly read me as male. But, now it was my age that was called into question. The combination of my voice and dress told others that I wasn’t a woman. But my face was narrow and smooth, my brow undefined. If I wasn’t a woman, person after person reasoned, then I must been a teenage boy. I was challenged entering the staff lounge, having to flash my sub badge; I was asked by students if I was the teacher’s child tagging along for the day; I was mistaken for a middle schooler (more than once) by parent volunteers, staff, and students. On one particularly-annoying day, five adults asked how old I was.
I was twenty-three at the time, which I recognize is relatively young. But, before changing my gender expression, if someone guessed my age incorrectly, they almost always erred in the older direction.
It was all very infantilizing. I soon became highly self-conscious about my perceived age, and, in turn, my perceived level of competence. I showed up every day knowing there was a series of expectations that I would have to prove wrong if I wanted to be respected. This was a huge mental drain. There wasn’t anything I could do to make my face look older (outside of smoking, maybe), but I did my best to problem solve. Though most school staff dressed casually, during this time I swapped out my informal clothes for carefully-constructed looks.
And there were still moments when gender came directly to the forefront. I once walked into a staff restroom that was labeled ‘all gender,’ though it still bore the obvious markings of a former men’s room. Someone — a man, evidently — who was in one of the stalls called out “Man!” when he heard footsteps approach, which I understood as an attempt to ward off any non-men who might be disturbing him. I was startled, but managed to summon a low grunt in reply. He made some approving noise and I was able to carry on without further disturbance. But I was upset, shaking with anger as I walked out and returned to the classroom. If the guy was so concerned about who he was sharing a bathroom with, there were plenty of gender-exclusive staff restrooms in the building.
There were also occasions in which coworkers read me as a woman. These moments were made particularly awkward when others around them saw me as a man (or, more likely, a teen boy). I cringed with every contradictory pronoun, wondering if they were about to argue about my gender in front of me. Luckily, no one ever did.
A few weeks into the fall, I picked up a long-term substitute position in a middle school resource room. The job was listed for thirty days, but I would soon learn that the administration was hoping to find someone to work for the rest of the school year. Keeping with my mindset for the new school year, I was ready to show up and blend in.
That all changed, however, when I walked into the classroom and saw a miniature trans pride flag replacing the usual stars and stripes. I felt a surge of happiness, of the possibility of gender comfort. Before the students arrived, the teacher hastened to give me a run-down on her students. Part of this introduction involved telling me that one student was trans. When she had the class introduce themselves to me, and me to them, we shared our names and pronouns. It was (though this is sad to say) an amazing feeling to have this norm brought into my workplace for the first time.
To say the least, I knew I was not going to keep my gender identity out of my work in this environment. Just thinking about what it would have been like for me to be out as trans in middle school was enough to make my palms sweat, and I wanted to be visible for the trans student, and any others who might be closeted and/or questioning. And, as the year progressed, I learned that no fewer than six students in grades six through eight fell into those categories.
In October, I came out to the students who were in attendance at the first GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance, or the better version, Gender and Sexuality Alliance) meeting. Word spread among some of the staff. I did my best to advocate for the trans students’ needs, supporting other adult allies, and challenging coworkers who needed to do better. Unfortunately, one day the co-leader of the GSA fell into this latter category.
Each Wednesday, this teacher led a discussion in which she asked her seventh grade students to take a position on the week’s presented issue. To indicate their opinion, they would stand on one side of the room, or the other. With the room thus divided, the students would then discuss their reasoning, with the goal of trying to win others to come over to their side. From my experience witnessing previous iterations of this activity, students were not given a foundational lesson before the discussion, but were rather asked to draw upon previous knowledge. On the 30th of October, the topic for discussion was whether the government should restrict the ability of transgender people to medically and legally transition.
I heard about the lesson plan ahead of time from a coworker and asked them to pressure the teacher not to lead that activity. I did not feel my voice would be taken seriously if I approached her on my own. (Hmm, I wonder if this had to do with being seen as a child for the past six months?) At any rate, the attempt was not successful, and the lesson plan was carried out. According to a coworker who observed the discussion, the two out trans students ended up defending their legitimacy in front of their peers. The only silver lining was that every student in the class was at least moderately in favor of trans rights.
In the days that followed, I reached out to the teacher and set up a time after school to talk to her about how damaging that lesson had been, not only to the students, but also to me. She said she was “sorry that [I] misunderstood” but that she knew how to handle serious classroom discussions and that it had been a productive conversation. Also, she had a genderqueer spouse and had long been a dedicated ally, advocating for the trans community for more than a decade. When I told her that she shouldn’t have presented the option of rejecting trans rights as legitimate, she said that those were the terms of the debate in the real world, so (sadly) it was only appropriate to use the same framework in class.
It quickly became clear that I was not going to receive an apology, nor was she going to admit any wrongdoing. I held back tears just long enough to make it to another empty classroom, where I closed the door and broke down crying under a desk. I walked home that day not knowing if I would be able to return to work the next day, or ever. In reality, it was only the chance to wear my sparkly fairy Halloween costume that got me back to the school. And I kept showing up after that, despite the intense anxiety that now surfaced when I each morning when I approached the building.
After a long bureaucratic delay (and a few tense meetings with the principal), the teacher and I sat down to take part in a mediation. She again failed to apologize. When I pressed her about what she would do different next time, she stumbled until a district employee stepped in to answer for her, summarizing an earlier phone conversation between them. The three cis women in the room ended the conversation in tears, while I sat there unmoved and frustrated. The whole conversation was a complete waste of time.
It was around the time of this meeting that my chronic shoulder/back/neck pain started. For the few months that I continued working at the school, I did my best to avoid this teacher and focus on supporting my students. In April, almost six months after the original incident, I finally left the school. There were other issues at hand, but this was the one that had the most influence on my decision to leave.
After moving on from the middle school, I considered changing gears to focus on the contract writing work I had secured. While I deliberated, the district’s spring break came to a close. On that first Monday, I took a single-day job at an elementary school where I had almost been hired early in the fall. Upon arriving that morning, as I was signing in at the office, I ran into a familiar teacher. As it turned out, she was looking to fill a long-term substitute position in her room, starting ASAP. The next day, I returned to the school to begin working in her classroom. And the next, and the next. So on I stayed, through the remaining three months of the school year.
Though I wish I could say otherwise, my gender-related discomfort continued. This was overshadowed, however, by the specific nature of the work I was doing, specifically the way it pushed me to reconsider ideas I had internalized about myself.
Alongside three other staff, I supported five medically fragile students ranging from Kindergarten to 5th grade. All of our students were nonverbal, though they were learning to use communication tools. Four of the five used wheelchairs. Besides lessons led by our teacher, each of the students participated in occupational, physical, and speech therapy on a weekly basis. Everyone also had a specialized food plan.
It was a job totally unlike what I had been doing in the middle school. And I liked it. In the resource room, I helped students write essays and solve algebraic equations (and so on), skills at which I had always been told I was particularly good. This new position, however, was about caregiving: feeding, holding, playing, singing, and biking home at lunch hour to change one’s pee-contaminated pants.
Growing up, I had carefully avoided babysitting, or any other situation where I might need to care for a younger child’s basic needs. This aligned with my knowledge that I didn’t want to have kids. I wasn’t interested in spending my time being nurturing when there were so many cooler activities attracting my attention, like playing sports and, in the future, working as a scientist (or something).
Looking back, it is clear to see my refusal as one of shunning traditionally feminine roles. The things for ‘girly-girls’ were not the things for me, and I looked down upon them. Even so-called feminine traits, like being emotionally expressive, were to be strictly avoided. These were early signs of my gender frustration, but they are also indicative of my internalization of the idea that “men’s work” is more important than “women’s.”
In the classroom, the kids (and other staff) brought out my repressed silliness. I let go of at least some of my self-consciousness and started to take myself less seriously. As time went on, the new way of acting became more comfortable, and the work felt more fulfilling than prodding a middle schooler to finish their math homework. Instead of mediated by academics, these connections could simply be human.
Persisting (& then not)
More than any other position I had held in the district, I felt satisfied by my work in the medically fragile classroom. And yet, as was hinted in the introduction, the uncomfortable gender-related interactions continued.
After sensing that my new coworkers had sorted me into the ‘man’ category, I started expressing myself a bit more freely. I sometimes painted my nails and didn’t fret so much over my clothing and mannerisms. The situation seemed stable until sometime in mid-May. One morning, my female coworker and I entered the staff lounge. Another coworker, who was already sitting at the table, greeted us with “hey ladies.” I was startled and wondered if I had misheard. Then, a couple of days later, the situation repeated itself when the same words emerged from another person’s mouth.
As a non-binary person, I was used to being misgendered as a man. This had long become my default expectation, and it was disconcerting to be assumed a woman, by at least two individuals. Not knowing quite what to do, I grew out my facial hair into a sorry-looking scruff. No similar incidents occurred after that, though I wished I could have just kept shaving.
My gender was also brought into the spotlight during the few occasions that I interacted with verbal students. To be clear, I never blame the kids for their comments and questions, but rather take issue with the world around them, which teaches them what to believe about gender. In one instance, a kindergartner wouldn’t stop asking me why I “talk like that.” I tried to tell him that it was “just my voice,” but he wasn’t satisfied. Within thirty seconds of seeing me for the first time, his classmate asked if I was a boy or a girl. On my way out of the building at the end of a different day, an older student who I didn’t know (maybe in third or fourth grade) stopped me to ask the same question. Despite how much I knew my appearance had changed, I felt thrown back into the previous year.
These frustrations came to a head one day this past December when I was working in a new-to-me middle school resource room. I was helping a student revise an essay when he asked me if I was a boy or a girl. I said I was a boy (my default lie). His friend, sitting nearby, scoffed, “You can’t just ask people that.” In reply, the original asker said to his friend, “Well, it kinda sounds like a girl.”
I was wearing gray pants and a long-sleeve maroon shirt, both from the men’s section. My nails were not painted, my earrings were also “for men.” Though I enjoy being outwardly gender non-conforming in many situations, showing up to a new school is not one of them. So, on that day, I was doing my best to just look like a cisgender guy. And yet, two years into the work, I still could not avoid the usual judgments. More than any other day or any other comment, the dehumanizing nature of that student’s words forced me to face the probability that the gender question was never going away.
I worked for a few more days after that, and then it was winter break. Unlike, last spring, I didn’t return when school started up again. Now, here I sit typing, the past draping over me like a damp blanket. I pause to rub my shoulder, hoping the tension will fade away for good some day.
In lieu of compensating me for the labor of writing this piece, please consider donating to YouthCare in Seattle, which is staying open during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide services to LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness.