A Trans Person Enters an Elementary School

[A classroom full of elementary school students raise their hands]

Day One

On my first day of working as an elementary school instructional assistant, a third-grade student interrupted my reading session with his classmate to ask, “Are you a boy or a girl?” I was neither surprised nor offended. As it so happened, this was the same question I had been internally grappling with just six months earlier. After weeks of curiosity, research, self-doubt, I decided my answer was ‘neither.’ Though I was assigned female at birth, I identify as non-binary, dress in androgynous clothing, and ask — in trans-friendly spaces — to be referred with they/them pronouns.

Just as I began to respond to the question, the teacher, who had been sitting at a table nearby, interjected, “Bryce, that’s not something we ask people that we’ve just met. Come over here so we can have a chat.” Reluctantly, Bryce walked away without the clarification he had been looking for, allowing me to refocus my attention on listening to the other student read.

As I was gathering my things to head to the next classroom, the teacher called me over. “Okay, go ahead,” the teacher prompted Bryce to begin.

“Sorry, I asked you if you were a boy or a girl,” Bryce apologized, looking off into space.

“We talked about boundaries, and how that wasn’t an appropriate question for your first day,” the teacher explained, looking at me.

I nodded and said thanks, turning to walk away when Bryce started, “But, what — ”

“Bryce!” the teacher interrupted. I laughed to hide my discomfort and left to meet another class.

I was Ready, But…

I knew that this would not be the last conversation I had about my gender at work. In fact, I was prepared for things to get substantially more confusing. The day of Bryce’s question, I had been taking testosterone for less than a month, and signs of masculinization had yet to appear. I was well within what adults, and most kids, read as female. Just two months later, however, the clarity of my gender started to rapidly decrease as my voice deepened. The expected outcome came to fruition: I started to field more gender inquiries.

When students asked me the ‘boy or girl’ question, I replied honestly with a curt, “neither.” I thought the kids deserved to know the truth, especially since it was likely they hadn’t heard that not everyone fits into one of the two categories. However, I failed to take into account how deeply they would be attached to the gender binary. The kids weren’t just going to accept my neither-nor answer and begin questioning their worldview. Instead, they did what we all do when we encounter something that doesn’t fit with our preconceived notions; they assumed that they were receiving false information. As a result, kids continued to prod me for a “real answer” until I walked away. Then they would start up the interrogation the next time they got a chance.

It soon became clear that being honest was getting in the way of me doing my best work and the kids doing their best learning. I avoided the students who were most curious about my gender. When I was leading small group lessons, kids often got into debates over which pronouns to use for me. I felt more distracting than helpful. And yet, I held out on giving them a satisfying answer. If I chose one of the options to the girl or boy question wouldn’t I be complicit in my own community’s erasure?

The first time I heard about non-binary gender, I was 22 years old. I was clicking around YouTube, watching female-to-male transition videos, trying to figure out if I was transgender. In the way of the YouTube wormhole, I ended up following the site’s suggestions to a few non-binary users’ channels, learning that trans people don’t always identify as exclusively male or female. This umbrella ‘other’ label made sense to me almost immediately; I could stop pretending I was a woman without having to identify as a man. A few months later, at a transgender support group, I met other non-binary people face-to-face for the first time.

Lofty Goals

Coming into this job, I thought about how important my presence would be in helping students and staff understand that there are more than two genders. I was determined to be the name and face folks could to attach to an identity they might not have otherwise heard about or “believed in.” Even more importantly, I thought of kids who might be (or someday identify as) non-binary themselves. I sure wish someone had been around to show and/or tell me that non-binary people existed when I was growing up. One of the reasons it took me until my twenties — and it often takes folks much longer — to put my gender identity into words was the complete lack of non-binary representation in my life. Though people like us have always existed, it is often dangerous to even come out to friends and family, much less portray ourselves in the media. And, in the words of Marian Wright Edelman, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

With this context in mind, I wanted to make sure I was doing all I could to be out and proud about my gender identity. In theory, I could’ve asked my coworkers to help me to explain my pronouns and gender to the students. The problem with this idea was that all four teachers I worked with had constantly demonstrated their own lack of trans literacy. They automatically started referring to me as Ms. Alix even though I introduced myself as Alix. The teachers also failed to ask me about my pronouns, continuing to use ‘she,’ even when it was obvious to everyone that my voice and appearance were changing. Personal experience told me that whether their reaction was positive or negative, being out to these coworkers would involve a lot of emotional labor for which I did not have the capacity. So, I avoided coming out and decided I would have to figure out how to take on the curious kids alone.

Enter Reality

I remained confounded until I talked through my concerns with a transgender and non-binary friend who also works with kids. He told me that when he gets asked the boy or girl question, he confidently answers, “I’m a boy,” despite the fact that this is not the full truth. While I had been stuck dreaming of single-handedly educating everyone around me about non-binary identity on top of doing my job, my friend introduced the pragmatic approach that I needed. I made a mental plan to answer with my preferred binary gender — boy — when students asked.

The next work day, one of the usual suspects approached me with an inquisitive gleam in his eye. After he asked the question, I held his gaze and stated, “I’m a boy.” I felt like a gardener sprinkling seeds from an unlabeled bag, unsure if they would take root much less grow into something worthwhile.

The student simply replied, “okay,” before walking back to his desk. No follow up questions, no furrowed brow, no wide-mouthed disbelief. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Asking for Help

Unfortunately, having to tell my students I am a boy is just one example of hiding my non-binary identity to feel comfortable and safe in my day-to-day life. I am left feeling that non-binary folks are stuck in a catch-22: we will only become visible once people stop believing in the binary, but people will only stop believing in the binary once we — as proof of its fallacy — are visible.

But there may still be hope for change. I image a two-pronged approach to making it possible to subvert the binary. First, as non-binary folks, we must not fight our battles alone. Building relationships, both locally and remotely, helps us engage in mutual support and information sharing. This anthology is a great example of remote connection. In my city, the Seattle Non-Binary Collective helps build relationships between local non-binary folks. Both types of support can help build our capacity to be out as individuals and be seen as a community.

Dismantling the gender binary, however, cannot be done by non-binary people alone. I’m calling in cisgender, and binary trans people, to help. Here’s one example of what allyship looks like. On my first day of work in a middle school classroom, the teacher had everyone introduce themselves using their name and pronouns. This teaches students how to respectfully ask about someone’s gender and saves me the emotional labor necessary to bring up the conversation on my own. Another way to destabilize the binary is to pass along this piece to non-non-binary (ha) friends. Your education is so much more impactful if you use it to inform others.

We will all benefit when the gender binary falls. Without the rigid expectations of masculinity and femininity, we can be truer to ourselves. Take it from a non-binary person; living outside these categories is liberating.

You can follow Alix on Instagram and Twitter @_transing_.
Use the links to donate to
Ingersoll Gender Center or Trans Lifeline.




white, trans/agender, femme often disguised as masc, NW-based. exploring gender beyond traditional narratives. patreon.com/alixperrywriting

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white, trans/agender, femme often disguised as masc, NW-based. exploring gender beyond traditional narratives. patreon.com/alixperrywriting

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