“Did you request the transgender teacher?” my friends inquired after my son was accepted at a small private school with a transgender kindergarten teacher. I explained that while the trans teacher being at the school was one of the reasons why I ultimately chose them to educate my son, I did not know if that teacher in particular was any better than the others. I simply respected the school for having a transgender teacher in a lower school classroom, the way I also looked for racial and socioeconomic diversity. Given that the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey reported that 47 percent of respondents experienced negative job outcomes for being transgender or gender non-conforming, I was pleased to see a gender expansive school and knew that this would also have benefits for my likely cis gender son.
My first encounter with a transgender individual was in college. With an estimated 0.3% of the adult population identifying as transgender, it is not surprising that it took me nearly two decades to know a transgender individual personally. My lab partner at our women’s college was not yet male in name, birth certificate, or expression, but certainly was in identity. His transition would happen years after graduation while I was working as a clinical research assistant at the Mazzoni Center and Attic Youth Center, serving the LGBTQ population in Philadelphia. Officially my role was in a research project focused on intimate partner violence in same-sex couples, but my real focus was in listening to the stories of the patients, especially the lesser known trans patients. I was humbled by how well these people knew themselves and inspired by their courage. I spent the next seven years living in Philadelphia’s proudly named Gayborhood, where my son was born. Five years later he would have a transgender kindergarten teacher navigating him through the A, B, C’s of reading and social justice.
After college, medical school, and residency, I have had many years of experience in choosing academic institutions. One of my favorite interview questions was to ask programs how they handle student input and respond to a changing culture. When more conservative institutions responded inflexibly they were quickly removed from my list. Similarly for my son, I wanted educators that embraced new things, whether people, curriculum, or culture. When at a school with a Pottery Barn furnished lobby and hundred year history, I assumed they would be an intransigent program until meeting a transgender teacher on my tour. If they included a transgender person at the table, who else would they invite? Would there be minorities of race and religion too? I saw this teacher as a beacon for the community, teaching more than reading and writing in kindergarten, but rather tolerance, inclusion, and diversity for the school community as a whole.
A school that would embrace my son for his own uniqueness was a priority for me. Our school choice was not all about a political agenda, but also a personal one. While gender conforming, I thought about all of the other ways he does not conform and the potential for him to be shamed. As a parent, I want to leave him each day knowing that he is safe and accepted, no matter his demographics, individualism, or preferred bathroom. I hoped that he would find himself in a community that felt inclusive; one that would celebrate his singularity while fostering the communality of a small school environment. If nothing else, his kindergarten experience and transgender role model will succeed in teaching him the beauty and bravery in loving oneself and being loved. There is no more fundamental lesson for our children and they are listening.