Too High a Price to Pay? – The Personal Cost of Changing Gender

When ordinary transgender folk tell their stories of transition, the dominant motif is always the inevitably of sacrifice – of what has to be surrendered in order to change sex.  For transsexuals who are not cushioned by inherited wealth or magazine-cover notoriety – or who do not enjoy social acceptance by dint of their serendipitous ability to physically ‘pass’ in their preferred role – life boils down to a terrible choice: dysphoric misery (as suppression leads inexorably to depression) on the one hand; and, on the other, the loss of friends and family, denial of the right to self-efficacy at work, and the suspicion and scorn of disingenuous, lowest-common denominator pundits like Richard Littlejohn and Jeremy Clarkson.  The assumption that such sacrifices are a necessary evil on the road to self-realisation is made with a casual cruelty that legitimises and exacerbates prejudice against transgender people: in the twenty-first century, institutional transphobia remains overt and unchallenged.  (If you don’t believe me, try going for a wizz in Virginia, where the county schoolboard has welcomed an executive order from President Trump that actively discriminates against transgender teenagers.)  The emotional price of gender transition is illustrated nowhere more tellingly – nor more heartbreakingly – than in the January, 2017, ruling by a UK family court judge that a transgender woman should not be granted access to her five children, because to maintain contact with them would adversely affect those children’s treatment in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in which they live.  It is a troubling verdict because the presiding judge has ruled in favour of preserving chauvinism and validating small-mindedness.  The case also serves to remind transgender people of two niggling, perennial questions: why would anyone elect to change their gender when the consequences can be so grave?  And, more fundamentally: why does a change of sex carry such a high social price in the first place?

 

If you’re looking to subscribe to a belief system founded on suspicion of outsiders, fear of divine judgement, and the assumption that the prestige of your peers should depend solely on your adherence to a set of frighteningly irrational, paranoid and intolerant precepts, then you could do much worse than convert to Charedi Judaism.  The Hebrew Bible is unequivocal in its views on homosexuality, for instance: not only does the book of Leviticus twice describe same-sex relationships as “detestable”, it insists (in chapter 20, verse 13) that, “if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind… they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”  The book of Deuteronomy, meanwhile, famously dictates that “A man’s item shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not wear a woman’s garment; whoever does such a thing is an abhorrence unto Adonai” (chapter 22, verse 5), and Judaical belief is rooted firmly in the conviction that to be born in the body of a man requires the individual to live as a man, that being born female carries with it the obligation of living as a woman, and that each gender must play the social and biological role bequeathed it at birth.  And woe betide anyone who touches the carcass of a dead pig, wears clothing woven of more than one kind of cloth, or makes a sacrifice of anything containing yeast and honey.

In January, 2017, an English court ruled against the right of a transgender woman to maintain contact with her children.  The plaintiff (known as J in court documents) left the North Manchester community of strict, Charedi Jews where she’d lived in June, 2015 – just before beginning life as a woman.  J accepted that her marriage must end in order to pursue her desire to transition, but was hoping that, with patience and sensitivity, she would be able to help her five children get used to the idea that dad had changed quite a bit, and thus continue to enjoy at least a sliver of meaningful contact with them.  And so began the legal proceedings necessary to protect J’s right to see her offspring (who, for the record, were aged between two and twelve at the time).

When Justice Peter Jackson delivered his verdict in January, however, he said it was “with real regret” that his decision meant that a loving parent would be denied direct contact with her children:

“Weighing up the profound consequences for the children’s welfare of ordering or not ordering direct contact with their father, I have reached the unwelcome conclusion that the likelihood of the children and their mother being marginalised or excluded by the ultra-orthodox community is so real, and the consequences so great, that this one factor, despite its many disadvantages, must prevail over the many advantages of contact.  I therefore conclude with real regret, knowing the pain that it must cause, that the father’s application for direct contact must be refused.  I reject the bald proposition that seeing the father would be too much for the children. Children are goodhearted and adaptable and, given sensitive support, I am sure that these children could adapt considerably to the changes in their father.  The truth is that for the children to see their father would be too much for the adults.

“I can see no way in which the children could escape the adult reaction to them enjoying anything like an ordinary relationship with their father.  In the final analysis, the gulf between these parents – the mother within the ultra-Orthodox community and the father as a transgender person – is too wide for the children to bridge.  This outcome is not a failure to uphold transgender rights, still less a ‘win’ for the community, but the upholding of the rights of the children to have the least harmful outcome in a situation not of their making.”

In other words, a community of religious fundamentalists – in a western democracy in the twenty-first century – has succeeded in permanently silencing, if not expunging completely, one of its transgressive members.  More shockingly still, the community has achieved this via the chilling process of threatening the ostracism of five of its children.  For anyone interested in replicating this Lord of the Flies style social manoeuvre, it has three essential components.

First, like Cheetham Hill’s Jewish school, wilfully fail to meet the legal obligation to encourage respect for citizens with protected characteristic, such as gender nonconformity (as enshrined if the UK government’s 2014 Education Regulations, and 2010 Equality Act), by ensuring that pupils learn intolerance through a pedagogy designed to guard “their children… against what they regard as the dangers and excesses of modern society” (to quote the beliefs of Rabbi Andrew Oppenheimer, who gave evidence during the case).

Second, the programme of (mis-) education should to be so absolute that youngsters have no knowledge that transgender people even exist.  As the head-teacher of one of J’s children told the court, a child would be subjected to “social isolation” by the entire community if any of their peers were to learn that their father was now a woman; “just hearing about it would be terribly confusing and unsettling”.

And finally, the community must offer witnesses in a court of law who are (in the judge’s words), “clear examples of discrimination and victimisation”, and who provide living, breathing proof of the bigotry and deliberate ignorance that are the central reason the parent should not be granted access to her children.  Amongst the testimony of the birth-mother in the case, several jaw-dropping nuggets stand out which illustrate exactly what this means in practice.  The statement of the head-teacher quoted above also said, “If a child was already in the school, the school would face tremendous pressure from the parent body, private donors and the governors, to suggest that the child find a more suitable educational environment”, whilst a teacher at one of the other children’s schools added, “The school will experience tremendous pressure… not to allocate a place to any child who will bring these potential risks. It would therefore be very difficult for the school to process an application for a child who fits the above description.”  And you needn’t be transgender to find yourself at the brunt of such ire: a fifteen-year-old girl in the same community was ostracised and forced to move schools when word got around that she’d been sexually abused (by, nightmarishly, someone from within the community).  Another local mother (whose ex-husband had fled the cult) attested that her youngest child had been denied a school place “as the school would not risk the influences their father’s contact with the child might have on the rest of the student body…  This is the unfortunate price a child within an ultra-orthodox community pays for the actions of their parent.”  Proof indeed that, in a society that considers itself enlightened (and over three-thousand years since the Old Testament was written), a child can still be punished, quite literally, for the sins of their father.

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Hebrew or She-brew? – Although Biblical transvestites had highly sophisticated tastes in jewellery and frocks, they never quite got their heads around beard removal

Whatever J’s intentions when she initiated court proceedings, there is to be no confronting prejudice and educating ignorance in Manchester’s Charedi community this decade.  The mystery remains, furthermore, over why anyone with even a sliver of doubt about their sexuality or gender identity would choose to subscribe to the tenets of a doctrinaire religion, given that all religious doctrine, without exception, preaches fear and condemnation of any form of sexual difference: Judaism is but one of the many religious sources of transphobic prejudice available to the would-be convert.  J didn’t choose to join a community of zealots and fanatics, however: she elected to escape it.  Life in that community – and, more specifically, the added pressure of suppressing her true identity within such intolerant company – would surely have caused her years of mental anguish.  In 2015, therefore, she realised that she could kid herself no longer, and took the plunge to live as a woman full-time – despite the colossal personal ramifications of such a course of action.

So: why did she do it?  Why did J take a step that may mean (and, ultimately, did mean) losing everything – including the right to parenthood?  The answer is as stark as it is simple: the alternative is much, much worse.  When I took the final step of confirming my gender identity and of leaving my male self behind for good, there was a price to pay.  I lost two teaching jobs in a month – I was made forcibly redundant from my assistant principal post, and then told that the head of high school post I was moving to was no longer mine.  For a brief period, I satisfied myself with classroom teaching posts in either the most liberal or desperate of schools, but my over-qualified ascent up the greasy pole of promotion had very definitely come to an end.  It still came as a shock when it happened, but I was prepared my fall from the career tightrope: if I’d learned one thing in twenty years, it was that, despite their key role in shaping the minds and attitudes of the nation’s youth, schools are startlingly conservative and parochial places.  After much soul-searching, I decided that, if schools didn’t want me, then I didn’t want to be a part of them, either.  Unlike a homosexual Christian, I had no desire to be a part of a club that made no secret of the fact that it didn’t want me.

My transition temporarily wounded both my bank-balance and my self-esteem, but I can’t help thinking that I got off likely.  J from North Manchester has had to give up far more, and he is by no means alone in pursuing a course of action that carried a dire penalty.  For many gender nonconforming people, the road to transition is littered with absent spouses, estranged children, expensive divorces, missed promotions, broken friendships, disgruntled siblings, repossessed houses, disapproving employers and thwarted ambitions.  We know that these are occupational hazards of changing sex, but we transition anyway.

Why do we risk all on what many people dismiss as frivolous caprice? Simply: because transgender isn’t a choice; it’s a need; an urgent, consuming drive to adopt a social role enjoyed by fifty percent of the population as an accident of birth.  Acting to remedy the crippling depression of gender dysphoria may be a conscious decision, but, more often than not, it is the only option we have left.  J knew the perils of transitioning, but did it anyway.  Her actions were not evidence of gross selfishness: on the contrary, J made the ultimate sacrifice in order to save herself from a lifetime of depression that would have caused collateral suffering to everyone around her.  I cannot exaggerate how tormenting it can be to gaze on the gender you want to be from the beneath the skin of the one you wish you weren’t.  I transitioned because I could stand the misery of delaying my transitioning no longer.  I had lost days to debilitating bouts of depression, and couldn’t see why I should anaesthetise myself with anti-depressant medication.  Pursuing more complex (and spurious) therapeutic solutions to my profound disappointment with my social and sexual identity seemed both delusional and ridiculous when the most honest and straightforward solution was staring me in the face: if I was miserable because I wanted to be a woman, then the smartest thing to do, surely, was begin to work towards becoming one.  True womanhood is a destination I can never reach, but remaining steadfastly dedicated to the journey has brought me closer to happiness than any other solution I have – and could have – tried.

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Quitting is for winners! – If doing something makes you miserable, then stop doing it. Durr.

The question remains of why gender transition carries such social stigma, and excites such confused and hysterical responses.  J transitioned from male to female; a fairly humdrum social process, on the face of it, involving a change of role and the renegotiation of relationships.  She didn’t sell drugs to teens, run a paedophile ring, or forget to delete her browsing history, and yet she was expelled from her community as if she was guilty of the most heinous of crimes.  The news that a friend or peer or family member or colleague is transgender continues, despite what we tell ourselves about progress towards tolerance and acceptance, to provoke the most absurd of reactions.  An inability to cope on a conceptual level with transsexuality brings out the worst in a lot of people, and I think the reason for this is a symptom of four faulty assumptions…

  1. Most people don’t understand why some folk want to change their gender. Whilst many of these people don’t let their ignorance bother them, and see no issue with treating transgender people as their equals (albeit as equals with eccentric clothing habits), there are plenty of influential groups and individuals who, rather than allow themselves to be educated (and to see that, actually, you know, just because so-and-so has grown their hair, they aren’t going to sexually assault me), prefer to convince themselves that transgender people are freaks.
  2. Gender transition is seen as a choice that is made as whimsically or impulsively as whether to have Chinese or Indian tonight. Anyone who changes gender, therefore, is seen as weak, or as caving in to an improper desire.  A little of what you like never did anyone any harm, the reasoning goes, so why not limit your sartorial perversions to the privacy of your own home, and go to work dressed in a suit like everyone else?
  3. To many people’s minds, gender transition is too closely associated with sexual gratification for comfort. Problematically, male-to-female transsexuals are motivated to a great degree by trying to forge a comfortable sexual identity for themselves.  But, whilst transition is often psycho-sexual in nature, wanting to feel attractive isn’t quite the same as wanting to go about one’s daily business in a state of permanent sexual arousal.  Transsexuals want the right to enjoy being beautiful – to themselves as much as to others.  Their concept of attractiveness just happens to contradict hegemonic expectations, but that does not mean their motives should be treated as synonymous with getting their rocks off by wearing dresses.
  4. People with the opinions outlined above who hold (or think they ought to hold) gatekeeping positions in our culture – such as teachers, religious fanatics, employers, and so on – assume a specious and unnecessary responsibility for protecting their fellow citizens (and their children) from undesirable influences. Their belief that they must prevent society from slipping into a mire of cross-dressing debauchery is, paradoxically, as strong as the futility and redundancy of their impulse to speak out against transsexuals.  Society has nothing to fear from gender nonconforming people.  We aren’t going to corrupt anyone’s children, slow the birth-rate, spread diseases or lower house prices.  But transphobia (like racism, sexism, ageism, ableism and homophobia) is – because it originates, by definition, from fear – irrational.  More often than not, transphobia is not motivated by hate.  If it were, it would be much easier to condemn and to challenge.  The root of transphobia is generally the erroneous belief that allowing men to become women, and women to become to men, serves to sanction a moral decline from which society can never recover.  Bless.
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Made for each other – Not every couple is lucky enough to receive universal approval for their lifestyle choices

In the face of such opposition, transgender people have every justification for feeling brave for continuing undaunted to live the life we want in the way we want.  It sucks to be ignored, marginalised and abused, but it sucks even more to be depressed about something you’ve always wanted to do, and which huge numbers of your contemporaries take for granted.  Transgender people, furthermore, have to work that little bit harder than our cisgender peers to earn and maintain a trusted and respected place in society, and two extra conditions are usually attached to our acceptance by the world at large.

The first is that social endorsement is linked inextricably to our ability to ‘pass’ convincingly as a biological member of our target gender.  This, in turn, depends upon whatever concept of attractiveness has currently been deemed in vogue by social and media consensus, and holds especially true for male-to-female transsexuals.  If you can look glamorous and/or sexy; if you can afford expensive clothes, be invited to the right parties, and depend upon the necessary connections; then you stand a greater chance of avoiding alienation and isolation.  Heaven help the transsexual who is not able (either through lack of funds for the necessary surgery, or from being cursed with shoulders, hands and hips that will never look anything other than male) to present a glitzy or alluring face to the public: no-one, but no-one, is interested in reading interviews with, or in seeing photos or YouTube clips of, them.

An obsession with a particular type of transgender woman, moreover, contributes to harmful stereotypes of what constitutes femininity.  Gender nonconformity ought to confront preconceptions of sexuality and raise unsettling questions about the nature of beauty, but if social validation is only granted to male-to-female transsexuals who pander to a narrow definition of red-carpet womanhood, then transsexuals are lying to themselves if they think they are challenging gender stereotypes and the harmful expectation that all women need to be skinny and elegant, and to trade on their sexuality.

The only other means of avoiding the exchange of depression and confusion for penury, unemployment and loneliness, is the presence of a supportive partner: a wife or girlfriend, I mean, who is either ‘into’ the idea of having a transgender spouse, or who is at least willing to put up with having a husband who takes longer in the bathroom than they do (because, when they said, “for better; for worse”, they meant it).  There is no doubt that the presence of a partner buys a transsexual an enormous amount of immunity from censure and abuse: “Well,” onlookers reason, “if they’ve got a boyfriend or girlfriend, they must be alright under all that make-up.”

Both these options seem to have an attendant whiff of crappiness about them – not least because they reinforce reductive, heteronormative concepts of the nature of beauty, and of what is, and is not, a permissible family unit.  Still: one step at a time.  It’s only been 3400 years since Moses chiselled the book of Deuteronomy into a stone tablet.

 

Further details on the case of the transgender woman who lost everything due to the reactionary, Old Testament beliefs of her Jewish community, can be gleaned here…                                                                                                          https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/j-v-b-and-the-children.pdf

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Great Gender-Benders from History, Volume One: Le Chevalier Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont

There are those who will tell you that The Beaumont Society is a UK charity and support group for transgender people that aims “to promote and assist the study of gender differences”.  There are others who will attempt to explain that it was founded in 1966 with the aim of establishing “an association for the transgender community to facilitate mutual support and communication in order to improve the health, emotional well-being and confidence of transgender people”.  A third group will even maintain that the Society contributes to a “better understanding of the conditions of transgender, transvestism and gender dysphoria in society”, and that, for a mere £35 a year, you, too, could be a part of the work it does to “educate lay and professional groups about transgenderism” and “its associated issues”.  But don’t believe a word of it.  The Beaumont Society is a social club for middle-aged, heterosexual transvestites, that is, criminally, “not [even] available for sexual liaisons”.  It is named after the French eighteenth-century soldier, diplomat and spy, Le Chevalier Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont, and, this month, I kick of my occasional series of posts exploring the lives and careers of great gender-benders from history with a look at the legacy of this relatively insignificant monarchist and eccentric, who gave his name not only to a little-used euphemism for transvestites (‘eonists’, in case you were wondering), but also to a clandestine, London-based knitting-circle for nocturnal crossdressers.

 

Charles d’Eon de Beaumont was born in 1728.  Throughout his infancy and early childhood, his mother – as was the custom – dressed him as a girl.  He adopted male attire in his youth and early twenties, but his formative sartorial experiences must have left their mark on his psyche, because, when he was sent to the Court of the Empress Elizabeth in St Petersburg as a spy in 1755, he chose to present himself dressed as a woman, and adopt the pseudonym Madame Lia de Beaumont.  His mission to Russia on behalf of the French government was a diplomatic success, but the experience of public crossdressing evidently deepened the Chevalier’s taste for drag.

Upon his return from Russia, Beaumont began a promising military career.  He commanded a company of dragoons, but his flair for disguise and dissimilation soon resulted in his recall to the French secret service, and, in 1762, he was dispatched to London.  Once there, however, his impetuous and extravagant behaviour resulted in the French ambassador petitioning Louis XV to summon d’Eon back to France.  The UK capital must have won a place in d’Eon’s heart, however, because he refused to obey his king’s behest: he broke off relations with the French diplomatic corps, and remained defiantly where he was.

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Easily Fooled – Thomas Stewart’s 1792 portrait of Charles de Beaumont was airily dismissed as the anonymous ‘Portrait of a Woman with a Feather in her Hat’, until the slightly butch appearance and tell-tale five o’clock shadow promoted a reassessment of the painting in 2012

The new king, Louis XVI, sent his envoy, Beaumarchais, to London to make peace with Beaumont, but the Chevalier succeeded in convincing Beaumarchais (who was by no means a stupid man) that he was actually a woman trapped in male clothes, and the victim of a devious plot to indenture him to French service, under threat of arrest and execution.  Beaumarchais was undeterred by d’Eon’s protestations, though, and remained insistent that the Chevalier return to Paris with him.  Beaumont finally caved in 1777, but it was as a woman that he returned to his native country.

Contemporary accounts suggest that the Chevalier’s permanent state of transvestism did not go unnoticed – and unremarked.  When he was presented at Court, his awkwardness and inelegance made people less than comfortable:

“The long tail of her dress and the three types of ruffles contrast so ill with the attitudes and quips of a grenadier that the effect is one of low company.”

Beaumont was not happy with the scrutiny and disapproval he encountered in France, and he returned to England in 1785 – still dressed as a woman.  For a while, he was accepted as an eccentric figure in London society, but recurring financial problems prompted him to take up a new career as a female fencer.  Like most sporting lives, of course, Beaumont’s life as a duellist could not continue indefinitely, and his later life was lived in relative poverty, melancholy and loneliness.  In his private diary for the period, he chooses to refer to himself throughout using the first-person feminine pronoun.  So thorough was his assumption of female role that most people began to assume he was a woman, and rumours circulated that the tales of his early career as a man were a fabrication.  It appears as if d’Eon even convinced himself that that was the case, and yet, when his corpse was finally laid out following his death in 1810, the body was undoubtedly that of an octogenarian male.

The Chevalier d’Eon inspires me to a mixture of admiration and pity.  It is tempting to envy him the freedom he was granted by his birth, position and ability to pass as a woman – living full-time in female role in the suspicious and uncertain climate of revolutionary France would have been all but impossible if it weren’t for his noble birth.  His tragic and erratic personality, however – his apparent oscillation between the paranoiac and the threatening; the vindictive and the placatory – makes him a strange role-model for the Beaumont Society to choose.  At times, D’Eon could be a sullen and petulant male who was quick to take offence; whilst, at others, he behaved like an aggressive, wisecracking female.  His transvestism – and the contradictory attitudes held about it by the society in which he moved – drove him a little potty, no two ways about it.  Is this the sort of mental quagmire the Beaumont Society seeks to cultivate amongst its members?  The Chevalier d’Eon was rendered so unsure of his gender identity that he retreated into a duplicitous, neurotic secrecy that ultimately forced him to reject the attention and approval his diary testifies he so desperately craved:

“Man or woman?  I am none the better nor the worse…  I have been the plaything of Nature…  I have gone through all the strange vicissitudes of the human condition.”

Who in their right mind would want to be like him?

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It’s been out of print since 1979, but, if you can find a copy, Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Dressing Up’ provides as comprehensive a low-down on the Chevalier de Beaumont as you could hope for

The website of The Beaumont Society can be visited here… http://www.beaumontsociety.org.uk/

Must Try Harder – A Critique of American Teachers’ Attitudes to their Transgender Colleagues

On January 19th, a website for American teachers and school administrators called ‘Education Week’ published an abridged version of my blog posting ‘When Sir becomes Miss – How I Ruined my Teaching Career by Changing Gender’ on their forum ‘Finding Common Ground’.  My article describes how the affirming and empowering experience of informing pupils and their parents about my transition turned sour when my employers – and the heads of other schools to which I applied – subsequently treated me in a way I can only describe as discriminatory.  My professional experience post-transition led me to question the assumption that LGBT awareness-raising initiatives in schools need to be targeted at students, and my article argues that the narrowest minds and most entrenched prejudice against transgender teachers exist at the level of school management, not amongst children; it is the adults who lead schools who require the greatest support to bring reality into line with the rhetoric of inclusiveness, equality and the fulfilment of dreams that permeates their institutions’ promotional literature.  I go on to suggest that the appointment practices of school leaders are conservative to the point of prejudicial, and hypothesise that this is a symptom of the machismo culture of school management, and those managers’ unimaginative response to accountability pressures from parents and national government.  I wanted to embarrass school leaders to reflect on staffing decisions they make based on fear and confusion, and to observe that a diverse teaching force is necessary in order to promote tolerance and understanding amongst young people.  (The most resonant factor for shaping the attitudes of adolescents is the presence of role-models who are involved in their everyday lives; when children see that their teacher cares about them, teaches interesting lessons and helps them succeed, the fact that that teacher is transgender ceases to be a social barrier.) When my article was published for an audience of American educators, it provoked a reaction that surprised me, but it wasn’t the sentiments expressed by respondents that caught me off guard (which constituted an ill-informed but predictable cocktail of old-testament nonsense and attempted social engineering). What struck me most about the comments posted in reaction to my blog was that they existed at all – that people with no apparent reason to care about a colleague’s gender history had such strong views about me. I think that the compulsion for otherwise sane people to voice bigoted opinions on matters of sex and gender is something that demands further analysis…

 

My original article, ‘When Sir becomes Miss’, concerned itself with the knee-jerk prejudice of teachers – people about whom, I had learned, it is wrong to assume a natural predisposition to magnanimity and tolerance. My blog stirred up a miniature furore of hectoring didacticism and gloating I-told-you-so disapproval, but if the comments posted in the wake of my blog are indicative of the attitudes of society generally, then it would seem that the image of transgender people in popular consciousness has moved on very little from pantomime dames or Victorian musical-hall drag acts.  Accordingly, many subscribers to the ‘Education Week’ forum seemed unwilling to (or incapable of) conceptualising transgenderism as anything more complex than an elaborate form of dressing-up:

“If I held a series of assemblies to tell… students of my intentions to come to school dressed in a Wookiee costume (because it ‘felt right for me’) for the rest of my career, I would not have any expectations of anyone to support that.”

Wookiees were not the only under-represented group to be dragged into this game of comedic simile-making.  “Would it be okay if I start dressing like a Nazi SS trooper while I teach?” one respondent asked, whilst others likened being transgender to demanding the right to come to school in a clown costume, or to “declaring myself a nature lover” in order to “go about nude” at work.

The underlying assumption of these misleading and self-satisfied swipes is that gender transition is a choice; an enactment of a fantasy to dress-up and pretend to be someone else.  It is an assumption which invites two related speculations.  First: whilst no-one objects to the right of another individual to play-act and put on a costume (or change gender, as I prefer to call it) per se, there was a shared belief amongst my respondents that I needed to accept that the consequences of my ‘choice’ were likely to be social isolation, rejection, and unemployment.  “You make a choice, you have to live with it!” was the pithiest summation of this view, along with the pitiless admonition that I “should have known the probable consequences” of my actions, and so I “can’t complain now.”  Other respondents demanded to know why I was conceited enough to “expect society to approve of your personal decision”; why it was “incumbent on the rest of the world to support your personal decision”; and why I would presume “that the twenty-first century is a time of so much freedom that people have to accept all personal choices”.  I won’t cite every finger-wagging rebuke that rang with this ill-informed leitmotif, but it would be remiss of me not to share the following paragraph, which so steeped in the clichés of the Louisiana pulpit that it would be funny were it not the product of an actual human mind:

It is you, not the kids or adults that needs to grow up and not expect society to bend themselves into pretzels to accommodate your mental problems. Get help, man! You have a wife, you are equipped as a man, you need to stay in the role. Maybe your testosterone levels have prematurely declined? Maybe you were abused as a child, or someone dressed you as a girl for their amusement? Get help!”

The second aspect of these impassioned comments that requires unpacking is, of course, the question of how much being transgender is a personal choice.  When I was being lifted off the bathroom floor after collapsing in a nervous heap for the fifth Sunday in a row; when I was wiping away tears so I could read the label on a bottle of anti-depressants; when I was fighting the urge to run from my own wedding because I wanted to be the one in the dress, changing gender didn’t seem like much of choice.  When I was finally lucky enough to get the emotional support I needed, my options were either to stay suicidally miserable, or change my life.  Having lost so many days to depression and mania, I know how flippantly asinine it is to compare my ‘choice’ to dressing as a clown or wearing a Wookiee suit.  If an analogy is needed to describe my feelings before transition, then I would suggest comparing my sense of unfulfillable longing to compulsive disorders like self-harming and anorexia; as something I needed to do in order to feel as if I had some control over my life.  It was society, I felt, that had created the role occupied by women, and society, therefore, that was responsible for my drive to seek a similar role for myself.

I would not dispute that it is a choice to come out as transgender, and to start living full-time in one’s preferred gender role, but it is not one that is taken lightly.  The risks of alienation, rejection, friendlessness, stigma, penury and redundancy (not to mention physical harm) are enormous: societal attitudes and privilege are stacked very heavily in favour of binary distinctions of gender (and for men in particular), so no-one transitions without being mindful of the sacrifices they will need to make as a result.  What seems so casually cruel about the sentiments of my American readers, however, is that the loss of privilege I experienced was somehow deserved.

Deuteronomy Frame
Bohemian, bon vivant, and all-round biblical wild-child, Deuteronomy, issues yet another of his ironically hilarious edicts about personal freedom and the right to happiness

I was especially intrigued by the debate my respondents had over whether I was transsexual or transgender.  Until that point, I had taken it for granted that the differentiation between these labels was one of semantics rather than sociology, but a specific biological distinction between the two terms seemed important to the teachers commenting on my blog. “Transgender refers to a preference, an identification”, wrote one respondent, “whereas transsexual refers to a person who emotionally and psychologically feels that they belong to the opposite sex.” In another comment, to be transgender means to “act on your preferences” to dress and act like a woman, whilst transsexuality is “a birth condition”. An inability to distinguish between the two “clearly shows your ignorance”, because “you cannot substitute transsexual for transgender. THEY ARE NOT THE SAME!!”

It is difficult to subscribe to a definition of what I am imposed on me by someone else, and especially to one that is predicated on the degree to which I chose to be this way. Indeed, I would propose that the term ‘transsexual’ is too strongly associated with genital surgery to be palatably suitable for describing anybody. If medical precision is required, ‘transsexual’ may serve as a subcategory of the umbrella term ‘transgender’, which, in turn, more adequately captures the sense that gender is a phenomenon socially enacted on a broad and fluid continuum. The alternative to this definition would designate ‘transgender’ as a lesser form of transsexuality; the implication being that a transgender person is a more committed form of transvestite, but still someone who – because of fear, laziness, lack of funds, or a selfish wish to have their cake and eat it – has yet to have the operation that would allow them to graduate to full transsexualhood.

Studying the responses to my article, it is tempting to think that my readership would have been more sympathetic to my plight if I had clearly stated that I was gender dysphoric (a label which, for reasons I cannot figure, is written in capital letters by every ‘Education Week’ contributor who uses it):

“GENDER DYSPOHORIA [sic] refers to the mismatch between sex and gender identity, and it can lead to distressing and uncomfortable feelings. It is a recognised medical condition, for which treatment is sometimes appropriate, although some experts define it as the condition of feeling one’s emotional and psychological identity as male or female to be opposite to one’s biological sex. Of course, recognizing gender dysphoria as a condition is controversial, because it implies that it can be cured, either as a medical condition or a psychological disorder. What do YOU suffer from, the medical condition or the psychological disorder?”

“There’s a fair degree of penetrance going on within the phenomena of transsexualism,” another comment asserts: a biological condition if there ever was one.” If there ever was one, indeed. Rather than choosing an empowering word like ‘transgender’ to describe myself, it looks uncomfortably as if I would have garnered greater social understanding (and approval for my ‘choices’) if I had allowed my gender to be medicalised by defining myself in relation to a surgical procedure, or by appealing to people’s pity by complaining of being ‘gender dysphoric’. (The trouble with that moniker is that I stopped being ‘dysphoric’ when I transitioned: I’m not confused about which gender I want to be, and I have left most of my distress, anxiety and depression behind.)

Kilts Frame
Only the finest legal and clinical minds are capable of discerning the subtle differences between patients who are transsexual, and those who are merely transgender

I do not venture to adumbrate what operations I may or may not have had in my ‘When Sir becomes Miss’ article, but that does not stop my respondents drawing their own clumsy conclusions about the contents of my pants:

“Semantics is not where it’s at. I have personally known individuals with GENDER DYSPHORIA. There’s one term for you. Get busy and stop screaming at the world, please.”

Without the legitimising stamp of proof that I have undergone full genital surgery, one commentator will not refer to me as anything other than ‘Mr Robinson’, and resolutely refuses to employ the feminine pronoun to talk about me.  With alarming presumption, another respondent demands, “If he wants to be a woman, let him change sex!”  Because I self-identify as transgender in my article (rather than transsexual), it is assumed that I have done nothing to adopt a female identity other than “make the choice to dress and look like the opposite sex”. Nowhere is there any indication that my readers have considered a legal, political or cultural definition of what it means to be female (such as a letter F in my passport, which bathroom I use, the quantity of oestrogen pumping around my bloodstream, or – quite simply – how people treat me). On ‘Education Week’, gender is reduced to a question of which set of naughty-parts one has (irrespective of whether or not one was born with them), which, fortuitously, leaves me with a surfeit of terms for describing respondents obsessed with telling me whether I am transsexual, transgender or (capital letters, please…) GENDER DYSPOHORIC [sic].

I can think of no other group for whom it would be considered acceptable (or even good manners) to compel to self-identify and self-define in a particular way – to say, “You are not that; you are this” – but that is precisely what many people who commented on my blog presumed to do. I choose to think of myself as transgender because it is a linguistically convenient term that grants people the conceptual comfort of being able to pigeonhole me without obsessing over what I may (or may not) have chosen to do with my genitals. Similarly, I use the term ‘cisgender’ solely as a linguistic convenience – a term with no meaningful application beyond its use as sociological shorthand for someone who identifies with the gender congruent with their biological sex as determined at birth.

Star of David Frame
There are, of course, no historical precedents to suggest that the imposition of labels on groups of people has any stigmatising or dehumanising effect

I shared my story on the ‘Education Week’ website because I thought it was interesting and had a straightforward – albeit important – moral. I didn’t expect any reaction beyond a half-hearted thank you for offering my penn’orth. So why did people bother commenting at all, let alone use the ‘Finding Common Ground’ chatroom to satisfy an impulse to categorise and judge me? What is it about matters of sexuality and gender identity that provokes such strong feelings; and what is it about transsexualism in particular that incites commentators to claim the moral right to issue proclamations about how much I deserved the workplace discrimination I encountered? And why are these social edicts delivered with such passion and outrage?

It could be the deep-rooted conservatism of the teaching profession (which is naturally biased towards preserving its own status quo through its unadventurous recruitment practices) that arouses such suspicion of transsexuals. As I show in my own masterful PhD thesis, teachers are predisposed to avoid change that unsettles them, and they prefer the splendid isolation of their classrooms to collaborative working models because autonomy allows them to minimise the risks of feeling overburdened and of having their pursuit of short-term job-satisfaction thwarted. To this summation of the culture of the teaching profession, I would now add teachers’ belief in their own undeviating moral rectitude. Teachers should not (they believe) form a rich tapestry of variegated personality types, political outlooks and social proclivities in order to model the heterogeneous nature of society: instead, they should be shibboleths of a fictional state of stable normality; paragons of a virtue that has never existed; hypocrites, in other words.

I could point out how alarming it is that my respondents are responsible for shaping the attitudes of a nation’s children, and that what they say and do can have a formative influence on the young hearts and minds they encounter every day in their classrooms. I should worry about what these teachers would do if a student approached them to confide their own discomfort about gender, but, happily, I can let two of my respondents do that for me:

“I have met students who are straight, gay, bi, and struggling with transgender issues… Do you think they should have appropriate and supportive guidance by their families, friends, and school communities? I wonder, should they have appropriate role-models that identify as they do?”

“[These are] kids who may be driven to suicide because they don’t fit in, they’re scared AND because their identity is being defined as a ‘choice’ and compared to a ‘clown’.”

It is easy to make fun of the hysterical comments of the handful of crackpots who read my blog on ‘Finding Common Ground’. American high-school teachers comprise an insular (and harmless) social group. Provided they have the common-sense not to espouse their transphobic views in front of their students, then they can do little harm: if their ranting about my blog serves a therapeutic function, then who I am to offer censure? When identical sentiments are expressed by public figures, however, they become more insidious because they gain the power to promulgate bigotry and provoke hatred. During an interview on the BBC’s Newsnight programme in October 2015, Germaine Greer maintained that, whilst she wouldn’t deny any transsexual the right to gender-reassignment surgery, “a very great many women don’t think that post-operative or even non post-operative transsexual – M-to-F transsexual – people look like, sound like, or behave like women”, and that social mores mean “they daren’t say so.”

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph in January 2016, Barry Humphries – apropos of nothing – said that a male-to-female transsexual shouldn’t think of themselves as having transformed into a woman, but of having become “a mutilated man, that’s all.”  In an article for The Sunday Times (January 2016), Jeremy Clarkson wrote that “men who want to be women” were an insignificant minority “only really to be found on the internet or in the seedier bits of Bangkok”, and who were “nothing more than the punchline in a stag night anecdote.”

(Bafflingly, Jeremy Clarkson has a considerable cult following.  His brand of racist, sexist, homophobic bullying is considered by many to constitute a refreshing voice in a UK media obsessed with political correctness.  Whilst he has to peddle his moronic persona in order to stay famous, he is nothing other than odious and infantile.  His article is toxic and ridiculous, not a necessary envelope-pushing palliative to a mythical culture that has outlawed the singing of ‘Baa-baa Black Sheep’, the sale of curved bananas, and the freedom to refer openly to gollywogs, blackboards and Christmas.)

It is interesting to observe that Greer’s, Humphries’ and Clarkson’s pronouncements are concerned with exactly the same three themes as my respondents on ‘Finding Common Ground’, namely:

  1. A need to label transgender people, and to deny them the right to choose how they label themselves (most notably, by prohibiting male-to-female transsexuals from calling themselves women).
  2. The assertion that gender transition is a choice, the consequence of which should be self-imposed marginalisation and withdrawal (and perhaps a change of career from teacher to hostess in a Bangkok nightclub).
  3. Shock at the effrontery of the transgender community to dare to expect society to accept difference, safeguard the principle of equality, and accommodate the desire of all its members to live healthy and happy lives; to find paid employment and have aspirations commensurate with their skills and qualifications; and to walk down the street without being screamed at.
Exclusion Frame
Exclusion and social alienation: no laughing matter

The compulsion to issue proclamations about transgender people is evidently a powerful one.  It may appear perplexing and redundant – like someone who isn’t an old-testament patriarch objecting to gay marriage – but, evidently, my very presence as a transgender person excites an impulse to comment that borders on the pathological (or even sacerdotal).  Obviously, the very fact of my transition is perceived as having the potential to do social harm, and some groups go as far as to think that my alienation and isolation is necessary to protect schoolchildren from being afraid of – and confused by – their transgender teacher.  Transgenderism is, we must remember, an air-borne virus with the ability to infect anyone who comes into contact with it.  As more and more children are contaminated, the numbers succumbing to the desire to wear dresses and put on make-up will grow at an exponential rate.  Menswear shops will be forced to close.  The economic consequences will be ruinous.

I would never compare transphobia to the on-going struggle for equality between the sexes, sexualities, and different ethnic and religious groups.  Transgender people are not being sold into indentured servitude, nor rounded-up and penned into ghettoes, and it would be presumptuous and offensive to draw any parallels between my situation and historical struggles against hatred and discrimination.  However: the question remains regarding why people who are otherwise not in the least affected by us have such strong opinions about transgender people.  I suspect that it is because people do not like difference.  My presence (and that of others like me) is an in-your-face reminder of how stultified and inhibited many people’s identities are: transgender people are the butt of so much dislike, distrust, anger and fear because people are angry and resentful about the refusal to conform to social strictures that we represent.  Transgender people threaten established social norms, and excluding us from cultural, political and economic life is a convenient way for insiders to strengthen their own sense of conformity and acceptance, and to silence our demand to be different.

The resulting anger against transgender people isn’t always limited to the incoherent ranting of crackpots on internet forums: unchecked, it can lead to expressions of hatred and incitements to violence.  It is resentment about the ability of transgender people to rise above societal expectations of sex and gender that leads, I think, to the acts of violence and murder that have been committed against the gender non-conforming community.  To remember but a few…

  • Brandon Teena: raped and murdered in December 1993 by two male friends after they found out that Brandon had not been assigned male at birth;
  • Rita Hester: murdered in Massachusetts in November 1998, and commemorated on the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance;
  • Human-rights lawyer Sonia (née David) Burgess: pushed under a London Underground train in October 2010;
  • Transgender prostitute Dee Dee Pierson: killed by a client on Christmas Eve, 2011, when he discovered that Dee Dee was not a biological woman;
  • Mexican transgender activist Agnes Torres: murdered in 2012;
  • Trans-man and rapper Evon Young: tortured and murdered in January 2013 by a group of five Milwaukee men;
  • Keeta Bakhsh: beaten to death by police in Pakistan in October 2014;
  • Twenty-two year-old Bri Golec from Ohio: stabbed to death by her father in February 2015;
  • American expat Vanessa Santillan: beaten to death in London after responding to a neighbour’s phone call in March 2015;
  • Amber Monroe: died of gunshot wounds in Michigan in August 2015 – it was the third time she had been shot;
  • Aspiring fashion designer Keisha Jenkins: becomes the twenty-first transgender woman to be murdered in America in 2015 when she is beaten and shot by six men;
  • Twenty-one year-old Vicky Thompson: died in an all-male prison in West Yorkshire, England, in autumn 2015;
  • Yoshi Tsuchida: found mutilated and murdered in his Tokyo apartment in November 2015.

As I started this posting by examining the responses of American educators to my article about transgender teachers, it seems only fitting to leave the last word to one of them:

“This is really a sad conversation for many reasons. The original post is a cautionary tale. Abigail Robinson assumed the hits would come from one direction, but they came from another. Whatever the moral imperatives are, the real-world consequences of her actions are clear.”

 

‘When Sir Becomes Miss – How I Ruined my Teaching Career by Changing Gender’ (and the responses it provoked) can be read in its partially denuded state at…http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/finding_common_ground/2016/01/how_i_ruined_my_teaching_career_by_changing_gender.html

It has been edited almost to the point of misrepresentation, and additionally published – complete with its squeamishly sanitised title – on the website of the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (BELMAS).  This version can be compared to its predecessors here… https://www.belmas.org.uk/BELMAS-Blog/when-sir-becomes-miss-how-i-ruined-my-teaching-career-by-changing-gender

When Sir becomes Miss – How I Ruined my Teaching Career by Changing Gender

I graduated from a small teaching college attached to Lancaster University with first class honours in 1996.  I worked as a primary school teacher for three years before leaving to be head of English at a prestigious preparatory school in Nairobi.  After a year back in the UK, I became head of house at an international school in Mexico City.  Following that adventure, I moved to London as a secondary school English teacher, where I was promoted through middle- and senior-leadership at the same time as studying for an MA; gaining a doctorate in sociology from University College London; and completing the startlingly parochial National Professional Qualification for Headship – a diploma stating that I would, on the day I graduated, be ready to manage my own school within eighteen months.  I had enjoyed a smooth (if not exactly meteoric) rise to greatness within my chosen profession; I was confident in my abilities; and I thought that I had varied and exciting options about what I could do next…  But then my career came to an abrupt and ignominious halt.  In February 2014, I decided I was ready to live full-time in female role and ‘came out’ at school.  The process went swimmingly: I managed it with consummate skill (even if I do say so myself), but, soon after, I was included in a round of compulsory redundancies at the west London school where I was an assistant head-teacher.  Suddenly, I found myself able only to find supply teaching work in schools that hadn’t been told in advance about my gender history, and which, therefore, hadn’t had the chance to turn me away before I got to the school gates.  After twenty years of (pretty much) being offered every job I applied for, I was now finding out what it felt like to be excluded from the career to which I had dedicated almost twenty years.  Am I still bitter about it?  Not ’alf!  Am I still baffled by my spectacular fall from favour?  Not as much as I was, and in this blog entry, I hope some therapeutic venting will address why I think it is that, in the twenty-first century, transgender teachers face considerable professional discrimination – not from pupils, I should add, but from the adults who manage schools.

 

It was testimony to the esteem with which I was held at the school where I held my most recent full-time teaching post, I like to think, that my first day as ‘Miss Robinson’ was such an anti-climax.  In the last few days before the previous half-term holiday, I had held a series of assemblies with the school’s 1,200 students to tell them of my intentions.  I invited them to think about people they might have seen in the media who had changed from male to female (or vice versa), and told them that I was one of those people.  I explained that this merely meant that I wanted to start dressing like a woman, and that I wanted the children to get used to calling me Miss instead of Sir.  Nothing else was required of them, I said, except to continue to work hard in my lessons; trust me to teach them as well as I always had; and show me the respect they had throughout the five years I had worked at the school.  By way of a finale, I pointed out the protection from discrimination granted me under European law, and bade them a good holiday.  The children applauded.  Seriously.  Not the stilted, slow clap of a bored audience, but an actual ovation; a display of support and admiration for my courage and honesty, and of gratitude for the faith I had placed in them to embrace difference and accept me as I am.

Advice for school managers in a Times Educational Supplement article of May 2013 (which can be read at www.tes.com/article.aspx?storycode=6332441) recommends that transgender teachers absent themselves for the last couple of weeks of term.  By taking the actual teacher out of the picture, the TES suggests, a head-teacher can inform students and staff in circumstances where the likelihood of press attention is reduced, opportunities for the member of staff in question to be subjected to uncomfortable questioning by pupils (and their parents) can be negated, and, consequently, there is much less potential for harmful gossip to circulate.  I was eager to do the telling myself, however: after all, I was the one who was making the transition, and that, I remain convinced, put me in the best position to control the official line on what I was doing.  By making sure the message came directly from me, I was able to ensure that the signals given were the right ones.  By trading on my existing popularity at the school, furthermore, I was also able to deflate any disapproval of my decision.

Informing the students and their parents of my wish to start coming to work in female role was the last step in a process that began with me consulting a solicitor specialising in employment law about the accepted way of fulfilling my intentions.  For a fee (of course), that solicitor talked me through what I should say when dealing with parents, school governors, officials from the local education authority and my head-teacher, and told me which legal precedents and protections I should refer to during any conversations I would be having about my decision to transition.  I also grew my hair, pierced my ears, occasionally wore nail polish to work, and started taking feminising hormones, so the actual announcement of my transition came as a surprise only to the least observant of my students and colleagues.

Training B
Drag queens are drafted into British schools to take teachers through a rigorous training programme of transgender awareness

I contacted my trades union representative and the head of human resources from the local council, and arranged for both of them to be present at a meeting with the head-teacher.  At this meeting, I told them what I wanted to do and outlined the process of communication with the school community as I saw it working best.  I drafted a letter to parents containing the same assurances and citations of European law that I would make when I held assemblies with pupils, and set the process in motion with an announcement to the teaching staff one Monday after the children had all gone home.  (During this meeting, I found myself in the new and vaguely embarrassing position of needing to explain which toilet I would use.  In some American states, a student can legally carry a gun on their college campus; in England, the government is about to grant itself access to every citizen’s internet browsing history; but heaven forfend a transgender woman who tries to use a ladies’ public convenience.)

It would be naïve to assume that I was liked by everyone in an organisation as large as an English high school (or, indeed, to think that everyone cared), but the response to what people called my honesty and courage was so positive – so kind and so open – that I felt, for want of a better word, loved.  Only one parent called the school to complain, and even their ire fizzled out fairly quickly; I received letters of support from students that I will keep and cherish; and, on the first day of the summer term, Miss Robinson started work without experiencing any of the teenage unpleasantness that many of my colleagues had feared.

When my name was included in a round of redundancies, therefore, why didn’t I sue for unfair dismissal?  The school governors were canny about that: they offered a pay-out equal to slightly more than the amount of money I would have taken home had I successfully taken my head-teacher to a tribunal, and I was nervous of acquiring the reputation as the one who sues – which would, I feared, guarantee that I would never find employment in a school again.  When it came to a choice between scoring a moral victory and taking the money and running, I felt I needed the exercise.

When, after taking a two-month mini-sabbatical to finish my doctoral thesis, I threw myself earnestly into trying to find a job, I had a bit of a shock.  For almost twenty years, I had had the teaching world at my feet: I rarely applied for a post I didn’t get; had collected qualifications like a diva collects handbags, and used them to teach my way across continents.  In September 2014, though, all that changed.  It wasn’t just that I would be interviewed for a classroom teaching post – often teaching dazzlingly good lessons as part of the selection process – only to be turned down that upset me.  It wasn’t just that I’d be vetted via Skype by school managers for posts overseas and, irrespective of how capable, qualified and competent I showed myself to be, fail to secure the post.  What irked, more often than not, was not hearing whether I’d been appointed or not until I badgered them for an answer!  I was invited for interview by every school that received my CV, but, when they met me, they couldn’t turn me down fast enough – if they bothered to communicate with me at all following the interview, that is.

Line-up B
Pick me! – Candidates line up in the hope of securing a much-coveted teaching post in west London

An (ex-) friend of mine who is head of a private school in Spain was frank enough to tell me exactly why my offer of employment there was withdrawn when he realised that I’d changed quite a bit since he’d last seen me.  The issue, he said, was that parental disapproval of having their children taught by a gender deviant could lead to them taking those children out of the school, and, for a fee-paying institution, that would lead to a significant loss of income.  Why parents might object to their offspring having a transgender teacher (whatever that teacher’s abilities) is a more complex issue to unravel, but I suspect it has something to do with the nature of transgenderism itself: because gender is something we enact through our choices of clothing and behaviour (as opposed to biological sex, which is an internal phenomenon), transgender is easily interpreted as something you do rather than something you are.  By that twisted logic, it follows that, if a biological man wants to wear dresses, then there must be something wrong with that biological man, and who knows what other forms of deviance they might be capable of?  This is the epitome of transphobia – the mistaken belief that children need protecting from transgender adults – and I got a real taste of what it is like to be the victim of discrimination.

By persisting in my search for work, I did find myself in the right place at the right time on a couple of occasions.  I spent a very happy term at a primary school in north London before moving to a secondary school just inside the M25.  I was no longer in positions congruent with my qualifications and experience, but I was daring to believe that I might not have turned myself into as great a professional pariah as I’d feared.  I was fortunate enough to work for a head of English who still clung to enough of her seventies’ hippy bohemianism not to mind when the supply agency through which I had found the post had told her they were sending a transgender person to the school.

…Wait: what?

Even remembering, a year later, what the head of English told me next causes me a shiver of anger and disbelief: an agent from Prospero Teaching (of 6-8 Long Lane, London, EC1A 9HF) had given the school the option of overlooking my application on the grounds that I was transgender so they could avoid making an appointment they might regret.  To compound this appalling gesture with cant of spectacular insincerity, another agent from Prospero Teaching (of 6-8 Long Lane, London, EC1A 9HF) later contacted me to ask if I would be willing to participate in a focus group for developing the company’s LGBT policy.  Crikey.  It astonishes me that people of such crass hypocrisy are allowed access to a telephone.

It is difficult to think of a comparable situation where that sort of knowledge about someone should, on moral or practical grounds, be shared.  I suppose if I was a wheelchair user, or if I was bringing my guide-dog with me, the school would have needed to make a material accommodation to my needs; but I’m not, and I wasn’t.  Indeed, the inference that being transgender is somehow disabling is offensive to every group implicated in such a suggestion.  Would the school have been forewarned in such a way if I had been diabetic, colour-blind, or Canadian?  Of course not, but the agent’s behaviour wasn’t just disappointing (and, I suspect, illegal): it was an uncomfortable reminder that I was not born a woman, and proof that, in some corners of the society in which I live and work, I’m still not – and probably never will be – perceived as female.

(I turned down the invitation to join the focus group.  I realised that I want to normalise my gender identity as much as I can, and to participate in a working party in which my transgenderism is taken as the most salient thing about me would be a retrograde step on my ongoing journey of transition, I reckon.)

Whisper B
An agent from Prospero Teaching Agency (of 6-8 Long Lane, London, EC1A 9HF) does her professional duty by telling potential employers about my gender history

British schools work very hard to project themselves as inclusive organisations predicated on notions of care, mutual respect and the celebration of difference, and espouse these ideals in terms titivated with metaphors of community and the family.  The promotional literature schools produce about themselves repeat messages of inclusiveness and equality in such a blasé, non-specific way that it becomes difficult to differentiate one institution from another.  Very rarely – apart from perhaps a Diwali assembly, a session of Ghanaian drumming, or the installation of a wheelchair ramp – do schools adumbrate what their principles of inclusiveness and equality actually mean, or how they translate into practice.  As I saw for myself, it is the exception rather than the norm that these values have been internalised by members of the organisation to the extent that they govern behaviour, inform thinking, and can be taken for granted – at least where transgender teachers are concerned.  Schools don’t shape social trends in the way that many like to think.  In truth, they are led by the attitudes of insularity, uniformity, conservatism and knee-jerk discrimination that permeate the wider world.  Schools perpetuate social structures and strictures, and, therefore, serve as instruments of entrenching prejudice.

…Or rather, the adults who lead them do.  It is the gatekeepers of schools who have led me to question the moral values on which the profession I have practised for almost twenty years is based.  The children, meanwhile, remain models of polite curiosity, magnanimity and tolerance, and at no point over the last two years has a student said or done anything to me that could be considered mean or prejudicial, or that shows any sign that they were afraid of – or confused by – me.  When head-teachers say that they are reluctant to hire transgender teachers because they are concerned about these things, they are lying.  My heart sinks when a conversation with a head-teacher post-interview begins with the words, “It’s not me, but…” because I know that they are limbering up to project their own bigotry onto children and their parents as a convenient way of abdicating responsibility for not hiring transgender staff.

Initiatives aimed at promoting LGBT awareness in schools are usually targeting the wrong audience.  Primary school children haven’t yet learned prejudice, and, as a result, their behaviour isn’t governed by fear of difference.  The teenagers I taught didn’t care how I looked or what pronoun I wanted them to use, provided I taught interesting lessons and worked hard to help them achieve academic success.  It isn’t young people who need to reflect on their attitudes and assumptions about transgender teachers: it is the people who manage schools, appoint staff, and make decisions about how schools are run who need educating in how to embrace diversity, celebrate difference, and take the occasional brave decision.

Teaching – in the UK, at least – was a profession founded on traditionally feminine precepts of care, nurture and love.  In England, women primary school teachers currently outnumber their male colleagues by five to one.  In the 2010s, when the financial crash saw many bankers and financiers suddenly out of work as companies went bust, and previously impervious economic institutions had to close when their debts were recalled, many of those affected turned to teaching as a fall-back career.  If they were to even come close to matching the salaries and bonuses they had previously enjoyed, these men (and they were mostly men) had to apply for jobs in schools at middle- and senior-management level.  When they were appointed, they brought with them an inappropriately hard-nosed, competitive, survival-of-the-fittest, greedy corporate set of values.  From their positions of influence, in short, they made the way schools try and operate – and, more relevantly, the way they treat their staff – more masculine.

West Wing B
Walk with me! – Managers at a north London secondary school hold a high-powered, testosterone-pumping meeting about how they can maximise the achievement of every child’s individual potentialities

Suddenly, school corridors had men in pin-striped suits strutting down them with Bluetooth devices in their ears and tablet computers under their arms, barking examination statistics at each other in the way characters in ‘The West Wing’ used to brief one another on their way to meetings with the President.  In such an environment, maverick teachers have no place.  An ex-company manager needs to reduce their staff to the status of functionaries in order to be able to control them: having to adjust their managerial approach to get the best out of people from a wide variety of backgrounds – with different ambitions, opinions and beliefs about the world – is, at best, inconvenient; at worst, beyond their capabilities.  To cope with pressures for examination results imposed on them by an equally managerial central government, this new generation of head-teachers needs a teaching staff that is as homogeneous as possible; that they can manage with a one-size-fits-all approach.  I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn, therefore, that my new, female face no longer fitted.

To my shame, I ain’t no tranny Rosa Parks.  I could’ve stayed in the UK and chipped away at the system until I got noticed, appointed, and could fly the flag for transgender teachers, but, to be honest, I just didn’t have the stomach to engage in a long campaign of attrition with an opponent – the culture of English schooling – for whom I had lost all respect.  Instead, I have taken what’s left of my redundancy payment and moved here – to Bucharest – to open a school of my own with my best friend and partner.  We have a long way to go yet before we can consider ourselves profitable, but we can at least rest easy in the knowledge that our professional conduct is based on a belief in equity and inclusiveness that is more than skin deep.