• April 18, 2014

Coming Out in Class

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Wednesday, May 2, 2012, was a very long day. It was the first day of the semester, and the day I teach both of my courses. The first is in the morning for an hour, the second is in the late evening for three hours. But it was a long day for another reason: I needed to come out to both of my classes about my transgender status.

I am in the process of a gender transition from male to female, and I'm still "visibly" trans, owing to some temporarily lingering secondary-sex characteristics. Before the start of the semester, I was entirely out to my department, colleagues, friends, and family. My gender presentation is clearly on the female end of the spectrum, although I wasn't yet taking steps to completely mask the male secondary-sex characteristics—by covering up the remaining beard shadow with makeup, for example.

Everyone has been extremely supportive, especially in the workplace. The department chair and the faculty in general have been willing to do whatever they can to assist my transition process, including supporting my presentation decisions and timeline.

So why did I decide to come out to my students?

As one colleague put it, it shouldn't really be any of their business, since it's not strictly relevant to my role as their professor. Students are typically already "out" about their gender identity by default, so it's a little unfair for me to have to verbally proclaim mine.

But let's face it: If I don't say something, there is a great big elephant in the room. My name has been changed, and there are features of my physical appearance that are undergoing change: clothes, hair, and other aspects. As I say, I'm "visibly" trans, for the moment at least, and I don't want it to be a distraction without an explanation.

I also wanted to inform my students for pedagogical reasons. First, it's relevant to my business-ethics course, since I'm teaching gender and transgender issues in the business context. I want to be able to draw on my experiences, including policy changes at my university and some local businesses, when I teach those issues.

Second, I think it's important for students to see successful trans people in professional positions. The media portrayal and general public knowledge of us is terrible. All too often, the only reason to talk about trans people is to make fun of us, or to pity us because of the discrimination, violence, and hardships we encounter.

Sure, it is hard being a trans person, but it's not all bad. I'm certainly happier now than ever before, and I feel free to be me for the first time in my life. In fact, my social life has never been better. So I want people to see that trans people can be happy, contributing, and inspiring members of the community. I also want students to have to confront the unfamiliar, and to question their biases and assumptions. I hope doing so will make them better people, and make the world a little bit better for trans persons in general.

I was surprised, though, by how nervous I became an hour before my first lecture. I'm naturally confident in front of classes. I had also had a lot of experience coming out to people over the past few months, such that it became easier with each iteration; it's gotten to the point where I can be very matter-of-fact about it, and I don't experience any nervousness or anxiety anymore. So feeling that way before my classes caught me off-guard.

Fortunately, I managed to find a wonderful colleague who was happy to help me with my phrasings and approach. That assuaged my immediate anxiety, but it was still present before and during the morning lecture, reaching a crescendo a minute into my explanation. Those feelings were less prevalent during the evening session.

Here's how I went about coming out. I began both lectures by introducing myself, as "Dr. Rachel McKinnon," giving my other details like office hours and e-mail, and then noting that I would get back to explaining my new name in a bit. Then I proceeded with my introductory lectures, as usual, and left the coming-out conversation until the end.

I try to teach with a sense of humor, and some might say flair. So I prepared a PowerPoint slide with a photo of an elephant in a room. I told the students that I had promised to explain my new name, and that I wanted finally to deal with the elephant in the room: namely, me.

For the morning session, I merely stated that I was transgender. For the evening class, I offered a few more specifics. Aiming for humor, I pointed to my—at this point, very patchy—beard shadow, and said that students were probably wondering why someone who looks the way I do has a name like Rachel. That elicited laughs from about a third of the class. Perhaps they knew what was coming. I then explained, keeping it simple: I'm transgender and am in the process of a transition from male to female. I told students they should use female pronouns when referring to me, and in order to be most polite in addressing me, to simply use "Dr." or "Professor," rather than "Miss" or "Ms."

I struggled with how to best phrase things. I also struggled with how much detail to provide. I settled on "not much." Frankly, the details aren't really anyone's business but my own and my circle of supporters'.

I ended by fielding some questions. Naturally, polite people are reluctant to ask personal questions in front of a crowd, so there was only a trickle. One asked, "Why?" My answer: Because this is how I feel and who I am. One student in each class asked what to expect in the coming months: Would the transition be gradual or abrupt? The former, I replied.

The most interesting response happened in the first class and was nearly duplicated in the second. A male student, quite assertively, said he didn't have a question but wanted to simply congratulate me, especially on having the courage to discuss the matter with the class. In the second class, a female student came up to me afterward to say the same thing. That surprised me, in a good way. In each class, at least one student shared the experience of a friend or family member also going through, or having already undergone, a gender transition.

I couldn't tell if there were any negative reactions, or whether students betrayed any discomfort by their expressions. Frankly, I wasn't looking. Ever since I've come out as trans and started interacting with the world as my appropriate gender, I've had to be concerned with how others perceive me. But I've found that looking around to gauge people's reactions raises suspicions, and people react by scrutinizing you. So one strategy is not to look around. It's hard enough being a trans person whose transition is already fairly public, because I am an academic, but having to be explicit about it, in front of hundreds of strangers with whom I need to maintain a professional relationship, adds another layer entirely.

One of my principal fears about coming out to my students was of losing their respect, to the point where it would be difficult for me to do my job. But more than that, I enjoy teaching—I'm pretty good at it—and I didn't want this to jeopardize my enjoyment of the term's courses. Whether it will remains to be seen. The lectures since May 2 have been pleasant.

I write this account because I think that it contains some broader lessons for the academic community. First, my experience highlights how important a culture of respect and support, especially from your department, is for a gender transition. The institutional support of my department chair has been exemplary. But that should be the case for all sorts of minorities, whether part of the LGBT spectrum or members of racial, political, or any other minority group who may experience resistance to their self-expression. It's imperative for colleges and universities to construct robust and explicit antidiscrimination and equity policies. The presence of those policies influences how free people feel to express themselves: A university with good protections for trans people, for example, makes it more likely that someone will be comfortable transitioning. That certainly factored into my decision.

Second, I think that it's best to be upfront and honest with students. Let them surprise you: I've been impressed by how well friends, colleagues, students, and strangers have dealt with my trans status. My transition has been the most difficult but most rewarding time of my life. I'd been worried about how people would react: Would family or friends disown me? Would this jeopardize my career? (I'm still looking for that tenure-track job, so the jury is out on that.) And would I experience discrimination, or even violence, by coming out about my trans status?

I'm glad that those worries didn't hold me back. I'm a better person for it, and those around me have expressed gratitude for the opportunity to re-examine their own attitudes and prejudices. It's been a growth experience for everyone.

It's important for minority faculty members to come out, be seen, and have our voices heard. It's harder to discriminate against people you know and respect.

I had a difficult time finding mentors who had transitioned at a similar point in their careers. Most trans persons transition in their late 40s or 50s, generally after obtaining tenure. I'm confident that there are more of us out there, but maybe they aren't making their voices heard. Sure, I don't want to define myself by my trans status, but it is an important part of who I am, and I want to be there to help others. I can only do that by making my voice heard.

Josh Billings once wrote, "It is the little bits of things that fret and worry us; we can dodge an elephant, but we can't a fly." We justifiably sweat the big things, like our elephants, but at least he was right about our ability to dodge them.

Rachel McKinnon is an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario.

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