I Came out as Trans to my Fifth Graders. Here's What Happened.
I've been considering coming out to my class since I started teaching seven years ago, but I've always come up with excuses as to why I shouldn't. It's not all about me...I want to keep my private life private...They're not ready. The truth is, I wasn't ready. I needed time.
It felt liberating when I realized that I'll never truly feel ready. But that's okay. I can do things that scare me. I can take a leap, even if my landing may be unsteady.
Recently, I was digging through a box of my keepsakes and found my own fifth grade school picture. There I was, front row right, straight dark hair just past my shoulders, wearing a white t-shirt and jean shorts with my hands clasped in my lap. If you squint, you can just make out my nod to femininity: a pair of white socks with lacy bits around the edges, poking out of my grubby sneakers. I remember thinking they were really girly and feeling proud about that.
It hit me: this is how I needed to come out. It didn't matter that this is one of the toughest years I've ever taught, or that the majority of my class struggles immensely with impulsivity, and I couldn't predict how they would react. It was time.
The class photo sat in my school bag all week. Every time I'd start to reach for it, I'd find an excuse to avoid taking it out: The math lesson ran over, it was raining outside and my students were too keyed up, I hadn't had enough coffee. Finally, Friday arrived. Somehow this felt like a 'now or never' situation.
I led them back into the classroom after lunch and took a deep breath. "Fifth graders, before we start our science lesson, I thought I'd show you something fun. I found a picture of my own fifth grade class. Would you like to see it?" My stomach tumbled over itself. I realized there was no going back.
Their eyes brightened. A collective "yeah!" rang forth.
I placed the cardboard-backed photo in front of the document camera. "Please don't blurt," I implored them. "Raise your hand if you want to guess which one is me." I stood behind them at the back of the room. It felt safer than having to look directly at them as they guessed.
One by one, I called on students as they ran down the list of all the cis boys. "Good guess, but it's not me," I chirped after each one. I'm white, and there was only one white cis boy in my fifth grade class. Interestingly, he was the third or fourth one guessed. As the more likely suspects dwindled, kids began squinting and guessing cis boys with very different skin colors and facial features from my own. As a friend of mine later remarked, "Wow, the commitment to gender is strong."
Finally, one child breathed a frustrated sigh and blurted out, "We've guessed everyone it could possibly be! Unless, like, you were a girl," she joked. Her head swiveled and she caught my eye. Suddenly, her eyes got wide. "Waiiiiit..."
I smiled and said calmly, "Give up?" Most seemed genuinely baffled. Knees weak, I walked over to the projection screen, feeling as if I were in slow motion, and pointed to the smiling girl with the lacy socks in the front row. "There I am! That's me." I turned around to look. (Though we all wear masks in class, like all teachers during the pandemic, I've become an expert at reading emotions through eyes and body language alone).
Two kids whispered, "I knew it!" Some just stared back and forth between me and the photo, eyes wide, not saying anything. One kid just kept muttering, "But...but...you have facial hair!"
Then, the dam broke, and they all began to talk at once - some to me, some to each other. I quieted them down and tried to make my voice calm, even though I thought I was going to pass out. I could tell some kids were significantly confused or even nervous, and I wanted to quell their nervousness as soon as I could. "Remember last week when we were talking about how there are some things people can tell about you just by looking at you, and other things that they don't know unless you tell them?" Several kids nodded. "Well, something you can't tell just by looking at me is that when I was born, I was assigned female at birth. The doctors looked at me and said I was a girl. But as I got older, I realized that didn't fit me. I knew I was a boy. And, I am a boy!"
Kids' hands were waving in the air, but I wasn't quite finished. "It felt important to share this part of me with you. Remember the word transgender that we've been talking about? Well, now you can all say you know someone who is transgender. I am!"
...There. Heart thudding, I tried to breathe. The world hadn't collapsed. I was still alive, albeit barely. No one had screamed, or said anything insulting, or run out of the room. (Later, a new student remarked, "No offense, but when I first met you, I thought you were a girl." I told him I wasn't offended, and actually felt quite pleased that he felt comfortable enough admitting it).
Most of the questions I'd braced myself for, like personal ones about my body, weren't asked. One child did say, "So that's why your voice is so high!" I took it in stride. "Heh - yep!" I said. One asked again, "But how do you have facial hair?" I said, "That's a great question. It's personal. Let's talk about that another time, okay?" Many of them jokingly pressed me about my first name, Kieran, which they already knew I'd changed when I was an adult. They were desperate to know my "other" or "real" name. I stopped them.
"Fifth graders, this feels like a good moment to teach you a few things about when you learn that someone is transgender. My story is only one way to be trans. There are lots of ways. Sometimes people change their names to a name that feels more like who they truly are. But it is seen as not respectful when you ask someone over and over what their "old" or "real" name was. This is my real name. I don't feel comfortable telling you my name from when I was younger. Please respect my no the first time." I then explained a few appropriate ways to refer to someone's gender now and then by saying things like "They were assigned ____ at birth, and now they identify as ____."
The part that I hadn't anticipated is the unbelievably seismic shift that occurred. It was as if we'd all taken a collective exhale. I was walking around the room, joking with them and chatting about random, silly things. Some still needed time to process, and were pointing to my last year's class photo and my fifth grade photo, uttering to one another, "Same person! Same person!" Most, though, had moved on, enjoying the momentary burst of free time, and the delight that comes when a lesson is unexpectedly interrupted.
For hours afterward, long after they'd left for the weekend, I was on a high. My adrenaline was pulsing and I felt like I'd just chugged several cups of coffee. I felt lighter. I felt good. I feel immensely, overwhelmingly grateful that I worked in a school, community, and city that allowed me to safely publicly come out when so many teachers aren't afforded the same privilege.
...And for the record, my voice isn't that high. It can sound deep-ish, if I really put in the effort.