When I first interviewed for this job, I remember the HR people proudly informing me that their teachers stayed for an average of 4 to 5 years, one of the best retention rates in any rural Alaskan school district. That may be true, but they didn’t mention how frequently people move to new schools within the district. They also failed to mention how stressful March to May, hiring season, can be. For example: Nunap School started the year with 14 certified teachers on staff, plus a Dean of Students/Vice Principal and Principal. By the time April Fool’s Day rolled around, we knew that almost half of that number would be leaving. Both our Dean and our Principal are moving to other positions in the district, one is retiring, and everyone else has found or is seeking jobs in other districts, both in Alaska and back in the Lower 48. (In case you’re wondering, average teacher turnover here is normally 2-3 people per year.) As such, one of the main topics of conversation among the staff the past seven weeks has been who the new teachers might be. Some people are new to the district, like I was this year, while others are coming from other villages in the area. Falling into the latter category is Mick, who will be teaching high school English and social studies next year.
A friend of Lucas, Mick has been working for the district for two years now at one of the coastal villages. I first met him when he visited Nunap for a weekend at the beginning of this month. Yesterday, he arrived with all of his stuff, which will be stored here over the summer. Kelly and I joined him, Lucas, and Andy for dinner and visiting. Of course we all discussed our plans for the coming summer, which led in turn to stories of previous summer vacations. Predictably, Lucas and I began teasing Kelly a little about her trip to Thailand last summer, when her appendix ruptured. She’s fine, and happily tells the story; she’s more upset by the fact that the only sights she really saw were the hospital walls. At this point in the conversation, Mick wondered aloud, his posture and voice indicating a joke, “Was she a woman before she went on that trip?”
Immediately, I tensed up. It might be my imagination, but I’m pretty sure Lucas, Andy, and Kelly also felt the mood shift. After all, they all know that I’m trans. Before I could overthink it, I flat out stated, “Not cool.”
Mick kind of smirked at me, still trying to make his “joke” work. “Come on, what’s Thailand known for?”
“Still not cool,” I replied. My heart was pounding, and I could feel my hands shaking slightly.
Mick started to say something else, presumably to continue his defense of the “joke”, but Kelly spoke up. I couldn’t hear exactly what she said over the roaring in my ears, but it boiled down to, “People in this room know someone who’s trans, and that kind of statement is incredibly offensive.” Mick did apologize, and actually sounded sincere. It still took me a few moments to calm down to the point that I felt I could join the new conversation Kelly started.
That encounter has been on my mind ever since, for several reasons. I’m still unsure how to react to Lucas and Andy’s non-contributions to the conversation. Both sat there in silence as the exchange took place; I didn’t have a chance to speak with them before we all departed for the summer. I do appreciate that Kelly helped me out, and I texted later that night to let her know how much her support means.
The fact of the matter is, for many years my reaction in situations like these, where someone says something homo- or transphobic, was to sit there in silence. For years before I Transitioned, I’d get called “sir” or “young man”; it was when I was introduced to people as a girl or they learned that I was assigned female at birth that I’d get questioning looks (adults) or be teased (kids). Since starting hormones, I’ve been the beneficiary of “passing privileges”. As I’ve been assured repeatedly this year, people who meet me now can’t tell that I was raised a girl. I feared that raising objections to how some people speak would somehow out me and that I’d be right back where I started. Within the last couple of years though, I’ve come to realize just how ridiculous that type of thinking is. After all, the ally community is part of the reason that the LGBT rights movement has gotten as far as it has. So if someone thinks I’m only an ally, who am I to correct them? It’s more important to stand up for people’s right to be spoken of with respect than to protect my own privileges. (Also, the fact that I have “passing privileges” irks me. Just because I happen to look like a cisgender male, I’m entitled to all sorts of benefits? What a load of crap!) And while I need to work on my delivery, I fully intend to continue to call out tasteless “jokes” and other rude comments both in Nunap and everywhere else I go.