Being a victim of bigotry is never fun. Getting fired in a discriminatory fashion is never a good thing. I was fired from a teaching position at Neal Math and Science Academy in North Chicago due to my status as a trans woman, a clear case of bigoted discrimination. I felt humiliated. I felt like my value and skill as an educator was being called into question. I felt like less of a person.
But then I discovered something that tipped me from feeling hurt and humiliated to feeling intensely angry: I later found out that part of the reason the principal thought my presence might bring up “difficult questions” among students was because, within the last year, a student at Neal had committed suicide due to “gender and gender expression related teasing.”
I'm going to repeat that, because the irony is just sickening: the principal at Neal decided having a potentially trans teacher might bring up “difficult questions,” due in part to a student committing suicide over gender and gender expression related teasing.
How could that happen?
I teach theatre quite a lot. It's a large part of my income as a freelance artist, and I really love doing it; working with kids, seeing them grow into their own identities, and giving them a chance - sometimes the first chance they've ever been offered - to express themselves and really be heard. And I'm trans. That is, I was assigned male at birth, identify as a woman, and am living my life in line with that identity. Being trans is a big part of my art, but does not enter into my teaching theatre classes to youth - its as unrelated as my religion, my ethnicity, or whether I like cats or dogs more. And yet, I was fired for Neal for being trans, something I never brought up and had no bearing on my ability to teach seventh and eight graders about theatre and performance skills.
I teach most often with the Piven Theatre Workshop, an absolutely fabulous organization founded thirty-plus years ago by the parents of Jeremy Piven (of Entourage fame). I’ve taken classes there since I was about ten-years-old, and have been teaching with them – first as an assistant and now as a lead teacher – for almost eight years. Piven does most of its teaching at its facility in Evanston, Illinois, but is sometimes hired by outside organizations to do on-site workshops, usually at schools.
This is where the Neal Math and Science Academy comes in. They had a longstanding contract with the Boys and Girls Club of Lake County, where the BGCLC provided after school services. The BGCLC decided to hire Piven to provide an after school theatre program. Piven, in turn, hired me to teach the actual workshop. So I was hired by Piven, who was hired by BGCLC, who was hired by Neal.
Neal is in North Chicago, a city closer to the Wisconsin border than it is to the actual City of Chicago. So, on Tuesday, September 28, I set out north from Actual Chicago to find North Chicago. It wasn’t a difficult ride – pretty much straight north – but it was a very different culture, way up North. North Chicago is closely tied with a US Naval training center, meaning a lot of the students are only there for a few years, before their parents move on to a different assignment. Much of the rest of the community is pretty low-income, something I wasn’t expecting from Lake County. I arrived at Neal around 2:45 for a 3:00 PM pre-class meeting with the BGCLC on-site supervisor, and was given a brief tour of the school.
Neal seemed like a perfectly nice school, trying to make due with budget issues, an always-shifting student population, and the usual difficulties any middle school faces.
The students I worked with were – like most of Neal – kids of color, and (unlike my primarily white, largely Jewish population at Piven) were not excellent listeners. But we had a good class, the kids seemed to have fun, and I felt like it would be a productive – if tiring – ten week workshop. I was slightly nervous about having to provide BGCLC information for a background check (since my old name would show up) but dismissed my fears as unrealistic. Likewise, one student during the class said something was “So gay!” but I said “that type of language” wasn’t allowed, and the issue was dropped. I did have a cold at the time, so my voice was deeper than usual, but no one mentioned that. Why would they?
It wasn’t until the next Tuesday, October 5, that I realized anything was wrong. I received a phone call from Piven at about noon (for a 3:30 PM workshop) saying the class had been canceled, but Piven wasn’t sure if it was a one-time cancellation, a cancellation of the entire class, or why the class was being canceled.
I, of course, assumed the worst, but tried to convince myself it couldn’t possibly have to do with my trans status. This is the 21st Century! Discrimination against trans people is illegal in Illinois! How would they even know I was trans?!
At least, that’s what I tried to tell myself. Over and over again, for 48 hours.
It wasn’t until that Thursday, October 7, that I was finally able to track down Piven’s Artistic Director and get some answers. The office administrator said she wasn’t comfortable talking to me about what was happening, but seemed honestly upset and apologetic that she’d been told to keep her mouth shut. And 48 hours isn’t a very long time for a slow-moving board (who I told had been brought into “the discussion”) to make a decision. At the same time, 48 hours felt like an eternity. But finally, about 4:00 PM I sat down with the AD and asked what had happened.
“Well,” she said, “It sounds like the principal at Neal felt your presence would bring up…” She paused, clearly not enjoying this conversation any more than I was. “…would bring up 'difficult questions'.”
I still had a glimmer of hope. “You mean ‘difficult questions’ like 'theatre opens up people’s hearts and exposes their deepest fears' kind of questions?”
“No. Not those kind of questions.”
I didn’t want to hear her say it, and at the same time needed it said. "It’s because I’m…"
“Yeah.” She was clearly near tears, which actually made me feel a little better. Piven’s AD has known me for almost as long as I’ve been at the workshop, was incredibly supportive when I transitioned, and damn well should feel shitty about all this!
“Oh,” was all I could say.
She continued, pushing down tears, “You are one of our strongest teachers, and this has nothing to do with you, or with your teaching. This is because some people are ignorant, are stupid, are close-minded. This has nothing to do with you.”
And yet, of course it did. It does. It’s absolutely about me, even though it’s really not.
The AD wasn’t totally clear on the chain of events – the Executive Director was still trying to figure that out – but here’s what I later learned had happened:
1. At least one of the students in the class asked the staff something about me – I’ve never been able to find out what, exactly – supposedly something about my “big hands” and “deep voice.”
2. The staff person told the principal.
3. The principal decided my presence would be “disruptive” and bring up “difficult questions.”
4. The school told BGCLC they’d like a different instructor.
5. BGCLC told Piven the school would like a different instructor.
6. Piven (eventually) told me all this, while figuring out what the hell their response was supposed to be.
I want to give Piven a lot of credit: the only thing I can fault them for is being slower to bring me into the conversation than I would have liked. But, within a week of the original phone call from BGCLC, Piven had talked to me and – with my agreement – responded by saying “We sent a perfectly good teacher. One of our best teachers, in fact. If she wasn’t acceptable, I guess we can’t do this workshop.” Piven also paid me for the one class I actually taught, as well as the three following classes that passed before the workshop was finally, officially, canceled. (Yes, in a perfect world they would have paid me for the entire run, and I told them that. But I understand they couldn’t afford to do that, and am honestly pleased with Piven’s decision on how much to pay me. It was a compromise, yes, but it was a shitty situation to begin with.)
During all these discussions, we found out that most ironic of facts: part of the reason the principal thought my presence might bring up “difficult questions” was because, within the last year, a student at Neal had committed suicide due to “gender and gender expression related teasing.”
This information bears repeating, now for a fourth time: the principal decided having a potentially trans teacher might bring up “difficult questions,” due in part to a student committing suicide over gender and gender expression related teasing.
That offends me not only as a trans person, but as an educator. The possible idea that an appropriate response to a difficult, potentially painful discussion is “lalala, not happening!” is utter bullshit, particularly in an educational setting. It’s the equivalent of saying “We don’t need LGBT education at our school, we don’t need a Gay Straight Alliance, because we don’t have any gay students.”
Except it’s that much worse because clearly Neal had students who were being impacted by LGBT-targeted teasing, whether or not that student was actually LGBT.
So what am I doing about it?
The short answer: I found a lawyer, and am figuring out my legal options. She initially suggested I not post about it, but has changed her attitude because I'm not planning to sue. Rather, what she’s trying to arrange is a sit-down meeting between me and the principal so I can explain A) exactly how painful it was to me, someone he never met, to be fired for being trans, and B) exactly how negative an impact it has on his school environment, and ultimately on the safety of his students. I’m hoping to convince the school into hiring me as an educator to do some of the training they so clearly need.
I’m also writing about it. Finally. It’s been hard to write this, because it’s still hard to think about. It was the first time I can say I was the specific target of transphobic discrimination, rather than a general “Oh, this legislation is against me” or “Oh, this politician is against me.” It was also painful because I was working with Piven, a place I really consider a safe space. But now I’m trying to harbor his anger and pain into art, too. My next show will be titled No Gender Left Behind, and will feature this story as well as lots of other thoughts on gender, education, and what we teach both kids and adults about gender in America.
I also want to give kudos to BGCLC. They said, as sort of the middleman in all this, “Um, we don’t see what the big deal is…” And so Piven will be doing an after school workshop just with them, at their space, with me as the teacher. Starting next week. So that’ll hopefully get some of the same (adorable) kids and allow me to even further say, “See? The world isn’t collapsing around your ears!” to Neal if and when I’m able to meet with them.
Phew. I’ve really been avoiding writing this, but it does feel good to get it off my chest. I’m hoping to write lots more about it, but feel free to ask questions or – part of the reason I wrote this – share in my emotional space of “That fucking sucks!”
Ta ta for now.
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