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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Not all education is on the curriculum

Bay Area Reporter

At a time when most are planning their retirement, a 71-year-old teacher, Lily McBeth, instead left her teaching position in order to manage her gender transition. When she returned, the board at Eagleswood Elementary School in Eagleswood Township, New Jersey welcomed her back.

After a contentious school board meeting, where members of the New Jersey Family Policy Council made arguments against subjecting seemingly-defenseless children to a transgender teacher, it was further reinforced that McBeth would be welcomed to the Eagleswood faculty.

The New Jersey Family Policy Council is, of course, unhappy, and is urging parents to file legal challenges against the board members. Again, the argument is that young, impressionable children should not have to be subject to the trauma of someone who used to be a man teaching classes.

The head of this group views this as just another part of the push to allow for same-sex marriage: I'm not sure exactly how he came to that conclusion – but I digress.

McBeth is hardly the first teacher to transition. The first I know of was a physical education teacher in the greater San Francisco Bay Area who transitioned from female to male a couple decades ago. Last I heard, he was still teaching. Many others have followed, from Debra Davis – a school librarian in Minnesota – to Diane Giles in California.

One of the better-known teachers to go through a gender transition is Dana Rivers, who was drummed out of a high school near Sacramento in the late 1990s. Like McBeth, Rivers faced the argument – this time from the school board itself – that the students would not be able to handle her transition.

It was her students who were some of her most vocal supporters.

I am of the firm belief that it is not the students who have the biggest issues with any of this: it is the parents who don't seem to understand what is going on. If anything, it's these same parents that make what would probably make the largely quiet transition of a member of the faculty into an issue that hits the national news. Indeed, if parents felt that they'd be uncomfortable explaining things to their children before, imagine how it must feel to do it once you have CNN news vans parked at the school.

This all seems to be part of this "think of the children" mentality that fails to address real-world issues – often, children really aren't as fragile as their overly-doting parents seem to think they are. These parents seem to forget that schools are there to prepare their tots for life in the real world – a real world where, yes, they are going to possibly come across transgender people.

That's the shame of it all. I'm not saying that kids should be exposed to all the ways of the world – I'd pass on exposing them to Fred Phelps, for example – but they should be given a full education. This includes learning about tolerance, and respect, and acceptance of all people.

In the 1970s – back when I was in the sixth grade or so – the battle was over gay and lesbian teachers. Thanks to the Briggs initiative in California, it became necessary for citizens of the Golden State to go to their polling place and decide if gay and lesbian teachers, as well as gay and lesbian sympathizing teachers, would be allowed in public schools. I fear that the voters of 2006 would not have handed John Briggs the defeat that he faced in 1978.

The Briggs initiative was an offshoot of Anita Bryant's infamous "Save The Children" campaign, which led to a number of antigay laws getting passed, including ones similar to the Briggs initiative. I should add that John Briggs, during the fight over the initiative, argued that the bill was imperative, in order to keep cross-dressed teachers out of the classroom. What old is new again.

This is not an issue that I can watch from a distance. As I write this, I am in the process of starting to work as a substitute teacher and aide at a local school. I will be dealing with developmentally disabled youth in a classroom setting. Students who, one could argue, might have an even harder time with having a transgender person in their midst.

Frankly, the ones I worked with for an all-too-brief period of observation seemed to like me just fine. I am not there to make an issue of my transgender status, nor is it anything that has come up with the students – or anyone else. Indeed, I rather hope to be just one of many wonderful, diverse folks working at the school.

Do I worry about what some parents might say? You bet I do. It is one of the issues, I suppose, with being transgender in this society. While I am not equating my entry level teaching experience with that of McBeth or any of the other fine instructors I listed above, it strikes me that some seem to prefer their kids be left without a competent teacher versus one who also happens to be transgender.

This doesn't strike me as saving any children: rather this seems like spreading ignorance – and isn't that, at heart, what teaching is supposed to combat?

Gwen Smith applauds all those who have made a commitment to teach. She's online at www.gwensmith.com.

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