NEW YORK ― Bahar Akyurtlu had been teaching for about four months at a high school in Harlem before several students began bullying her. When she walked down the halls, clusters of students would shout at her, referring to her as “mister.” In stairwells, students would yell that her voice sounded like a man.
The harassment didn’t surprise her, even if it stung, cutting to the core of her identity. Sadly, she sees it as one of the occupational hazards of being a transgender teacher, she said.
In February, the Trump administration rolled back protections for transgender students. It rescinded guidance that called on school districts to allow students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender.
LGBTQ students were not the only people in schools that this action impacted. Transgender educators ― even if the move did not necessarily impact the bathroom they use ― had to watch as the rights of LGBTQ students were severed, while facing their own, unique workplace challenges.
The exact number of transgender people who work as educators are unknown, and overall, exact data on the issue is hard to come by. But the ones who do work in education often have to navigate a sticky web of parents, students and colleagues who have varying levels of acceptance, amid a backdrop of minimal workplace protections, The Huffington Post found after interviewing seven transgender educators in March.
These educators are a self-selecting group who have been open about their gender identity at work. Not all transgender people have the same luxury or choose the same path.
Trump’s bathroom rollback was unsurprising for Akyurtlu, who is in her second year of teaching math at a high school for teens who are behind in credits. The 31-year-old teacher said she is “well aware that any protections we do have are extremely recent and extremely tenuous.” That’s why she is trying to coach her students to be vigilant about fighting for social justice.
Earlier this month, she restarted her school’s previously dormant Gay Straight Alliance club. Indeed, she has formed supportive relationships with some of the school’s LGBTQ students. They sometimes act as her protector if any students targeted her. Last year, she watched as some of them got in shouting matches with their intolerant peers.
While Akyurtlu feels lucky to have an accepting school administration and colleagues, she wishes there is more she could do for her transgender students, she said in a recent interview in her teacher’s union office. Last year, she kept a watchful eye on the few transgender students who attended the institution.
Akyurtlu would remind their teachers to refer to them using the proper pronouns and call them by the correct names. When she would spot these students in the hallways ― they tended to stick together ― she would try and cram in as much advice as possible.
“Anytime I saw them I would bring them aside and be like OK, ‘Where are you getting your healthcare needs taken care of? What kinds of hormones are you taking? Here’s some organizations you can go to if you get into legal trouble ― just try to educate them about their health needs and rights,” said Akyurtlu, who started working as a teacher after spending time as a graduate student at Cornell University and then working in the nonprofit sector with LGBTQ groups. “Hell, I didn’t have any teachers growing up who would have supported gay kids. Hell, sometimes they were the nastiest ones.”
It breaks Akyurtlu’s heart, though, that the students didn’t end up sticking around. Several months before a few of them would have gotten their high school diplomas, they dropped out.
She doesn’t blame them for leaving school ― noting that they had “all of these needs and all of these traumatic things going on, and I’m supposed to teach you geometry?”
Thankfully, she has heard that at least one of them is alive and seems to be doing OK. She worries about the others. With a group that has high rates of criminalization and suicide, the statistics can be daunting.
“We have to make a priority of them and not just settle for the kids with accepting parents or the school that unveils unisex bathrooms. I think we have to really be willing to not just admit these girls exist but that they are part of our community,” Akyurtlu said.
Sam Long, a transgender educator in Denver, had a vastly different experience from Akyurtlu in explaining his gender identity to students. While Akyurtlu did not have control over how and when her kids made this discovery― she supposes they found out on the internet ― Long prepared a carefully crafted speech for his students.
Long didn’t initially plan on telling his students his story this year. Long works at a charter school that just opened and currently only serves ninth-graders. He wanted to wait and see how the school’s culture developed.
Then the election happened. Suddenly it seemed urgent to open students’ eyes to the diversity that surrounds them, especially after he heard wise-cracking students make jokes about LGBTQ issues.
Long asked his administration if he could tell his story to the students in a daily school-wide meeting. Based on scheduling, they said, he wouldn’t be able to do it until February. Soon, February became March.
The day before the event, he was nervous, repeatedly reminding himself to watch for students’ reactions instead of rushing through the speech. But he was ultimately surprised at how well it went. Weeks later, he said he could see what a positive effect his words had on his relationship with students.
Standing in front of the entire grade in the school’s front hall, Long told attentive students and colleagues how he transitioned between his sophomore and junior year of high school, and faced intense discrimination from his school administrators.
Long’s high school wouldn’t let him use the male restrooms, so he would either wait to secretly use a male restroom in an isolated part of the school, or go in the woods outside. When he tried to go on an overnight field trip with the school’s jazz band, he was told he wouldn’t be allowed to room with male or female students, and would have to pay his own way for a single room if he wanted to attend. He didn’t have the money.
“Hell, I didn’t have any teachers growing up who would have supported gay kids. Hell, sometimes they were the nastiest ones.”
After facing so much intolerance from teachers and administrators, he sued the school years later so that future students might not have to face the same isolation ― a story which he thinks his students appreciated.
“I talked about how much of a gift it is to have your identity and be comfortable with your identity,” Long said. “I think they noticed how important it was symbolically for me to share my story. To show that level of vulnerability is important to this community.”
Referencing an old quote from the author John Shedd, he wanted to show his students that “ships are always safe in the harbor but that’s not what ships are made for.”
Whereas Long thinks some of his students might have previously thought of him as a “boring straight man” or “as somebody to whom school and academics has always come easy to,” they soon learned the reality. “I had a horrible time at school and a hard time at home and I was homeless for a period of time,” he said. “That’s definitely not something they would have assumed.”
Long and Akyurtlu are lucky in that they are both able to be open about their identities at their jobs. In many ways, they are exceptions. All around the country, transgender teachers have been fired and punished for their identity.
But Akyurtlu hopes this won’t hold other transgender people back from going into education.
“I know it seems like possibly the hardest job in the world to do when you’re transgender and you will deal with some things, and it will be hard, but it’s hard for everybody, and we can do it,” Akyurtlu said. “I think it’s really necessary for students to be able to see a transgender person in this role, to normalize it in such a day to day constant way really makes a big impact.”
Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation and the achievement gap in K-12 education. Tips? Email: Rebecca.Klein@huffingtonpost.com.