After the ELA exam my classes have dived into our Book Partnership unit, during which students are paired up homogeneously based on reading level. Each student partnership reads an appropriately-leveled novel, and at the end of each class period I provide what I call "Book Talk" time for partners to discuss their book and any responses, questions, or opinions they may have. One of the primary goals of the unit is to develop students' skills in verbal engagement with texts they are reading.
My encouragement of students' critical engagement with literature appears to be effective, judging from some of the questions I fielded today. One student who is reading a YA novel called "Gender Blender" - the story of a high school boy and girl who end up exchanging bodies for a day - approached my desk to ask "Mr. K, what is gender, again? I thought I knew, but in this book they said it was the same as sex."
I told the student that some people think of gender and sex as interchangeable, which probably explains the book's use of "sex" and "gender." He looked at me, confused, and said "But Mr. K, that's not true for everyone, right? I mean, there are some people who are born boys and become girls, right? I was watching this show called 'Real World: Brooklyn,' and there's a girl on it who used to be a boy... Is that true?" Before I could say anything, two other students who were hovering around my desk to ask me questions chimed in and said "Yeah, it's true! She used to be a boy! I watch that show, too."
(Sidenote: It never ceases to amaze me how my - and my peers' - interpretations of mainstream media representations of LGBTQ people can differ so drastically from my students' impressions. Apparently, what I have found a gimmicky and cheesy move on the part of the Real World to include a "token trans person" has resulted in some important educational moments for some of my students.)
Trying to avoid self-authorizing as a "gender expert," I kept my comments to a minimum in the conversation with this particular student. I just provided affirmation that his confusion was warranted, citing what I called a "wide spectrum" of gender identities that people could have.
This particular student has demonstrated a consistent, pointed interest in trans issues and has raised unprovoked questions about transsexuals on at least three occasions. He is (I think) sometimes teased for "acting gay," wearing sweatervests and borrowing pink highlighters from the girls in his class to decorate his notebook. Without assuming anything about his identity, it is clear that gender and sexual identity are important for him to think about and work through. So, after a few minutes of thought, I decided to come out to him, individually, about my trans identity. As his class was getting ready to leave my room, I pulled him aside and said "You seem interested in this topic, which is great" - to which he smiled and said "Yeah, this stuff is really interesting to me" - and I continued "I want to let you know that I identify as transgender myself. I was born a girl and am now a man. So these issues are very real to me, and to many people I know."
The student looked at me and said "So, that story you told us about when you were in middle school... you were a girl then?" I explained that I don't talk too much about my history with my students because it can become a distraction - not because I am ashamed or worried about teasing. "My students respect me, I think," I said, "so I think that they respect me most if I am myself." The student nodded. He was clearly surprised to hear that I'm trans, but then he smiled shyly and said "Well, there have been rumors that you're, you know, GAY or whatever, but not..." In response to that, I came out as queer to him as well, emphasizing that it is important to me that people, including students, understand that it's nothing to be ashamed of. By that point, the student was clearly saturated with "new information about Mr. K," and he turned to go with a smile, saying "Um, I might write about this, and maybe I will have some questions. Bye, Mr. K!" He seemed to appreciate my straightforwardness, and he certainly took it in stride. If, as I have moments of suspecting, he is beginning to identify himself as LGBTQ in some way, the conversation could have been meaningful to him.
Today was only my second experience coming out as trans to one of my sixth grade students, and the last time the student had directly asked me if I'd had "plastic surgery" and if I "used to be a girl" as he'd heard around the school. It was my first time coming out as queer to any of my current students. Though the conversation was a little nerve-wracking (as I suspect it will be each time I come out as trans to a student), it felt really good to tell a curious student that I identify as queer and trans, and that I am proud of who I am.