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Intersectionality in the Classroom: A Trans Educator’s Perspective

My path to teaching took a unique route. My lens and knowledge of resources comes from experiences in different educational roles. I didn’t come to stand in front of fifth graders in Washington, DC through a standard path. It took questioning what I wanted to do, figuring out the students that I most wanted to impact, and a lot of patience from my wife.

I graduated from Penn State University with a degree in Secondary Education. An unsuccessful job hunt led me to a paraprofessional job at a Title 1 elementary school in the district where I grew up. Not long after that, I was an instructional assistant in a first grade class at a different Title 1 school in my district and after a lot of moving around, I settled into a job as a grant director for a YMCA in Virginia organizing after school enrichment programs at another Title 1 school. Ultimately, I applied to Teach for America and was hired at my current school in Washington, DC.

I keep making a point to say “Title 1” school. What is a Title 1 school, you ask? Well, a Title 1 school is, “Title I, Part A (Title I) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended (ESEA) provides financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards. Federal funds are currently allocated through four statutory formulas that are based primarily on census poverty estimates and the cost of education in each state.”

Simply put, I have only ever worked in schools with a high percentage of students who are in low-income families. My previous schools were racially and ethnically diverse with a strong percentage of English Language Learners (ELL). My current school is 100% African American students. Before you can walk in to any school, you must know the area and community. You have to ask yourself why your student population exists as it does. What opportunities do students in some schools have that other students don’t? If you are going to be successful in a school, you can’t just teach the curriculum and go home.

What do you mean, I haven’t said anything about transgender students yet?

Well, I have. I just talked about them in a different way. You can’t talk about any human being through one lens. I can’t talk about being a part of a marginalized group with frightening statistics about our lives without also saying that my personal reality is walking through each day being perceived as a straight cisgender white man. To my black students, I am a straight white man that teaches them each day. I care about them, I get to know them, I challenge them, but I don’t pretend to understand everything they experience each day.

To be a successful teacher means you must have a strong grasp of intersectionality. You cannot be successful if you aren’t connecting with all parts of the identities of your students. I can relate my experience as an out lesbian in high school to a student I may encounter. I can relate my transition from female to male to a student who may have those feelings, but I must be careful if those identities are formed within a back drop of race, class, religion, etc. My identity wasn’t formed while questioning my racial identity. My identity wasn’t formed while living in poverty. My identity wasn’t formed while questioning how it fit with my religious beliefs. None of this means we can’t connect with students, we just can’t extend our reach.

My fellow transgender and queer teachers (and aspiring teachers): do not just seek to only understand the queer part of your students. Our students are whole human beings that may need your support in a completely different way that may not relate often to their sexual and/or gender identity. Understand the connections between race, sex, class, ability, etc. and see that they cannot be separated. Showing up for queer students in the inner city, in small towns, in the bible belt means showing up for all that they are.

Trans people have a wide range of perspectives on the world. We exist in many aspects of society during our lives. If we are to continue to make an impact, if we are to continue to exist, we must have connections across communities. Our trans kids are not just stock photos on websites to show diversity, they live in all neighborhoods and come from all backgrounds.

My voice is not here to speak in place of trans and queer students of color (or any student that I do not share a common experience with past my gender identity). Seek to lift their voices. Take steps back as you need. GLSEN posted an article for simply that, “What I Need As A Queer Black Student”. Don’t let your search stop there. Let this be a launching point.

No part of my teaching, no part of my experience can be simplified to just my gender identity. We cannot come to a perfect answer on how to best serve our community, but we can listen and take action. We can learn when to step back and give others a voice. We can point each other in the direction of the answer and hope they get what they need. We can support each other on the way. We can never stop asking questions.

Alex Yates

About the author

Alex Yates (he/him)

Alex Yates is a transgender teacher who seeks to create community and inclusivity through education. Follow him on Instagram @askmeaboutmycats or send him an email.