When Teachers Don’t Recognize a Transgender Student’s Affirmed Name

Holly Slater

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My 14-year-old son has a close friend in his class who recently started spending time in our home. For the purposes of protecting the child’s privacy, we’ll call this friend Jack. The boys spend the day in class together two days a week, and sometimes, Jack will hang out at our house for a couple of hours after school. 

We’ve been careful during the ongoing pandemic. Last March, when the school offered both a virtual-only learning option and a part-time, in-person option, we went with virtual only. One semester later, this past January, we transitioned to the blended option that allows students to attend in-person for two days a week. 

When we realized that things weren’t going to be changing any time soon, I had to weigh my son’s mental health risks and balance them with our physical health risks. He was hitting a bit of a wall from isolation-induced depression. On top of that, the virtual-only option was far inferior academically. For example, he couldn’t take the advanced math class, even though he’s a gifted student, because it wasn’t available in the virtual curriculum. 

Together, both my son and I made the decision that in-person was the way to go this semester. 

When he started seeing his friends again on a semi-regular basis, he asked if Jack could come over. The two of them walk home from school together, and they’ve been getting to be closer friends this year than in previous years. 

Jack’s parents gave their permission, and I did too. We as the children’s parents understand that being indoors together during COVID-19 is not without risk, but the isolation has also been detrimental to our kids’ health and wellness, so, we’re letting them hang out. 

Over the years, my son has talked to me constantly about his circle of friends, and he’s not shy with the details. Before I met Jack, I knew that he was designated female at birth and came out as transgender at school last year, when they were in the seventh grade. 

Julia was the name he was given at birth. But his chosen or affirmed name — the name he identifies with — is Jack. 

The most surprising thing about Jack, other than the fact that he’s incredibly brave to come out to everyone in middle school, is that the teachers in our public school don’t respect him enough to call him by the name that aligns with his gender identity. Even though they’re aware of it, all but one teacher still addresses him as Julia. 

A person’s identity isn’t about you 

I’m viewing this whole thing as an outsider. But I have an issue when a teacher, for whatever reason, doesn’t address a transgender teen by their chosen name. Whether the child’s name is legally changed or not, what motivation would a teacher have not to be supportive of a child’s identity? What kind of a learning environment is that? 

An estimated 150,000 teens, age 13 to 17, identify as transgender in the United States. That’s 0.7%, the highest of any age group according to a 2017 study released by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law.

As more and more trans students are coming out to their friends, parents, and school officials, LGBTQ advocates call for schools to better support and protect a population that is already more susceptible to bullying and violence among their peers. 

Refusing to call a student by their preferred name during or after their period of transition — or simply neglecting to do so by lack of caring — completely negates that student’s personhood, their humanity. A teacher who does this is showing the student that their wants and needs don’t matter. 

Take John Kluge, for example. An orchestra teacher at Brownsburg High School, Indiana, Kluge refused to use trans students’ names, saying that doing so went against his religious beliefs. The school had recently made changes that allowed all trans students to use the names, pronouns, and bathrooms that aligned with their gender identity. 

But Kluge wasn’t on board, saying that “it is sinful to promote transgender behavior.” Kluge says he was forced to resign and later filed a lawsuit, feeling he was being made to contradict his core beliefs in order to keep his job. 

But…but really? Even if you think, for whatever bizarre reason I can’t even fathom, calling a transgender person by their affirmed name is somehow infringing upon your religious beliefs or affecting your job in some moral way—let me put your mind at ease. Their name and identity have nothing to do with you. Or your beliefs. Or your career. Why would anyone insert themselves into someone else’s life and human identity like that? 

I have no clue. None whatsoever. 

Teachers can learn from students 

I’ve come to learn from my son that though Jack prefers to be called Jack, he doesn’t mind or get upset if someone calls him Julie or if he’s misgendered with incorrect pronouns. 

I think, at this point, Jack is still in a period of transition and figuring things out for himself. I also think he’s an incredibly kind soul who doesn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable — but why don’t his teachers extend that same courtesy to him by acknowledging the name he identifies with? 

In the school system, his name is still Julia. Though his parents are supportive of his identity, they haven’t gone to the school to make changes. I can’t say why they haven’t taken this action because I don’t know why. I can only speculate. The best and healthiest way to navigate transition is unique to every individual — so it’s not up to me to tell Jack’s parents what’s best for their child. 

But, if all of Jack’s friends are able to understand and accept who their friend is by calling him Jack, then the teachers can learn a valuable lesson from their students. 

It takes a village to raise — and respect — a child

The first time I met Jack, I learned how quiet he was around new people. He and my son showed up after school, both with similarly styled hair and both wearing t-shirts that depicted video game characters. 

They scattered off to play while I finished up work in my home office. On the next visit, Jack was a little more talkative. I heard about some of his favorite movies, his pets at home, and his love of virtual reality video games. My son is also obsessed with VR — as it turns out, these two have a ton in common. 

I have to wonder if Jack’s shy, quiet demeanor is part of the reason why the teachers continue to use his birth name. Jack tells my son that he doesn’t mind it — but he is trying to come into his own identity, and he does let the people around him know his preference. 

I think it’s up to the adults to provide a safe, supportive, and protective environment for the kids around them — no matter their gender identity, and no matter what the attendance sheet says. 

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