I’m working with a transgender student at Second Job. I’ve known him for years, but only recently learned that he is transitioning. (I should have figured it out earlier, but that’s another story.)
The department I work in is slightly more liberal and open-minded than the rest of the institution. When the LGBT group wanted to run a safe space program, one of the higher-ups said to the student representative, “Why? We don’t have a safe space program for people from California, for example.” The students at the institution are, as a whole, pretty sheltered and conventional. I can’t imagine being trans there.
Working with my student, I realize how much I don’t know, and yet compared to 90% of the population at the college, I have a Ph.D. in queerness and gender theory. I don’t know where he is in the process in his head. I don’t know how much to ask him. It’s not that I’m asking him about medical procedures or sex or other obviously intrusive questions. I know what pronoun and name he prefers.
But I don’t know who he’s out to, or whether he’s comfortable with my talking about it explicitly (with him) in our department. I don’t know how his girlfriend feels or whether he’s going to go through a physical transition as well. Somewhere (maybe Black Girl Dangerous?) I read a post about someone hating to explain (in this case) racial politics 18,000 times to clueless but well-meaning white people. And so I decided to do some research.
It’s not that I know nothing about transgender issues, it’s that the last time I read any good books about it, I was in my early twenties. But even with a small background, I needed to refresh my understanding. And so I found the GLAAD Transgender Glossary of Terms and its helpful explanation of each term, a list of “problematic” terms and why they are problematic, as well as a brief media etiquette guide. I knew a lot of these things already, but it was good to be reminded.
When working with students on their writing, it is always difficult to know how personal to get. Issues, transgender or otherwise, always come up. You want to help the students get the words on the page, but you also don’t want to be an insensitive boor “Can you tell me how you felt when your mother died?”. So it’s always a difficult line to walk between helpful and intrusive.
It’s also a matter of code switching. I’m used to these sheltered students and have altered my language and references accordingly. The first time I worked with my transgender student, I code-switched fast. He was writing about women in sports, and clearly knew more than many of my other students about how institutional sexism works. So I made a slightly more incisive comment about gender and sports than I usually did. Then he wrote in his notebook “talk about smashing the patriarchy here.” And I burst out laughing.
Later, when I knew him better, we were talking about how to dress up for job interviews. (This whole topic sends me, rocking, into a corner.) We were talking about suits for women and finally, and with relief, I found I could say to him, “It’s all about getting that sharp, dykey look.” By that I mean boots, button-down shirt, suit jacket, etc., in short, the way I dress at work on a very good day. I love the word dykey, because it sums up my fashion sense pretty well. But I don’t use it very often, because I no longer hang out solely with lesbians. But of course I could say “dykey” to my friend. He knew exactly what I meant, and I think he loved it that there was an adult at his school who could use the word in conversation.
I’m glad to be there for my student. I’m glad he’s making me think through all this stuff again. He’s working at a local(ish) trans organization. And he’s a creative writer, which I didn’t know earlier. (You know where this is going.) So I want him to write a fucking book. And it’s going to be awesome, and he’s going to change the world.
What are you learning again?