Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Seth (@flatbrim_boy) is a Ph.D. candidate, teacher and activist at a large public research university, where he teaches courses on feminist theory, American sexuality, gender studies and women’s studies. His dissertation focuses on issues of psychiatry, queer reading methodologies and biopolitics in post-World War II American literature.
On Being Peter Pan
I have been medically transitioning via testosterone injections for about a year. Despite the promise of masculinity associated with the shots, I am not read as a male on the street, on the phone, at the coffee shops where I regularly grade papers and, most important, in my own classroom. I know this because people use female pronouns — she, her and hers — when they refer to me.
It has been extraordinarily painful. In my personal experiences from watching those who came before me, and according to my well-trained endocrinologist to whom I am privileged to have access, this is not usually the norm for transgender men using testosterone injections, especially when they are not thin (which I have written about before) or who have my ethnic background. Every time I walk into my classroom I feel my students’ eyes unzipping my body, wondering about the truths that linger under its confusing surface. It is more than uncomfortable; it is a violation of my body and the space it dares to occupy.
Presently, I have the testosterone levels of a healthy man in my age group, yet I still appear feminine. I do not grow facial hair. My voice deepened, but only to the point where you might think that I have a cold. My face is slightly boyish. I am Peter Pan: definitely not a man, but not quite a boy or girl.
This essay will discuss certain decisions about gendered privacy I have made as a result of these transition difficulties. It goes without saying that these experiences are my own and do not reflect those of all transgender-identified people in academe. Instead, I am hoping to use them as part of an emerging springboard for new directions and discussions when considering gender in the classroom.
When I was picking my new name, I deliberately did not choose an androgynous one. I chose a masculine one in the sense that most people named Seth are male. Yet, somehow, my students believe that I am the exception to the rule. In other words, the social and cultural associations with the name are overruled by the way that I look. I ask students which pronouns they use on the first day of class, and I offer my own. But, the students always seem to “forget” that I use masculine pronouns by the second week, especially when talking about me among themselves.
My endocrinologist believes that my “pretty” face is source of their confusion and that I should be grateful because being “pretty” is premium real estate once you start pumping steroids into your system. However, “pretty” doesn’t matter when you have to stand in front of fifty students who are consistently misgendering you, or, even worse, being sexist and transphobic.
My supervisors at both institutions where I work are amazing, as is my dissertation chair. No bad teaching experience I’ve had reflects any of their doing or their disapproval of my transition. At one university, the students are given access to my old name prior to class via the registrar; I have to tell them to use a different name. They call me Seth but use female pronouns even after we talk on the first day. At the other university, everything is under Seth, so the students have no idea of my old name, but they still use female pronouns, guided by my looks and, I’m assuming, my voice. It is amazing to me that the same effect happens at both places despite distinct policies at each college.
Since most of my students perceive me to be female, I struggle with how much to correct them after the initial pronoun discussions. I tend to tell frequent stories about myself or my family during class as a way to show the relevance of course issues. I make sure to always use masculine pronouns — he, him and his — in the stories I share about myself. Other than that, I refuse to confront the class directly about my gender, because I am concerned with my privacy. Transitioning while teaching is a time where privacy is at a premium, especially in the first 12 months, during which time one has to relearn one’s body and adjust to the initial changes of hormone therapy. Transitioning is a highly personal, special and intimate experience.
One of the topics I often bring up with my therapist is how the classroom is a place where my dignity feels stripped and my privacy gone. I want the students to understand, respect and recognize my gender identity, but I also do not want to concentrate on it so much that they feel as though they live in my personal life, psychology or bedroom. I am not ashamed of being transgender, but I do not believe that my gender is public property for others to consume. I think curiosity is a powerful drive for learning but I do not want my body or my life (or any other trans person’s body or life) to be that driving force. I reject body-centered discourse around trans people and communities. That is why I share my pronouns on the first day and gently remind students thereafter, but I turn from a model where I share my personal story to raise awareness. I do not think that model is productive or benefits the students. I know my methodology involves pain for me, especially if the students do not pick up my cues, because it means that they will likely keep misgendering me. But, for now, it is worth it to maintain some sense of privacy and dignity.
My past and present are not a before and after picture or story. I am the same person who initiated into his college sorority and still wears his badge on Founder’s Day, who did that first shot of testosterone, who types this essay wearing skintight women’s skinny jeans and a flat-brimmed hat. My gender identity is complicated, nuanced, but most of all mine to mold and enjoy.
I firmly believe my silence in the classroom is not defeat. It is a battle cry — my activism shouting in a language only others who have been initiated into this same cruel club know so well. It is self-care for a recently articulated self, the most important and urgent kind, a daily reminder that if my gender were a mirror it would be beautiful and smooth, without a crack. I want for nothing.