The Privileges of Being an Out, Nonbinary, Special Educator
By the time you’re reading this, I will be about two months into my third year teaching elementary special education. Which also means I’m about two months into my third year of answering questions from children about my gender identity.
I would like say to I’ve heard it all at this point, but I am constantly surprised by the questions my students have about my gender.
I love that my students never simply ask if I’m a boy or a girl. Instead, my students ask me why I wear makeup when I also usually wear men’s clothing. They ask me why I wear earrings when I also often have a beard. When not discussing my appearance, my use of gender neutral pronouns is the subject of many of their questions. Their complex questions show an innate curiosity in what they do not understand, and this presents me with an incredible teaching opportunity.
Instead of getting upset with their questions, I remind myself that this is exactly why I chose to teach elementary special education. I am the first non-binary person most of them have ever met, and many people have kept them from learning about the LGBTQ+ community at all because they do not believe it is developmentally appropriate. This gives me a very important job: I get to be the one to introduce them to an identity that I am so proud to have. I get to —in a way that is both age and developmentally appropriate— have conversations with my students about my reality.
The best part is that my students already understand difference. My students know that they are different and they know what that means. They understand that people treat them differently based on things about them that they can’t change. Instead of letting their identities as kids with disabilities be a reason that I cannot talk about my LGBTQ+ identities, I make sure that it is a reason that they will be the best ones to understand what I am going through. We are able to talk about a common goal: wanting respect from everyone despite being different.
Admittedly, I could never have done this alone. I have some incredible coworkers by my side who have made all of this possible. They have made space for me to exist in my truest and most authentic self by always using my pronouns correctly, making space for me to talk about my identities, and allowing me to answer questions from the students honestly. On the first day I met the students, every single one of the people on my team introduced themselves with their pronouns so that I would not feel singled out when I shared mine. These parts of being out at work have been incredible.
Don’t get me wrong, it is not always easy to be out at work. Wearing makeup, men’s clothing, and earrings when I haven’t shaved definitely makes some of the students in the school turn their heads. I have heard students whispering to one another when I walk by. There are staff members who have questions that I can see on their faces when I sit down for lunch in the lounge. People often default to using he/him pronouns for me, even though I wear a pin on my work lanyard that says they/them.
I’ve been asked many times if the extra work of being out as non-binary at work is worth it. I pass pretty well as a cis man, and I’ve been told by many people that it would be easier to just tell my students I’m one of the guys. My answer to whether or not it is worth it to be out as non-binary is a resounding YES. It is a privilege to be able to help raise the next generation with an understanding of non-binary identities. It is a privilege to spend every day teaching young people that asking questions about things they don’t understand is the only way to learn. It is a privilege to raise the next generation with the knowledge that gender is a social construct, that the gender binary is limiting, and that they can express their gender in any way they choose to.
Most of all, it is a privilege to know that someday I might have a non-binary student who will get to say that they had a teacher who helped them feel seen in their identities, which is something that I, and so many other non-binary folks, never got to have.
Dylan Kapit is a 4th/5th-grade special educator who is currently working at The Quad Preparatory school in Manhattan, and is a member of GLSEN's Educator Advisory Committee. For more information, blogs by trans educators, and resources on gender identity go to www.glsen.org/trans.