I Hid My Transgender Identity to Teach In a Small, Conservative Town - And I Regret It
Like many students, I had no idea in the spring of my senior year of college what I would do after graduation. So when my mom called and said, “There’s a teaching position available at a new school in New Hampshire. Maybe if you apply they’ll hire you,” I thought I’d give it a shot. I knew I liked working with youth and I was passionate about literacy, so I went for it and she was right.
The job was teaching seventh- through twelfth-grade English at a school for at-risk students in Milltown, a community with a 50 percent high school dropout rate. I was attracted to the students this school would serve: the ones who had already dropped out of the public high school, who were expected to go nowhere, who had a history of trauma and conflict. From coursework and personal experience, I understood that it can be impossibly hard to thrive in poor, rural communities and that these are places where capable, compassionate teachers are most needed. I also understood that rural communities without much exposure to diversity can be difficult or unsafe for LGBTQ people. I was afraid I was walking into one of those cases, but I decided to take the job anyway. That is how in May of 2004, after spending four years immersed in trans and queer activism at Smith College, I found myself moving from Northampton, Massachusetts, to middle-of-nowhere New Hampshire.
I was drawn to Milltown, but I didn’t feel particularly comfortable there. It seemed to be a very conservative, insular community, so I chose to live about twenty-five minutes away in a bigger town with a Borders bookstore and a slight liberal presence. I figured I was unlikely to see students there and would be able to be myself in the evenings and on the weekends. I was young and green and an employee at will in a workplace without an inclusive nondiscrimination code. I had yet to develop the self-assurance about being out in the classroom that I feel today. Then, I was just trying to stay safe and make it as a first-year teacher without getting fired, so I started to grow my hair out, decided to leave my men’s clothes at home, and kept my mouth shut.
In Milltown I became “Ms. Ambuter,” Ms. Ambuter who wore fitted shirts and women’s pants and shoes with a little heel. I feel uncomfortable now just writing about it. I’d go to school and be that person, and then I’d come home and immediately take off my women’s clothes, pull on jeans, a button-down, a tie, a leather jacket. I’d spike my hair, and when I recognized the person in the mirror as me, I’d hop in the car. Most days I’d drive to Borders, find a book, and sit for hours. I had moved to Milltown alone and didn’t know other queer or trans folks, but it didn’t matter. I needed to be visible, at least to myself.
Even with the dissonance of being Ms. Ambuter at work, I really liked my job. The only hard part was the daily, extended visits by John Grinch, an aptly named school-board member. He wielded a lot of power over town and school politics, was deeply homophobic, and had a large, intimidating presence. To him, there was absolutely a right way and a wrong way to live. We knew it, his wife knew it, his son Graham, who was in my eighth-grade class, knew it too.
Graham was a sweet, soft-spoken kid who slouched and looked at the ground when he talked. “Ms. Ambuter?” he’d say.
“Where does Santa put the Jewish people’s presents?”
“He doesn’t. Jewish people don’t celebrate Christmas.”
“Really?” Graham was sheltered. Many of my students were.
There were so many ideas and lifestyles they had been given little opportunity to learn about.
Later that day, he tentatively asked, “Um, Ms. Ambuter?”
“You know those people who are boys but they want to be girls?”
Oh boy, did I.
“Transgender people, Graham. That’s the word.”
“Well, do they have their own holidays?” He did not mean Pride.
“Transgender people can celebrate any holiday, Graham. Just like you and me.”
“Oh. Thank you.” And here my stories of being trans and being a teacher began to overlap.
Graham was undeniably curious, and undeniably gay. I don’t know his internal process, but he found a book on my shelf, The Geography Club, about a gay boy in high school, and read it half a dozen times before asking, “Ms. Ambuter? Can you buy me a copy of that book if I give you money?” So I stopped by Borders on my way home and brought it to him the next day.
Later that week his mom came to my classroom. She was a thin, pale woman with light, light eyes, alcohol on her breath, and a nervous disposition. “Thank you for supporting Graham, but I think he needs books with a little more . . . diversity. You know, sports, basketball, that kind of thing. I’m not against him reading books like that. I just want him to read books with more diversity,” she emphasized.
“Okay. I understand.” I did. I understood that there would be no more gay books for her son. In that moment I also understood that she wasn’t the one with the problem. She was trying to protect her son from his father, and her conversation with me had an undertone of sadness and resignation. There wasn’t much more to say.
The next time he asked me to go to Borders, this time for Queer as Folk, I said, “Graham, I can’t get you anything with gay characters. Your mom asked me not to.”
“Oh. Okay.” He didn’t give much of a reaction.
“I’m so sorry. But you do have a library card. I’m sure if there’s something you want, you can find a way to get it.” He gave me half a smile and the year moved on. I didn’t know how to support him, so I bought more LGBTQ books, put them on my classroom bookshelves, and hoped Graham would find them on his own. I was afraid to talk to him directly about it—afraid for him and for my job—and I let my fears stop me.
That spring I resigned from the Milltown school and applied to a social justice graduate program, writing my admissions essays about my first teaching experience: About being told not to read To Kill a Mockingbird because it was too controversial. About the time the whole school was called together and told we needed to publicly support George W. Bush. About kids like Graham, who were silenced, sheltered, and in need of support. About my own lack of visibility. About how much Graham might have benefited from seeing a queer adult who was successful and happy. Not just Graham but any kid there—the ones who were progressive, the ones who were staunchly conservative, the ones who just weren’t exposed to much besides their little town. Everyone benefits from knowing that other options exist. I’ve always been drawn to stories of LGBTQ elders who were visible and proud in the face of serious adversity. Some lost their loves, their communities, their careers, their lives. And they gave us ours by creating the visibility necessary to inspire a social movement for authenticity and pride. I could have joined in, been one of the people I so admire. I could have lived that year in a way I was proud of. But I didn’t, and I regret it. When I left Milltown, I vowed never to compromise myself like that again.
The summer after I graduated with my master’s degree and teacher certification, I got a phone call. The warm voice introduced himself as Richard Wilde, a newly hired principal whose ninth-and-tenth-grade English teacher had just quit. It was late July. He explained that he had my rÃ©sumÃ© on fi le from when I’d applied to his previous school years ago. “Do you have a job?”
“Well, no. I have an offer, but I haven’t signed a contract.”
One week and one interview later I signed on to teach ninth- and tenth-grade English at a small, progressive school in western Massachusetts. I still remember what I wore on my first day of work: a maroon button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, tucked into brown cargo pants. Getting dressed and going to work feeling like myself was exciting, and that feeling carried me through my first few years.
In my third year, I noticed a student in my tenth-grade classroom, Harper, who was new to the school. Most students enter this school in seventh grade, so students who enter in the upper grades are noticeable. Right away her short-haired, baggy-clothed, layered appearance caught my attention—something about it was familiar to me. Coincidentally, a student in the same class who had done a project on transgender people the year before came by one day to return a few of my books she had borrowed for her research: Transgender Warriors and Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink and Blue. I was holding them as I walked around the classroom, and without thinking about it too much I set them on the table in front of Harper. “Here. You might like these. They’re mine. You can keep them as long as you want.” I hung around her table for a minute, waiting for a response. She looked at the titles, smiled to herself, and put the books in her messenger bag and slid it back under the table. I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable, but I wanted to say something more. “You know, gender is something I spend a lot of time thinking about, if you ever want to talk.” She ducked her head and nodded, and I walked away.
She was great in my class, but we didn’t really connect until a few weeks later during one of my prep periods, when she brought the books up to my desk. Harper lingered there for a minute, looking down at the books and then back at me.
“What’d you think?” I asked.
“I liked them . . .” She trailed off and then started again. “I started reading stuff about gender in middle school.” Reaching into her bag, she pulled out a folded set of papers and handed them to me. It was an essay about transvestites and trans-fetishism—outdated language that neither of us would use today—that she had written in seventh grade. Her teacher’s comment across the top read: “Wow, Harper! This is intense!”
Harper mentioned to me that she was questioning her gender. She didn’t seem ready to talk about much but clearly was looking for connection. She showed up in my room two or three times a week. We’d work on an art project and make small talk, or she’d do her work and I’d do mine. I’m not sure how our conversations shifted into something more personal, but by winter we were talking about gender and identity and transition.
I’d learned as a young camp counselor that there are complicated, unclear lines when it comes to adult-youth relationships. People outside the relationship tend to sexualize perfectly appropriate mentor-mentee bonding between LGBTQ adults and LGBTQ youth, so I was careful to set very strong boundaries. I knew some people would see our connection and have a problem with it simply because we were both visibly queer. When Harper and I were alone in my classroom, I made sure my door was wide open and I sat behind my desk. Harper, who by this point was using “he, him, his” pronouns, would sit on the table nearest to my desk. One day as he was building a little tower out of my office supplies, I asked him how gender things were going.
“I want top surgery,” he replied.
“Yeah?” I said. I paused, then added, “I’m having mine this summer.”
He seemed really excited and had a lot of questions. While I felt vulnerable answering them, I remembered Graham and how disappointed I was with myself for not being forthright about my queerness. I thought about how much I would have benefited from an out teacher, how much I benefit from other people’s outness and willingness to share. I also thought about why I teach. To me teaching is not just about course content and skill building; it’s also about empowering youth to live meaningfully and authentically. I wasn’t naive to the consequences of someone misinterpreting my relationship with Harper, but I decided that being a mentor to him was right and worth the risk. I answered as many of his questions as I could, gave him resources, and recommended a local trans youth support group.
Around this time, I came out as trans at work. It felt necessary and important for myself, for Harper, and for the other students at the school. I wanted to be proud of my actions, so I stopped sidestepping gender. I had direct conversations of my own, telling my boss that I was having chest surgery that summer and also that I couldn’t come back to work as Ms. anything. I asked again if teachers could use first names as an alternative to Mr. or Ms. “Well,” he said, “there are a lot of ways that we are informal, and last names feel important to me. I haven’t felt flexible about that because no one has had a compelling reason for the policy to change. But you have a compelling reason. Do you want to be ‘Mr. Ambuter’?”
“Can you think of alternatives to your first name?”
I suggested simply going by “Ambuter” to students. He was fi ne with that, and I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it sooner. It was an easy shift for students, and one that felt honest to me.
The next fall, it felt equally authentic but much scarier when I wrote “trans/queer” on my nametag before our school’s Coming Out Day assembly. After I affixed the sticker to my chest, I saw Harper glance at it and do the same to his nametag. Even though I wasn’t his teacher anymore, Harper still managed to find his way to my classroom most days. He had become an active trans leader in our school community with a solid sense of self and had scheduled his top surgery for November 17, one month after his eighteenth birthday.
I remember the day he came into my classroom and said, “Ambuter, my mom is taking me to top surgery in Boston and she doesn’t want to do it alone.”
“Can your dad go?”
“My dad offered to take work off, but he’s being weird about it, and I don’t want him there.” Harper continued, “My mom and I were talking about who could come that we would both be comfortable with, and she suggested you.”
And so I went. After we saw Harper off to surgery, his mom and I went for a walk and found a coffee shop. “Can I treat you?” she asked. I ordered a small hot chocolate, and we sat down at a little round table. We hadn’t ever talked much, and I felt slightly awkward as we looked out the window and sipped our drinks in silence.
“Ambuter?” She was so used to hearing her kid refer to me that way that she did too. “Thank you for being there for Harper.”
I had come a long way.
A lot has changed since my first year teaching: my nonnegotiables, my body, my name, my confidence and comfort in the classroom. As a college student, I identified strongly as an activist. I used to believe that my activism stopped when I started teaching. These days, I consider teaching with authenticity my activism.
I am in my sixth year as an out trans teacher, and I’ve had a handful of students come out to me as trans since then. Many use my class as a place to explore LGBTQ topics, and more ask me honest questions and receive honest answers. I don’t dodge the topics my students want to engage in, and I am less afraid when others find fault in my candor, because I believe in myself as a teacher. There is something about seeing yourself in someone, about exposure and options, that helps people come into their own. I am not making my students trans or queer, but I am living my life. When that helps LGBTQ youth feel empowered to live theirs, I’m glad.
Coming into a solid sense of self and navigating that identity through time and place isn’t easy. Over the past ten years there have been many times that I’ve thought about how much simpler it would be, professionally, if I were a different type of trans. I could grow a beard, go by “Mr.,” and “fully transition” into a more binary identity, but that has never been who I am. In the end, I like my short hair, flat chest, smooth face, higher voice, male-sounding name, no-fitting-pronoun-or-title self. A series of contradictions make me visible in the classroom every day, and that visibility matters. Through my teaching, my activism, I try to show that there are many ways to do gender, many ways to identify as anything, and no one is more legitimate or worthy than another. I choose to be authentic and unapologetic in the classroom, and I hope that makes it a little easier for my students to be themselves too.
Excerpted from One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium edited by Kevin Jennings (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.