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(Photo: Ben McKeown, AP)
By Managing Editor Timantha Norman
Tulsa, Okla. — During my especially tumultuous second year of teaching for the city’s largest public school district, a student was placed in my class mid-year with little to no background information given from the counselor or administration on the student. I only heard a few vague insinuations about her and things that were “different” about her. When she arrived into my class, she informed me that she went by a different name than what was listed as her birth name, which happened to be a stereotypically male first name. With this revelation and other aspects of her physical appearance, it became evident that she was transgender. This student also happened to be African-American. I had had a transgender student in one of my classes — before, a white transgender male. However, the difference in how these two students were treated by the school’s staff and administration was palpable.
It goes without saying that students of color in America’s public, educational system have dealt with a tremendous amount of exclusion, ridicule, prejudice, and, at times, outright violence in their pursuit of a quality education. With the advent of the gay rights movement in the late 1960s-1970s all the way through its gradual progression to the present day, issues related to the relationship between sexual orientation, gender identity, and societal equality, including educational equity, came into the public sphere. However, as was the case during the heyday of the first wave feminist movement in the 1960s, the concern of people of color within the LGBTQ community weren’t taken into account by the majority of the leadership.
I was initially very fearful for this student because despite the school’s racial/ethnic diversity, ideologically, the student body was quite stagnant in their collective belief systems when it came to LGBTQ matters. I was pleasantly surprised by how the students accepted this student so quickly. As the weeks went on, she started to have some instances of disruptive behavior in my class. She also had allegedly been involved in egging on a dispute between two female students. I tried different avenues for dealing with her behavior. When I tried to receive assistance from the administrative team in the same fashion that I would with any student, the understanding, patient stance that would normally be employed was replaced with a zero-tolerance approach that seemed to constantly involve her being isolated from the rest of the student body, whether it was in-school detention, sitting in one of the assistant principals’ offices, or being allowed to just roam the school instead of attending classes to avoid having to interact with her.
She also happened to live in a shelter and had been in the foster care system for a fair portion of her life (information that I had to seek out on my own) and it became very evident to me that her behavior seemed to be a defense mechanism of sorts. As time went on, it became clear to me that the white, cisgendered members of the school’s administration and counselors weren’t interested in serving this student in any empathetic fashion. They essentially treated her like some sort of scourge that needed to be waited out until it eventually passed (dropped out of the school for constant absenteeism and/or disciplinary actions). The only people of higher ranking at the school who took any discernible interest in her as a whole being was the parent-teacher facilitator and one of the assistant principals, both of whom were African American women.
Toward the end of the school year, a silent campaign of active exclusion against her began to take place, the apex being an incident involving the ACT exam that all juniors were required to take. She came to me a day or two before the administering of the exam frantically telling me that she wasn’t being allowed to participate. Even though we weren’t extremely close, we had a rapport, an understanding of sorts, since she had hinted at the fact that felt as though I was more willing to give her a chance compared to other staff members. When I questioned one of the counselors and one of the assistant principals (both cisgendered, heterosexual, white men) as to why she wasn’t being allowed to take the ACT when virtually every other 11th grader was, I didn’t get a clear answer. She ended up leaving the school before the end of that school year under cover of secrecy.
She appeared again in my class a month or two into the following school year. When she looked genuinely surprised that I was visibly happy to see her back in school, an unexplainable sadness welled up in me. Once again, there were some disruptive behavior issues and I mistakenly went through the proper channels for assistance. Two particular instances occurred that cemented the true seriousness as to what was really happening as it pertains to this student. The first involved me complaining about her disruptive behavior on a particular day with the aforementioned counselor. His very transphobic response left me feeling disgusted that he would basically implicate me in his hatred by making the remark in my presence and saddened that someone that was charged with helping all students would have that kind of mindset. The second incident involved the aforementioned assistant principal (who happened to be my immediate supervisor) where he looked visibly uncomfortable speaking about her initially and then essentially admitted that they would just wait her out until she reached the appropriate number of days where the school could officially drop her altogether for good with a slight, gleeful smirk on his face.
This situation is indicative of the countless experiences that LGBTQ students of color encounter in our nation’s public school system and signals a larger trend at hand that desperately needs to be addressed. According to a 2016 Human Rights Watch study, “LGBT youth experience incidences of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicidality than their heterosexual, cisgendered peers”. In addition, LGBT students of color face multiple layers of seemingly insurmountable oppression. According to a 2013 piece in The Atlantic, “more than half of LGBT students who are African American, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander and multiracial said they had been verbally harassed at school” and “the physical, emotional, and mental health impacts of a hostile climate at school easily encourage avoidance behavior, and students often skip class or stay home”, leading to the increased chance of dropping out of school entirely and engagement in illegal activities for income later in life.
The political climate in Oklahoma has seemed to only embolden this kind of blatant and implicit transphobia. According to the 2016 Human Rights Watch study, Oklahoma has a law restricting teachers and staff from talking about LGBT issues at school and the state doesn’t have any laws prohibiting bullying of students on the basis of sexual orientation/gender identity. Until there is a massive shift in the state legislature’s ideology when it comes to protecting the basic human rights of LGBTQ people generally, it will continue to be the responsibility of allies to get outside of their comfort zones and call out oppression wherever it occurs. Complicity can manifest itself in many ways and those who are also members of other historically oppressed populations still have a responsibility in contributing to turning the tide around in our collective backyards.
Timantha Norman is the Managing Editor of The Black Wall Street Times. She is an educator who fervently believes in the power of culturally responsive, critical thinking-focused pedagogy in transforming the lives and future prospects of children. She also believes in journalism’s power to give agency and power to historically oppressed populations. Through her activism in the community and as a student of public policy, she understands the importance of harnessing collective, political power in the service of promoting truth and eliminating injustice. She looks forward to harnessing her personal and professional skills in the service of her community.