Gem: Full Interview
Interview by Joseph Thompson
23th September 2019
JT: This is Joseph Thompson for West Yorkshire Queer Stories. It’s Monday the 23rd of September, around 6pm, and I’m here with Gem. So, hi Gem, welcome, thanks so much for agreeing to do the interview. Could I just start by asking you to tell me your date of birth and how you identify?
G: I was born in 1994, and I am a non-binary person, often describe myself as genderqueer and sexuality as queer.
JT: That’s great, thank you. So, you’re currently teaching at college in West Yorkshire and you’re doing an apprenticeship – could you talk a little bit about your experience of that and how you got into doing that?
G: So, I got into teaching via apprenticeships because I was just a bit aimless, not really sure what kind of job I’d wanna go to. So, I left uni without a degree because I had all sorts of mental health problems and I changed course a bit, I took a year off a bit. In my third year, I managed to arrange to have chest surgery in November of the third year. And I was really positive thinking that after surgery I would have all the enthusiasm and energy to actually get me to the end of that year, cos I saw it as the beacon I needed to therefore have my mental health in the right place. But people, it’s not something that’s really talked about, the negative mental health impacts of surgery, because… there’s all sorts of tiredness issues when you’re trying to recover from an operation and because for me tiredness and depression were so linked to each other it ended up, even though it was super positive to have had chest surgery, which I wanted, depression actually increased.
And I ended up dropping out. So, I kind of ran away to Leeds at that point, and I really just picking a place on the map to run away to because, y’know, it was at a time when I was feeling very low, very like, no point in doing anything so I might as well make some completely crazy, rash decisions – so drop out of uni and run away to Leeds. And moved here and got a job in an art gallery, which was fun at first and then just became extremely boring and very unfulfilling and I wanted something that was a bit more of a challenge and makes you, makes you feel like you’ve got a bit more purpose. And so then I applied to be a teaching assistant apprentice at the college and… and I started the teaching assistant apprenticeship being a TA for English and maths, and that was really nice, and I’d never really thought that I’d wanted to go into education, it was more just that I was just grabbing anything I could do. And the silver lining, not having got a degree, meant that I was eligible for an apprenticeship, because if you’ve got a degree, you’re not able to do that level of apprenticeship, cos it was quite low level, it was level two or level three qualification, so I wouldn’t have been eligible for it if I had a degree. So, it was really positive, and it meant that I could get that job.
And that just really changed my life because having full-time work I’ve found has been really, really good for my mental health. Because I thought I’d be too tired for it all the time. But, although I was at first, actually having the strict routine – the strict routine with a threat of being fired, and that being followed through with all sorts of HR, horrible HR meetings where y’know, they know from the offset you’ve got mental health issues, having more than two sick days and no medical condition is grounds for a disciplinary. So, y’know, that actually serious stick against your back really actually forces me to get out of bed, which is positive.
So, I did that – it was meant to be a year long, but they ended up kind of persuading me to, to do a teacher apprenticeship, so I kind’ve fast-tracked through the teaching assistant one and onto the teaching one. To be perfectly honest, the reason they wanted to do that was because there’s so much, cos education is so underfunded, especially further education, which has even, which was hit even harder by austerity because, as we all know, further education is, is looked down on, especially by Tory types of governments because it’s seen where people do vocational qualifications and they’re not academic, and they’re not going to university; they’re people who’re going to fill up the low level jobs or gonna be unemployed. And it’s snobby people, like Tory governments, don’t prioritise them at all, so they get hit even harder when their hourly cuts. So, because it’s so underfunded, one of the issues is that, constantly not having enough staff, so when they brought in the apprenticeship levy, a year so ago, maybe two years, any businesses that earn a certain amount of money have to get apprentices, and so the college does that. And it means that, they only have to pay you minimum wage. And the, they only, and they get most of that money back from the government anyway, from the apprenticeship levy, so essentially they’re getting a free teacher and, for four days a week at least, and so what they do is, they’re pushing recruitment of teacher apprentices so they can fill qualified teachers’ shoes with apprentices. So, it’s really mixed bag, cos it means that I could get into teaching without a degree, but it, y’know… it’s kind of just a side effect of austerity, really. But, moving.
So, I ended up getting this job as a teaching apprentice. And it’s really positive, despite me sounding negative about it, like it’s positive to have got this job and I am grateful that the opportunity was open for me. And I had to quickly get a level three qualification in English so that I could teach GCSE, cos I stopped English after GCSE actually. And so, and now I’ve finished my first year, and I was read apparently 60% of new teachers quit in their first year, and so I’ve been keeping that kind of statistic in my head as kind of telling myself that I really wanna be in the 40% of that, so I’m really proud that I managed to get through it, cos so many times that I wanted to quit. I even created a tick chart at home, which is quite an interesting object I think one day I’ll look back on because back in sort of March I got this huge board that I’d found in a skip and stuck some paper on it and worked out there were 64 weeks between then and the end of the apprenticeship in like June 2020, and I like, blocked out the 64 weeks every Monday/Friday, so I worked out the number of days between the apprenticeship, and every single day, every evening when I get home from work, I tick off another day, and then at the end of the day I shade in that box with a colour that represents how I feel I was feeling that week, and so I’m hoping at the end of the year and a half of me doing that I’ll have this artistic thing where I’ve got these colours flowing and I can kinda see how I was feeling in each week, and just makes you feel better creeping colour across the cardboard, making me feel like I’m getting closer to being qualified. And then when I’m qualified I can work anywhere I want and I can leave that place and I can get paid properly, so that’s the plan. So, that’s how I ended up teaching and I’ve completed now a full year, a full academic year, and I’m now in my second academic year, and after this year I can be qualified.
JT: That’s great, thank you. So, overall how did you find your first year and how, moving forward into the next year, is there anything you want to take with you?
G: I think the biggest – I’ve currently got the freshers’ flu at the beginning of an academic year, because of all the students and their germs. So, the biggest lesson I learned from last year was to – it sounds so cheesy but – actually be myself as a teacher and not try and be what everyone else says a teacher should be. Because my, y’know, a lot of people who’re giving me advice about these things, y’know in positions of mentorship or teaching or something like that would always tell you like how to be strict and how to maintain discipline and order and all of that. And it just did not suit me at all. And trying to be a disciplinarian when, not only is that not my personality, but it’s also not my politics and so I felt like I was – I was personally getting unhappy because that kind of… y’know when you’re not really living your values and it takes its toll on your mental health when you’re not living your values. So, there was that, but also… the students weren’t responding well to it. In fact, once a teacher asked the class – I think she was kinda like checking up on how my teaching was – and she asked the class ‘so what do you think of Gem?’ Which is always a risky thing to ask any students. And they responded that I was like a chocolate because I’m hard on the outside, but they all know I’m soft and squishy inside. Cos, this is after a period of me trying really hard to be stricter, because the feedback I’d got from people was that, ‘you’re too soft, they’re gonna walk all over you; the reason they’re misbehaving is because you’re soft, you need to be stricter’, so I was trying that, but they could see right through that, as the students said – they knew I was squishy and any attempts at being hard was gonna be seen straight through, cos they’re 16 but they’re not stupid, they can see right through you exactly. People can, y’know people can underestimate, yeah, people underestimate teenagers. And everybody’s generally underestimated in terms of like how they can see your personality through whatever kind of façade you wanna put up. So… Yeah I gave up on that. And it does still sometimes get people thinking that I’m being too soft or that I’m being walked over when actually I don’t think I am. Like, I think since I started being myself in the classroom, I’m actually getting hugely better responses because like I don’t send people out of the class, much, only if they’re actually being really violent or whatever, but like I don’t send people out of the class and I don’t like… Like I, even if I’m telling someone off I’ll smile at them, cos it just feels – like, I would never tell a friend, say something negative to a friend without there being some kind of smiling and cushioning and like, ‘I’m really sorry to say this, this is the truth’. So, why would I teach – why would I do it differently to my students, like why don’t I treat my students like I would any other person, so that was a really big turning point for me.
JT: So, in terms of being yourself, you identified at the start as non-binary or queer – how have the students reacted to that?
G: It’s mixed. I think – I was never so much worried about what students would think as what teachers would think, and I think I’m probably founded in thinking that cos the… Most of the time the students just make no comment about it at all, which you could interpret as, oh they’re younger generation, they don’t think about these things, y’know. People say that 16 year olds today, everyone recognises gender is a spectrum. I think it’s probably more just to do with when people don’t know what to say, and they want to ask questions but they’re nervous about it, they can feel that it’s inappropriate to ask something, so I don’t know whether they’re like not acknowledging it is because they don’t really care, or because they’re too nervous to say anything. Or because students are always taught from a young age that teachers are these kind of unapproachable adults who like live at school and don’t have lives and they have no personal interests of their own, and so you don’t ask them, y’know, you don’t ask the teacher where the teacher lives, y’know, you don’t ask them whether they have kids cos it feels weird to ask a teacher that. So maybe they just, they just treat it like that.
But so the majority of students just ignore it, but then there are probably more students that are positive than negative, which is nice. So, there’s quite a few students who… are genuinely positive about it, who might bring it up slightly inappropriately, but in a positive way, so I don’t really mind – and some students even use my pronouns [laughs] that’s really weird [laughs] because hardly anybody genders me correctly at work. And I don’t correct students at all. I can’t be bothered, apart from anything else, it’s not really why they’re in college and I, I don’t wanna make lessons about me, so I don’t correct students at all, but some of them actually just get it right, because I wear a pronoun badge and they read it and they care. And the best thing in the world is when I have non-binary students. That is just, makes me feel, if anything actually brings me to work every morning, it’s my students who are non-binary or my students who haven’t told me, but y’know I think they might be, or they’re definitely queer in some way, like, those students really bring me to work. Even if it’s just that I see them in the corridor, cos I don’t always have, I mean this year, academic year, I haven’t really like got to grips with my students yet so I don’t know if I’ve like got any non-binary queer students right now, still kind of getting to know them.
But there are, y’know there are lots of queer students in the corridors, some of whom I’ve shared sort of secretive smiles with, in this kind of like, they kind of look me up and down being like, ‘hey, are you a queer teacher?’ saying with their eyes, and I kind of like smile back as like, ‘yes! And I realise that you’re queer too so let’s share this secretive smile in the corridor kinda thing’. So, I have them already, which is nice, cos I think it’s like, really, really awkward to like go up to a student and be like, ‘hey you look trans, let me tell you that I’m trans too’, cos that feels a bit weird, but I essentially kind of do that in a really subtle way, like I manufacture situations where I can talk to the student I think is trans, and like subtly – might not be that subtle – but basically tell them I’m trans in the conversation to basically see whether they want to talk to me or not. And it’s really, really positive when I do that. The students almost immediately like hugely change and they go, ‘oh my god I’m trans too! I didn’t know that anyone else was trans in the college!’ And so that’s really positive and that makes me really enjoy work.
And sometimes my colleagues have kind of laughed that I seem to know all the queer students, particularly the trans students. They kind of, they were joking that it’s this really strange coincidence that all the trans students were in my classes [laughs] which is like, as I pointed out to them, is because I wear a pronoun badge, so there’s, the trans students in my classes actually come out and the trans students in their classes don’t come out, so that’s why they think they’re all in my classes. So yeah, I find that funny. And y’know, even though these colleagues say that they, they want trans students to feel comfortable coming out in their lessons, I tell them all you have to do is wear a pronoun badge, it’s the simplest, easiest thing that you can forget about for the rest of the day. You just put in on your lanyard and then, and then that’s it. And then it’s literally as simple as that, cos then the trans students will see that pronoun badge and know that you’re cool. Even if you’re cis, but you’ve got a pronoun badge, no cis person wears a pronoun badge if they’re not trans-friendly, and so then the students would feel comfortable coming out. These colleagues that say they want to help trans students, they won’t take this simple step. Even the simplest step in the world is too difficult for them. So, it still doesn’t happen. So, that’s why there’s so many closeted trans students and in everyone else’s classes [laughs]
But then, still talking about the students, there’s some really positive queer students and there are some negative students. It’s quite easy to deal with them because I know that they’re 16+, so some of them aren’t 16 but they’re 16 to 19 mostly. They’re not really, nothing that they say is really their own opinion. I mean, to a certain extent, nobody really has their own opinions cos we’re all just like parroting what we all heard from various places, but especially when you’re a teenager, it’s not like they know much of the world, so they’re mostly just copying what their parents have said or their friends have said or whatever, and they’re generally just very dramatic, quite… quite thoughtless people sometimes, 16-year-olds, like I definitely was and most 16-year-olds are, so I don’t hold it against them. But they do sometimes do some quite cruel things, like there was one class last year where, before the class started, so presumably they did it – presumably they did it before the class or whatever, they would write on the whiteboard, ‘there are only two genders’ or other kinds of sort of non-binary-phobic stuff. And that wasn’t very nice, but all I’d do is I’d just rub it off. Or sometimes like, I just act like I didn’t see it, because if – if I thought the perpetrator was in the class, I didn’t really wanna give them the satisfaction of seeing them see me see it rub it off. And sometimes I genuinely didn’t notice it. Like, more common was the time when I just didn’t really notice it cos there’s two whiteboards, so they could put it on the whiteboard that I never saw. But the thing that was really upsetting about that, when, is when I hadn’t seen it, and when there was a non-binary student in that classroom. In fact, I should clarify, the times when I decided not to rub it off, because it made my life simpler was never the times when there was a non-binary student in the class.
So, I’ll restart that little bit, so – if they put it on the whiteboard and I had noticed it, and then realising there’s not just me seeing it, there was actually a non-binary in that class as well. So, the non-binary-phobic like harassment of writing on the whiteboard I think was maybe more directed at me or maybe more directed at that student or just both of us, in general. But the students doing that was not that big a deal. The thing that was really upsetting is that sometimes those things would stay on the whiteboard for more than one week. Or like, I would notice it there for a couple of classes and what that means is that – I mean, not classes that I teach, but if I pop into the room and I noticed it there and didn’t have time to rub it off. And that means that other teachers are leaving it there too, so it’s not just me not noticing it, or not being in the room long enough to rub it off. There’s other teachers, cos this room’s occupied all day, who saw the non-binary-phobic messages on the board and they didn’t rub it off. So, that’s the really upsetting bit, is that there’s teachers who won’t even do that. And I understand that they might also miss it too, but I can’t believe that like a whole day’s worth of teachers rotating through this room can happen for seven days and no one’s noticed it, seems very weird.
And yeah teachers, the students sometimes like write little notes on work, so there’s the whiteboards but also sometimes work that they know they’re gonna hand in to me, they write transphobic stuff on it. Which is weird, cos that’s not anonymous; the whiteboard stuff is anonymous, but sometimes they would, they’d draw little pictures of like the male and female toilet signs, that’s one of the things, they’re not actually being transphobic cos they haven’t said anything transphobic, but the fact they’ve drawn the male and female toilet signs on work which they know is going to me, is just weird. Like, there’s no reason for them to do that if it’s not to take the mick out of me being trans and…
And then there was the student who did the speaking and listening presentation on how trans people… quote/unquote like pretending to be a different gender is dangerous for the NHS [laughs] because apparently like if we get an ambulance called for us and we say that we’re like male or female then the ambulance staff will not know what to do with us, or they will like, waste money cos they’ll try certain procedures which weren’t appropriate because we’d lied about our gender. It’s really weird and very silly and hopefully – I don’t wanna assume this – but hopefully other people in the class will have been persuaded to be less transphobic when they see how terrible that argument was [laughs] so, but like, that was very strange, and that was just a really, really uncomfortable thing because it was in front of me and the entire class, being filmed for moderation. And because it was literally an examed, and examined thing, I couldn’t just sort of interrupt and stop him being awful because this is his exam, I’ve gotta let it run. But it meant that the whole class was hearing this, but also, because I was sat near the front of the room, they were watching me watch him say transphobic stuff. So, I had like 20+ eyes on me, and the end of that presentation was really, really hard, because if the student hadn’t ma-, if the students don’t manage to get to five minutes in their presentation, the only way that it’s kind of okay is if I give them prompts to get them to keep talking so they get over that five minute threshold, and then after the five minutes they can do the official questions from people. So, y’know he didn’t manage to get to five minutes, so I had to prompt him to keep going. So, me trying to prompt someone to keep going on a transphobic rant [laughs] was the bizarrest situation I’ve ever been in [laughs] like, and I just didn’t really do it. If I’m perfectly honest, like this student didn’t really make it to the threshold because I couldn’t. I was there just, couldn’t think of any questions to ask him, y’know when you kind of reach an emotional state where you can’t really like function and you find it really difficult to talk? I couldn’t really talk and so… in fact, there’s still a recording of this presentation, because you had to send it for moderation, and I listened back to the recording of it, and at the end there’s this really long pause while he was waiting for me to prompt him, and I kind of attempted, feebly, and then I basically said to the room, ‘anyone have any questions?’
And normally most – normally people take a second and then put their hand up or something cos they wanted to be able to kind of, take the mick out of their friend who was doing a presentation, so they wanted to ask a really annoying question. And, but the room was just like absolute like really frozen silence while they were there like – because they’d obviously noticed that I wasn’t asking any questions, which was not just, my job was to ask questions, so they were like, Gem is upset because Gem’s not saying anything, and I always talk for England so, they were like, ‘something’s up with Gem, cos Gem’s not asking any questions, and we’re really aware that this is an incredibly awkward five minutes, so we’re all frozen. And I just turned off the recording, the end. And there was just this incredibly uncomfortable classroom. But on top of the transphobia as well like, he’d spent the whole presentation referring to people of colour as ‘people of race’, which is just kind of clumsy wording – he wasn’t actually being racist, to clarify – he was actually saying something fairly anti-racist, but just using strange language for it, and so not only did I realise that I really wanted to like say something about the transphobia in his talk, I thought, I can’t, really wanna let it slide, the people of race thing, cos I wanted to make sure the room understood that everyone had race – and it’s really weird to say people of colour are people of race, so I wanted to bring that up as well.
So, I let the class go on a bit, and at the end of the class I, I, once I’d unfrozen I was able to talk again, I got the, I gave kind of a solemn talk to the class about… First of all, I talked about the terminology, people of colour, and why that term exists and why people of race is not an appropriate thing to say, it’s just, it’s not the terms that people use. And then I talked about basically why what he’d said in the presentation was inappropriate, but in like a fairly positively framed way, because I wanted to whole class to hear it, and I wanted it to be positively framed. But the great thing about this – that class happening – and the reason why I’m, I don’t even regret him doing that presentation and having to go through that, is because it was fairly early in the year and there’d been a student who arrived late to the class, like who was enrolled late, who didn’t hear the induction sessions when I mentioned I was non-binary and used they/them pronouns. And so, this person didn’t know me that well, they just joined my class. And after the class, with this solemn talk where I did about how I’m actually non-binary and what he said was inappropriate, but in a positively framed way to the class, I think it was, y’know it was a nice little discussion. This student came to me and came out as non-binary, because they were like, ‘oh I didn’t realise you were non-binary and I haven’t like talked to that many people at college, but you just said in the class’ and they wanted to talk to me about it. And it’s like, I might never have known about that student being non-binary if it weren’t for this horrible transphobia presentation. And I’m, yeah I’m still supporting that student with that kind of stuff in college, so that’s really nice.
JT: Thanks Gem. And how have your staff been with you? And also, is there any support for non-binary people in the college? Other than yourself.
G: So… the staff – it’s really difficult because… even if the college had really good equality and diversity rules – and it has some good ones, and some that need updating – but no matter how good the rules are, like, the people who implement them aren’t good enough. So, even if, I mean I should clarify, there was somebody who tried to write a trans policy, which was really progressive, really great, and I helped, I helped… I helped kind of consult on that, y’know, even though we have 1,000 polices in the college, like, on that one the leadership were like, ‘oh we don’t think we really need a policy on that’. Y’know, basically cos they didn’t wanna have to sign off on a really progressive policy. So, it’s… it’s mixed and it’s difficult and the people in control of it are not good enough.
And… yeah so, on an individual level, the biggest thing I get is, ‘but they is plural’, and – it’s a double-edged sword on this one, cos on the one hand, because I’m an English teacher, I do have quite good authority on what is correct English – I don’t really think there is such a thing as correct English, cos I’m kind of against rule-based language, but like, in other people’s eyes, when I say, ‘no, it’s not actually exclusively plural’, they think, ‘oh well, Gem is an English teacher I guess, so I can’t really fight that battle. But on the other hand, if people are absolutely determined that they’re right, it also then undermines my credibility as an English expert, doesn’t it? [laughs] Because then it’s like, ‘well I can’t even get pronouns right, so why am I teaching about everything else?’
So, it’s kind of a funny double-edged sword being an English teacher who uses they/them pronouns, and, but constantly, what I keep coming back to – and I tell my students this all the time – is that even though I’m trying to teach them the type of standard English which the government wants young people to learn, which will help them pass their GCSEs – which they need for life and work and study. Like, I constantly go on about how there’s not actually the correct kind of English, cos there isn’t a correct kind of English. And whenever I – the biggest one that we get round here in Yorkshire is saying like ‘was’ for plural instead of ‘were’, so like, ‘the horses was running’, rather than ‘the horses were running’. And every time I correct that, like, I insist on telling them that like I’m correcting it to like standard English that the government like, but the Yorkshire dialect is totally valid, and like you can use that as much as you like, just not in your English essays [laughs] so, because I just really disagree with the elitism and the classism of the way that the government wants us to teach English language. So, so when it comes to pronouns I kind of do the same thing, so even when people would try to like essentially kind of undermine me because I want ‘plural’ (in inverted commas) pronouns, like, first I say, ‘well you’re actually wrong anyway; just like, historically you’re wrong’ [laughs], and secondly like, ‘who cares?’ [laughs] Like, I really don’t care, even if you think they is meant to be used plural; I know you’re wrong, and also language does evolve, so get with the programme. So, that was the main thing that like a lot of teachers talk about.
Teachers – almost, almost everybody at the college calls me he, even though I have a huge pronoun badge, like it’s almost an embarrassingly large one, I kind’ve want a smaller one, but I have a big pronoun badge, and I see people looking at it, cos I see their eyes dart down, furtively look down and then they catch – they see me catch them looking and then they get awkward. But they still don’t use them, they don’t really make any attempt to, and in fact there are staff that deliberately go out of their way to aggressively gender me male. I think cos they think they’re being transphobic when they do that.
In fact, there was… big problems when I joined the college. Basically, HR were trying to be transphobic towards me, but they guessed my assigned gender wrong [laughs] so it was really weird, like, because obviously DBS checks are really important in education, cos you’re in a position of authority over children and young people and vulnerable people, so got to do the DBS check, which cool, fine. But the form was an online form and you could only put male or female, and the titles you had to choose were Mr or Miss, or Miss/Ms/Mrs, but they corresponded to the male or female, so for example you couldn’t put in female and title Mr, or the other way round. But, anyway, so when it came to that form, I filled in female and Ms because I don’t feel any more – I feel more female than male and I identify more with woman than man, despite the fact that I was assigned female and I’m on testosterone, this is just like me being really genderqueer and learning to stop caring so much.
But, and so I put in female and Ms. And then the HR called me and were like, ‘sorry, there’s something wrong with your form, we’re gonna, y’know you acc- y’know you put in female, we have to put your gender down as male and Mr, and I was like, ‘well no you don’t, I put down female and Ms, so you’re gonna have to go for that’, and they said, ‘no, no, no, sorry, we have to go with what’s official’, and I was like, ‘female is official, like, I haven’t changed my gender marker, like’. But I didn’t actually say I haven’t changed my gender marker, I said like, ‘the correct one is female’, and they said, ‘oh we’re really sorry’, basically they were saying, ‘even though that’s correct for you, we have to put male’. I was like, ‘you’re just wrong’, and so I said to them, in no uncertain terms, that ‘you’re wrong, you can’t tell me the right way to do this, I’m telling you, it’s female and it’s Ms’. And they… they just wouldn’t do it. And I almost – this was just when I was starting with the college – I almost decided actually to like give up my place and job cos I was like, this is an extremely transphobic institution – basically, they thought I was assigned male at birth and they wanted to put me down as male and Mr, because that’s what they thought my assigned gender was, despite the fact that they just got it wrong [laughs] like, and I was very close to just not wanting to take the job, because if this is how – HR are the people you’re supposed to go to when you have a discrimination complaint [laughs] like.
Anyway, so I got through that. Then after I took the job, I said to them, ‘on your records, you must put me down as female in your records; I’d rather you put me down as non-binary, but as if you’re gonna do that. So, you must put me down as female like even just as a point of principle, this is what I want, right, and it’s the legal, official one, so I don’t know what the problem is here’ [laughs] And they still haven’t done it. I’ve been at this job, in the college, for like nearly two years and they still have refused to put down my legal gender – that has never been changed, on the system. It’s absolutely ridiculous. So, that’s the structural issues. And then also the way that people love to pay lip service to wanting to be, to equality and diversity, but then not actually do anything.
Ever since I joined I’ve been trying extremely hard to persuade them of the need to have trans awareness in the college. And nothing has been done, in the year and a half that it’s been raised in every single committee that you can, and nothing has been done. So, it just kind of, there’s this institutional apathy. But on an individual level to me it’s more basic transphobia. I’ve had one or two massive transphobia moments, of like really big discrimination, but those are on individual levels. And… y’know, but that’s gonna happen.
JT: Thank you so much Gem. Could you speak a bit about how being non-binary affects the way that you teach?
G: So… the biggest thing is that I think it’s extremely important to making teaching resources actually reflective of everybody, or representative of everybody. And there’s already like quite a lot of movement about that in terms of like ethnicity, y’know. Unfortunately, it’s kind of a running joke in staff rooms how like the name of a person in a maths paper is always like a name that’s not stereotypically white British, and unfortunately there’s still staff members who laugh about that. But in general, like people kinda see the need for representation of like ethnic minorities in the UK. But – and I think people are sort of, depending on who you ask, depending on what school, since Section 28 repeal, people are sort of like I guess y’know occasionally you might want to like pay an occasional comment towards not everybody being in a straight relationship, but that’s just depending on the teacher and whether they’re okay with doing that.
But trans stuff is still like… pretty taboo to talk about in a classroom, I think. I guess the issues are that there are like pretty recent – I don’t know how recent – but pretty recent examples of like trans teachers being forced out of a job, because right-wing newspapers have done scandal stories or parents have pressured the headteacher, and that’s actually has been my biggest worry about teaching was that I would be embroiled in some kind of scandal and I’d be fired. And I think that also just a lot of teachers just genuinely still think, are just still transphobic and so they don’t see the need for representation because they still think that being trans is like an illness. So, whereas I don’t think that most people see being gay as an illness, anymore [laughs] so it’s like we need to cross that step first before people actually teach it.
So, personally I try really hard to like make my lessons representative of queer people, all kinds of LGBT+ identities, and the way that I do that is – luckily I have a certain element of freedom about like what kind of extracts I can pick to teach lessons on – not as much freedom as I’d like, but I had some other win. And so whenever I’ve managed to pick an extract I always take it as an opportunity to pick it from a queer author, because that’s the only time that it’s really easy to, like properly write a whole lesson basically about queerness, because I can pick – for example, I did a lesson based on an extract from Audrey Lorde, Zami: a New Spelling of My Name, and… and then obviously when I was introducing Audrey Lorde, I could just give a little bit of a bio about Audrey Lorde and y’know, oh god, black, black warrior, lesbian, poet, mother – oh I feel really bad now, I can’t find, remember the exact quote, but there’s, y’know those great quotes about how she defined herself. And so managed to write a lesson on that, and I’ve just written a lesson, which I’m gonna deliver in a couple of weeks, based on The Left Hand of Darkness and I haven’t actually included a passage that talks about gender, cos that would go too far, like, I would cross a line. Cos the Audrey Lorde thing was okay because she was a lesbian and so that’s like okay to talk about. Left Hand of Darkness, I can’t talk explicitly about gender – even though it was written in 1969, I can’t do that cos I think I would get in trouble. But I, I’m gonna mention off-hand, when I introduce the book, that it was a radical book because it depicted some humans on a planet who, whose sex didn’t work the same way as our sex does.
And, and I think that’s the way I manage to get it in a lot of the time, is by not having it on any lesson plans or schemes of learning or on the slides, because that’s something that people can take away and show their parents, who can then show the principal, who can then get me fired. If I speak it, and no one’s taking a recording, then nobody can see that I’m actually talking about trans people in the classroom.
And, the one instance where I have kind of ort of got in trouble is I did a lesson on the gender inequality of the music industry. So, I compared a 19th century extract from Ethel Smyth’s – well, 1912 book reflecting on the 19th century, Ethel Smyth memoires, where she talks about like not being taken seriously as a female composer and contrasted that with a very recent BBC news article on… on the actual like, you can’t like dispute these statistics about like the number of women in the charts and the pay disparity between genders in the music industry. And so I was literally – it was literally just talking about men and women – there was no non-binary and no like transness acknowledged, it was just like cis men and women. BBC news article – it was very basic feminism, like not, not the kind of feminism that would even get you in trouble in classrooms, it was very basic feminism. And I was doing it for a lesson where I was being observed. And I was confident that this was not scandalous enough for me to worry about being observed doing it. And… it was just feminism [laughs] and…
But one of the exercises I got the students to do as warm-up was, in one minute, write down all the names of music artists you can think of, including bands and solo artists. And I was confident that it would work, and it did, that afterwards we would work out how many men versus how many women they could think of, and overwhelmingly the music artists they could think of were like 90% men – as predicted, and I was quite satisfied with myself that it worked as planned. But – the spanner in the works was that the students thought of non-binary artists too. So, this was a problem for me, because I was being observed. So, the students brought up Sam Smith and Miley Cyrus as non-binary artists – Miley Cyrus I think has mentioned non-binary or genderqueer and Sam Smith’s recently come out as non-binary. And, so I obviously had to acknowledge that the students mentioned this, and then one of the students said, ‘oh and you’re non-binary, too aren’t you?’ And I was like, ‘yes, that’s true’, and we had this positive discussion about non-binaryness, which, it was extremely positive, how great is it that students bring that up? But unfortunately I was being observed, and so the response in the observation feedback was that they’re concerned that I’m bringing up gender too much, and that, y’know, I’m kind of forcing this discussion of like my gender ideology of non-binaryness into classrooms. And, y’know, I can’t help that the students knew some non-binary people and wanted to mention them, cos there’s, the person giving the feedback wasn’t upset that I was talking about men and women in the music industry. They were literally just upset that non-binary got mentioned and that I’m non-binary so therefore I’m pushing my gender ideology.
So, that was a bit shaking and one of the reasons that I’m more cautious, cos I’m really aware of how like fragile my position is, cos it’d be so easy for them to get spooked and not want to let a non-binary person teach because it’s not like – I mean, obviously there are a lot of non-binary people teaching, but like I’m really outspoken about it. And being an outspoken queer teacher, like, is scary for me, but it’s actually probably more scary for my managers because actually like, y’know what I do is their responsibility and because they’re queerphobic [laughs] they’re just like really scared that I’m going to get them into trouble, whereas for me, I guess in a way like – this is not, y’know – I do like the job and I do wanna continue the job, but as I said earlier, like, I got this job by kinda falling into it. And if I can’t do it in a queer way I don’t wanna do it. So, if I get fired for doing it in a queer way, then… that’s just kind of how like the cards lie, but – so I wanna do as, I wanna be as queer doing it as I can without getting fired. If I do get fired for being queer, then that’s just what happens, and I fell into this job anyway, so what’s it got to lose? So, do that a little bit.
The other ways that being non-binary affects my teaching is… just like loads of like little things to do with changing resources. Because a lot of the time I have to teach stuff that other people have written, either colleagues or from other places, booklets and worksheets and stuff. And they’re all so cis. Like, the way that they refer, y’know refer to he/she rather than just saying they – which is just bad style in my opinion. Or they, or the resource like always says like… ‘if the man or woman’, or something like that, instead of just saying, ‘if the person’, and – and I’ve had worksheets where you have to hand out little – on stuff like there, their and they’re, or and people talking about like how ‘their’ – t-h-e-i-r – is referring to the possessive like the plural possessive, even though as we know like singular they has been used forever. So, I had to kinda like cross out the plural possessive and being like possessive plural or gender neutral singular. And, and… which looks bad, cos if somebody noticed that I’ve doctored some resource then it’s gonna be like, ‘oh they’re pushing the trans agenda’. I do stuff like when I write my lessons, just like I’ll often like add in little bits just to be more inclusive of queer stuff – and not even just queer, obviously, because y’know I do all sorts of like – I think I have a bit of a reputation of as a bit of social justice warrior teacher, like, it’s every lesson students are like, ‘oh what social justice issue are we tackling today?’ and I’m like, ‘glad you mentioned it – we’re doing ableism’ [laughs] and y’know like, so that’s fun, it’s fun for me, and it makes, it keeps me coming to work cos it feels like I’m doing something good.
And then finally probably, the last way it affects my teaching is just the amount of free therapy I give, because like, I’m basically a therapist for all the trans kids in the college – perfectly willingly. I actually seek them out to like, take them under my wing, because they’re all having terrible mental health issues, which is not surprising. I mean, we know the statistics on mental health issues with trans people, and I’m like an example of it too. So, that’s why I seek them out, cos you can be almost certain that they’re probably suicidal. They say like about 50% of young trans people have tried to commit suicide, not just being suicidal – 59% of young people, trans young people self-harm. So, like, if you see a trans young person they’re almost certainly suicidal and self-harming, so that’s why I always like seek them out.
And they’re woefully, like, under-supported by the college, it’s absolutely disgraceful that they don’t really get any support, so I basically… try and look after them a bit, and shout at their tutors who keep misgendering them. There’s some students that’ve been there for years and the tutors still use the wrong name and pronouns, so I just kind of like fight their battles in the staffroom, which makes me feel good – it’s not like a selfless act. It makes me feel good because… this is actually probably something that’s worth mentioning as well, like I think on the flipside of all this is that feeling that I’m kind of complicit in the education system, cos there’s so much in the education system which is terrible. And I can try and like gloss over some of it, and improve some of it, but fundamentally the education system is – it is fundamentally elitist, and it’s fundamentally ableist, the way that we educate people. And I feel complicit in that, and I kind of, I think that overall, on balance, it’s – people have gotta be educated, so it’s still better to have people in positions as educators who are trying to make the world a better place who are like, for example, like socialist and queer and anti-racist – y’know, I want, I’d rather be doing it but, I do feel complicit and sometimes I worry I’ve lost my radical edge or that I have like, I’m compromising my principles by taking part in this institutionalism, which is not nice. But it’s… and so by taking every opportunity I can to like, to be annoying, makes me feel better. Like, I kind of think to myself like, am I annoying the senior management team with my queerness right now? And if I am annoying them then I feel like I’m doing it right. Cos I do annoy them, I go on and on about their failings. I consistently break my contract and my contract says that I’m not allowed to say anything negative about the college. But even this right now, I’m breaking my contract because, realistically the college is a bit identifiable right now, even if I’m not gonna say the name. And so by saying all this I’m breaking my contract and going to be fired. So I annoy senior management team and that makes me feel good.
JT: Thank you.