“I was called into the office of the head of HR, it was absolutely terrifying, I thought they were going to fire me. I was in catastrophe mode. Instead, she said, “I understand what’s going on, I’ve done some research, the college has no firsthand experience with this but we want to support you. What can we do to make your life easier?’.
“So I sat down with the department heads and they asked what my requirements were and how they could help. It was fantastic, it was a much better experience than I was expecting. I’d prepared for the worst but hoped for the best.”
Irons said he had only had one bad experience, where one staff member kept asking about his genitals: “I told her that this was a bit awkward, and if we’re talking about my genitals, can we talk about yours too?”
His pupils, however, reacted very well. “After I came out I sent an email to the students I taught, and the response was positive. I said ‘This is happening’ and made a geeky Doctor Who reference about this being my regeneration. Within a week of sending the email I had 30 responses back and they were all positive: ‘Hey, that’s fantastic’; ‘We totally respect you’; ‘We think you’re so brave’. Four or five students emailed me in confidence saying they were so glad I had come out, and they they needed someone to talk to, they had no one else to talk to. I’m not going to undergo any [physical] changes until 2017, but students are always asking me how I am, and how I’m doing. It’s sweet if a little misguided.”
Hayton and Irons admit they are the lucky ones, as the tragic story of Lucy Meadows shows.
“One bit of imagery I was always aware of, was a big ring of dominoes, toppling: if one thing goes over, the whole thing crashes.”
Teacher-turned-campaigner Juno Roche said she knew of trans teachers who had gone through experiences that were much worse.
“When I had trouble transitioning as a teacher I set about trying to interview as many trans teachers as I could find, and I would hear absolute horror stories. I have fairly good stories, and it’s getting better. A few years ago there were a few horror stories, and it would be wrong of me to say that couldn’t happen to someone tomorrow,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Hayton said while the reaction to her transitioning had been good (two days of corridors going silent as soon as she walked down them apart), her status as a trans teacher did make her feel vulnerable.
“One thing I do feel vulnerable about is looking for work elsewhere, there’s always a fear that my transition will be held against me, or it will depend on people in a new school considering how well you pass in a female role, or in situations where you have no emotional capital built up,” she said, despite being very happy at her school.
“Until three years ago there was always a feeling if I didn’t like it, I could move on elsewhere. But that is not as easy as it was, the choice of wanting to hide your past is no longer there. The physics teaching community is small enough to know me.”
Hayton said she knew personally of four trans teachers who couldn’t find teaching work, some of whom have re-trained in other careers since transitioning.
“There are a number of unemployed trans teachers who can’t find work, they apply for job after job but can’t get one. There are a number of reasons given, such as other people are more qualified. That pattern keeps on reappearing, and it’s always plausible, you can’t actually identify the discrimination,” she said.
“What someone might say is, ‘We’re really impressed to meet you, you have a wonderful CV, but sadly on this occasion the other candidate we interviewed just before you has that little bit of extra experience’. Every time that happens it can be difficult to challenge.”
Irons said as a result of him announcing his transition, he had become an unofficial figurehead for gender issues at his college.
“Any students who’ve questioned their gender come to me for advice. I’m totally happy with that, but I have no counselling training. So the educational system need to provide some sort of blanket training on transgender awareness for all staff. Because I can probably think of five or six students I’ve spoken to, and see on a weekly basis, who are struggling so much and they don’t have anyone to speak to. I’m an English teacher, it’s not even like I teach psychology or sociology or anything, but I’m the go-to person,” he said.
“Having spoken to other teachers in other colleges, there is support in place for students with psychological problems, but not when it comes to transgender. It’s an issue that’s on everyone’s lips. People like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, all the students know them and celebrate these icons. I’m more than happy to deal with it on an ad hoc basis, but it’s terribly frustrating when it is completely valid an issue that affects so many people. There’s nowhere for these students to turn.
“Even though I can think of five or six transgender students who are in the process of transitioning, there must be 10-15 other students who identify as genderfluid or questioning. We foster a culture where students can identify differently and we are supportive to them. But there needs to be a nationwide support for this thing. One per cent of our student population identifies as either T or Q on the spectrum; imagine that on the nationwide scale.”
Caitlyn Jenner Kevin Winter / Getty Images
Laverne Cox Larry Busacca / Getty Images
Roche said we had to move beyond these “very worthy motions”, from “well-meaning cis allies”, however. She is calling for a “radical rethink” about how trans rights and gender issues are approached in schools.
She described a situation where a solitary trans pupil in a school could be regarded as inherently different to other children, just because their identity was not immediately visible in concrete, real-life examples.
“If you imagine being a single trans pupil among 1,000 pupils, and the only time your hear yourself mentioned, where someone gives a dictionary meaning of what you are, you don’t become very actualised,” she said. “You actually become othered and you stayed othered. I’ve been working with people looking at the issue of toilets, they’re a grey legal area. There is a greyness to the law. Should a young girl who has a penis be allowed to use the female toilets at school? No one is prepared to stick their neck out and speak about the authenticity of young trans people.”