With Teachers Coming Out as Transgender, Districts Struggle

Leo Soell came back to school with no hair, a new name and an announcement.

The Hall Elementary School fifth grade teacher left to undergo cancer treatment last fall as Brina. A double mastectomy and four rounds of chemotherapy clarified a few things.

For years, Soell had lived a double life. At home in Southeast Portland, friends knew Soell was transgender and used the gender-neutral pronoun “they.” At work in Gresham, coworkers called the 26-year-old “she.” But after treatment, Soell was ready to be known as “Leo” and “they” at school, too.

“Because I was dealing with cancer, you think about the fact that you need to be yourself and nothing less than that every single day,” Soell said. “I chose to stop lying.”

Soell returned from medical leave in May, and expected coworkers to celebrate. Instead, other teachers said, the principal told staffers they could not announce Soell’s gender transition or name change. Some coworkers stopped talking to Soell, teachers said. Others called Soell “lady” or simply “Soell.”

Oregon and Washington have long barred employers from firing workers because of their gender identity. Portland-area districts celebrate diversity in school mottos and warn against discrimination in board policies. Yet most schools remain unprepared for the coming wave of transgender teachers, staff and students.

In the worst cases, teachers and students say they have been harassed or bullied. Even in progressive Portland, where principals routinely remind educators to ask students their preferred pronouns, transgender teachers say they still worry about how administrators will respond to parents, who may not understand or care what the law requires.

And in Gresham, investigators are now reviewing what happened to Soell last spring.

“I honestly don’t think the district had any clue that all of this would happen,” Soell said. “The frustrating part is I knew without a clear policy this would happen. I don’t think it was malicious. I think it came from lack of understanding.”

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Soell grew up in Boulder, Colo., and came to Portland in 2008 to study at Lewis & Clark College. Soell started teaching at Hall Elementary in 2013. That same year, Soell began telling friends and family that they did not identify as a woman.

Soell’s loved ones weren’t surprised: Soell had been a high-energy, androgynous kid and grew into a lanky, 5’10 soccer and basketball standout who wore a tie to graduation and job interviews.

Still, identifying as “he” didn’t feel right either, Soell told friends. Soell identified as “transmasculine” but existed somewhere between male and female. They asked friends to use the gender-neutral “they” rather than “he” or “she.”

At work, Soell stopped separating students by gender and won a grant to buy classroom books with characters who didn’t hew to gender stereotypes. Soell even spoke on a 2014 panel at Lewis & Clark about being a transgender teacher, but waited to come out at work.

In Oregon, teachers work their first three years on single-year, probationary contracts. Soell planned to wait the three years before coming out to administrators.

“It was getting harder to work in Gresham,” Soell said. “Even just a staff member leaving the room and saying, ‘Bye, ladies,’ was hurtful because I felt like I was lying.”

Then, last November, doctors diagnosed Soell with breast cancer. Surgeons removed Soell’s breasts and performed transgender reconstructive “top surgery” to give Soell a masculine-appearing chest. Soell went in for chemotherapy with a hospital wristband that said “female,” and came out ready for a new name.

Other Portland-area teachers have come out as transgender. In 2009, a longtime West Linn High School math teacher Nick Kintz became Nicole. The school principal wrote parents to explain, “We believe we have a teachable moment for ourselves, our students, and this community. As educators, we speak to authenticity, tolerance, honoring diversity and developing character.”

Kintz taught another six years before retiring this summer.

Two years ago, Reynolds School District leaders supported Micah Freeman when he transitioned to male while teaching seventh grade language arts. Freeman, 39, had taught at H.B. Lee Middle School for eight years and knew of other transgender teachers who had left their jobs to transition in secret. But that didn’t feel right for him.

“I wanted to be honest with kids because I wanted them to have a positive role model,” Freeman said. “More than 40 percent of transgender people attempt suicide. If I came to work and one of my trans students had committed suicide, and I had been stealth, closeted, I would wonder for the rest of my life if it would have made a difference if I — a happy, functional adult — had been honest.”

Three parents removed their children from Freeman’s class, but otherwise, the process went “incredibly smoothly,” Freeman said. Class went back to normal: Freeman’s students refer to him as “he,” and his transition rarely comes up.

When a transgender student enrolled, H.B. Lee’s principal welcomed the student and offered Freeman as a resource.

It’s impossible to say exactly how many transgender teachers work in Oregon. Though spokespeople for seven districts said they don’t have openly transgender teachers, The Oregonian/OregonLive spoke with several who agreed to talk privately about their situation but didn’t want their names used for fear of retribution.

Some said principals encouraged them to be open about their gender identity and keep books with transgender characters in their classrooms. But one second-year Portland high school teacher said they feared their contract would not be renewed if parents found out.

In 2011, parents called TV news stations to complain about a Vancouver, Wash. substitute, mislabeling the transgender woman as a “crossdresser,” a man who wears women’s clothing but does not identify as female.

Evergreen School District officials stood by the contract employee, the substitute teacher said, but students repeatedly called her names over the following four years. The teacher asked not to be identified by name.

Soell, wanting a smooth transition, sent a district-approved coming out video to coworkers and compiled a list of questions students might ask and possible responses for various grade levels.

That document “disappeared into the abyss,” Soell said. Instead, two of Hall’s coworkers said, the principal called an immediate staff meeting and told teachers they could not announce Soell’s name change or preferred pronouns to their classes.

Gresham-Barlow spokesperson Athena Vadnais said district administrators asked the principal “to notify staff to not engage in extensive conversations because of our need to honor the employee’s rights and to ensure the age appropriateness of the conversations with students.”

Still, students noticed differences. Chemotherapy caused Soell’s hair to fall out. Soell’s own class started using “Leo,” now their teacher’s legal name. When children asked questions, teachers said they weren’t sure how to reply.

“I felt incredibly uncomfortable,” said Tara Kerwin, a fourth grade teacher. “We were told what not to do but not what to do.”

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A few local nonprofits that offer school-specific training on gender issues are seeing a jump in demand. Facilitators at Bridge 13, run by the Sexual Minority Youth Resource Center, say they have four to six trainings a week booked this fall, most at Multnomah County SUN schools.

“There’s becoming more of an awareness that they need to get ahead of this,” said Danni/y Rosen, chair of Oregon’s Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network and a transgender person who identifies as both a man and a woman. “Youth are coming out younger and younger, and schools are struggling with that.”

Rosen said most districts are saddled with a litany of state and federal requirements and make decisions by calculating cost and risk. If no one is openly transgender at a school, district leaders may not prioritize that kind of training.

In more conservative suburban districts, Rosen said, school leaders also worry parents will complain.

“There’s this fear that the community is not ready,” Rosen said. “‘Are we as a district the one that should be changing the culture of the community?'”

Even in rural areas, Rosen said kids are becoming emboldened: Sandy High School students last year successfully fought to have the district reclassify 11 staff bathrooms as gender-neutral for transgender students to use.

Eric Overby, a Troutdale resident whose stepdaughter is transgender, said officials at one Clackamas County district told him, “We don’t have that problem out here.”

“I told them, ‘First of all, it’s not a problem,'” Overby said, “‘And second, yes you do. I know several who go to your school.'”

Last year, Overby and his wife opened an East Multnomah County chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. As many as 30 families attend meetings; about 70 percent have a transgender child or sibling, Overby said.

TransActive Gender Center is working with more than 450 metro-area families with transgender children, said executive director Jenn Burleton. About 63 percent of those are younger than 12.

Students will eventually encounter transgender people, Rosen said, and a teacher’s reaction to a transgender coworker sets a model.

“If we want our youth to be successful in the world, we need to look at how they are going to work in diverse teams,” Rosen said. “You don’t want them in Fortune 500 companies, which have been very affirming for transgender workers’ rights, and they don’t know how to deal with diversity.”

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A few weeks ago, Gresham-Barlow leaders hired TransActive to host a one-hour training at Hall Elementary. Facilitators told Hall staff that district employees are legally required to use Soell’s legal name and preferred pronouns. Soell now goes by Leo and they in class.

“I understand that for a lot of people, trans visibility is scary because it’s new,” Soell said. “I completely understand what it’s like to have things change when you don’t want them to. However, change is never an excuse to treat someone poorly.”

Nearly all of Soell’s students use the new monikers, though occasionally they have a playground debate.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” younger students have asked.

Soell’s answer: “I’m just a person.”