NewsNov 15, 2019

Reporting the experience of transgender people

Dr. Michele Dow ’19 presents findings of her research into discrimination and other challenges transgender educators face

Woman with white hair and glasses and a printed dress giving a speech at a podium with her hand on her hip

Transgender people, whether they undergo surgery, hormone treatment or simply identify with the gender opposite of the one they were born into, face difficult discussions with loved ones, and often inner conflict.

But, too many times, they also face workplace discrimination, even harassment, as well as violence. Dr. Michele Dow, a transgender woman who earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership at Lesley this past May, said she was discriminated against when she was an elementary- and middle-school teacher in Cambridge.

“I went from being an inspiring teacher” before she came out as transgender, to being placed on “performance improvement plans” afterward and, eventually, her contract was not renewed.

Woman with white hair and glasses and a printed dress giving a speech at a podium
Dr. Michele Dow earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership in 2019.

“My research grew out of my experience in Cambridge,” Dow said Thursday night, speaking to several dozen audience members in Washburn Auditorium at the fourth annual Sankofa Lecture Series. Her presentation, “Transgender Educators: Understanding Marginalization Through an Intersectional Lens,” outlined the research that underpinned her doctoral dissertation — a survey and subsequent in-depth interviews with seven transgender educators from across the country.

Her subjects’ experiences ran the gamut of seemingly easy acceptance — enjoyed by a Massachusetts transgender man, Ari, a school principal — to outright shunning (by school districts and even faith communities) visited upon transgender women in Tennessee and California’s conservative Central Valley. Yet the latter two educators found solace, and eventual employment, after moving to New England and San Francisco, respectively.

Dow indicated that transgender males tend to have less difficulty gaining acceptance than transgender females, an experience seemingly borne out by “Leo,” a transgender boy who is a high-school junior at the same district that Dow said discriminated against her.

A crowd of people sitting in an audience in Washburn Auditorium.
The audience in Washburn Auditorium.

Dow invited Leo to share his story which, despite initial inner uncertainly, appears to be especially positive and indicative of success. Leo, who began his transition to male two years ago, said it began as “an isolating experience for me.” But, once he was sure he wanted to go forward, he came out as transgender to his friends and family, who were generally accepting.

“My mom was really a big superhero,” Leo said, adding that he had another ally: a teacher at his school, described by Leo as a “proud trans man.” This teacher served as a mentor and role model to Leo and made sure his school records aligned with the male gender Leo identifies as. Other teachers were similarly in Leo’s corner.

“School was a safe haven because of the teachers,” Leo said.    

That support was also reflected in the most recent election in Massachusetts, when “Yes on 3” — a ballot measure ensuring civil rights to transgender people — passed by a 4-to-1 margin.

But such acceptance is hardly universal or longstanding.

“Others don’t have the supportive environment that Leo had,” Dow said. Even the scant Title VII federal protections for transgender people have been effectively rolled back by the Trump administration, Dow said, and the internal struggle continues, too.

An audience of people listening to a woman with short white hair give a presentation in front of a screen.
“I want you to feel what I and other trans people feel,” said Dr. Michele Dow at the outset of the presentation.

“Nearly all trans adults have contemplated suicide” at one time, Dow said. That point was underscored in Dow’s presentation, which included video of high-profile transgender adults like actress Laverne Cox (“Orange Is the New Black”), several academics and the first transgender celebrity, entertainer Christine Jorgensen. One slide featured Jorgenson’s face and a quote from 1967:

“The answer to the problem must not lie in sleeping pills and suicides that look like accidents, or in jail sentences, but rather in life and the freedom to live it.”

The Sankofa Lecture Series creates a forum for thought-provoking, diversity- and inclusion-themed presentations on current topics by guest speakers, authors and researchers inside and outside of academia.

“I want you to feel what I and other trans people feel,” said Dow at the outset of the presentation.