I have to begin by saying that in no way, shape, or form am I an authority on this topic. I am not transgender, I don’t have friends or family who are transgender. In fact, I had never even met anyone transgender until I met Julianna*. She was tall, broad shouldered, thick-lipped, and absolutely stunning. Her make-up was meticulous. Her hair, shiny and immaculate. I remember staring at her, wanting to ask for beauty tips, but not knowing how. I often wonder if she was uncomfortable in the first few weeks we were getting to know each other because she sometimes caught me staring. I couldn’t help it. It wasn’t because she was different; it was because she was beautiful. The way she aligned herself with her group of girlfriends was so natural and authentic, it made me smile to watch.
At the time, I was an 11th and 12th grade History teacher working in the badlands of Philadelphia. The way my school was structured meant that I received a set of new students who cycled through as a cohort and this group just happened to be all female, including Julianna. I had this group for an enrichment course in the middle of the day and I was directed to teach soft skills, such as leadership and organization. I had absolutely no idea how I was going to get a group of teenage girls to buy into it, but I was willing to try. I met Julianna in the winter when it was cold and everyone was still bundling up tightly. I remember when I first met her, she was wearing her uniform sweater loose enough to not show any curves of her body. She was unsure of herself. I knew she had almost fully transitioned in her appearance just by looking at her, but her personality was so different. She was quiet and timid. She didn’t flinch when I called her by her birth name, which was written on my class roster, but instead responded with the one of the sweetest voices I have ever heard when she said, “Here.” She didn’t even correct me.
At first, it definitely felt like a pajama party I wasn’t invited to. I could tell that she didn’t trust me. She wouldn’t look at me when I spoke and looked at the ground any time I asked her a question specifically. In class, she would daydream and often leave assignments unfinished, even when I pressed her. I didn’t want to push her to open up to me, but I also didn’t want her to fail the class. Every chance I got, I would slide myself into her conversation with her peers. (She loved to chat, just not about classwork. Big surprise for a teenager, right?) So, we’d talk about make-up or TV or Instagram -- whatever she was willing to chat about for the day. I’d politely remind her to finish assignments or I would take what she had done to make sure she received some credit. Eventually she warmed up to me, but we still never spoke about her life or her identity.
I soon realized that her reading level was incredibly low and so I would gravitate towards her during lessons to check over work or spell words out for her. I could tell she appreciated the extra effort on my part and I was starting to get more work from her. Soon, her grade started to rise and I felt good about the progress we were making. I could feel myself starting to bond with her.
As the spring approached, everyone else began wearing less clothing, but Julianna stuck to her sweater. Prom season began and all of the girls started excitedly discussing all of their details – dresses, dates, hair, and make-up. Julianna gabbed excitedly alongside the rest of the girls. I watched her light up when she talked about the prom. She described her dress, in detail, so many times that I probably could have gone to the store and picked it out without ever having seen it in person. I remember her asking me several times if she was “allowed to wear a dress” and honestly, I didn’t know. She spoke to our administration and I remember the principal giving her the “thumbs up” when she was sitting in my classroom. The look on her face was extraordinary.
When prom day came, I remember feeling nervous for her. What would the other kids say? Would anyone be mean to her? My maternal instincts were so strong when it came to her, I wondered what I was willing to do to protect her. I knew I wouldn’t be alone as there were a host of chaperons and other adults in the building, but I always seem to catch those quiet comments people make under their breath. I wasn’t sure if I could handle those. When I arrived at prom, I saw her there with her friends, and for as stunning and happy as she looked, I couldn’t help but notice: the dress she was wearing wasn’t the one she described.
I didn’t ask about it while we were at the prom. I watched as Julianna happily chatted with friends, fixed her make-up, took selfies, and did the things most high schoolers do at their prom. She danced bachata with a close, incredibly sweet friend in a group of her peers. She looked content and relaxed. I can’t say that there were absolutely no comments made about her or that no one stared; I just didn’t notice. I felt too overwhelmingly happy for her.
Weeks later, discussion came up of the prom in class and someone mentioned how good she looked, but it didn’t look like the dress she described.
“Oh, my aunt picked it up from the dry cleaner so I wouldn’t wear it.” She said casually, brushing it off like she had just told me what she ate for breakfast.
I was stunned.
“I found the dress I was wearing that day.”
I remember feeling my stomach drop. My own prom outfit had taken me months when I was in high school. If someone interfered with my ensemble, I probably would have had a nervous breakdown and curled up in the fetal position instead of even trying to fix the problem. Julianna found herself a new dress that day and didn’t even miss a beat. I couldn’t tell for two seconds at the prom that she had faced any obstacles at all that day. She was relaxed and radiant.
Julianna opened my eyes to the day-to-day issues transgender teens face. There are astonishing facts and figures showing how tough it really is to be a transgender teen, but what broke my heart were those quiet stories Julianna told me about her everyday life. Internet trolling, noiseless gossip, asking for permission to wear what she’s comfortable in, and prom dresses picked up by possibly well-intentioned adults.
Our teens, transgender and otherwise, deserve adults who will give them the safe spaces they deserve to figure out who they are. I know my enrichment course was an anomaly and many transgender teens don’t have a space where they can feel like themselves. High school is hard enough without feeling like you never have a place to fit in. As educators, we are responsible for creating safe spaces for them to flourish in any way we can, even if our power lies only in the confines of our own classrooms.
The Juliannas of the world deserve more enrichment courses where they can feel more pajama-party-with-friends and less people-stealing-their-prom-dresses-at-the-dry-cleaner. They deserve our time, our attention, and our commitment to creating a world where they can be themselves, too.
For all of the media hoopla that has surrounded Caitlyn Jenner and her personal story, I can honestly say that I am glad this issue has received so much national attention. It helps us to talk about the ways we can make our schools safer for students like Julianna even though sometimes it feels so much easier to just pretend there is nothing we can do.
I encourage any educators struggling with the topic to immediately educate themselves as much as possible. We all know that the solution to any problem is always more education. Teaching Tolerance has a wealth of resources, including free kits for educators.
To all of the Juliannas of the world – you are an inspiration to everyone around you. Keep showing us what it means to live life as your authentic self. Your light shines so much brighter than you know.
And to my Julianna, thank you for opening my eyes to a world I didn't even know existed. Because of you, I am a better educator and a better person.