And Where Do Our Youth Turn: The Need for LGBTQ+ Community and Learning in the Black, Rural South
A ninth grader, sat on a desk during club time in my classroom, asked me: “Why did you start this club?”
She was referring to my LGBTQ+ History & Advocacy club, a group I announced I wanted to start at the first mention of our school’s implementation of club time.
She waited for me to respond, eyeing me suspiciously like she might not trust me after hearing my answer. I’m out to my students as bisexual. This student knew that, and knows me well. My relationship with her is easily one of the best relationships I have with any student. But something had her unsettled.
I reminded her that I’m bi. I told her I had been involved in similar groups since high school, and I knew what a difference those groups made for me. She kept looking at me sideways and asked outright, “So you’re not a transgender?”
Would I have been telling the truth, in her mind, if I said yes? I’m assigned female at birth, I’m read as a woman, and I have facial hair on my chin and jawline— enough that I clip, shave, or wax it every week or so, and it’s clearly noticeable in photos and when I’m standing at the front of the classroom. I hate that I have to attach an explanation to this fact that is literally on my face, plain as day, but I always explain anyway: I have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a diagnosis given for a collection of symptoms sometimes related to ovarian cysts. For me, this means “hormone imbalances,” thick body and facial hair and menstruation on a fairly regular three- or four-month cycle. No real health concerns involved, unless I was trying to get pregnant, which I’m not.
Since understanding these traits as intersex variations, my understanding of my gender has only grown blurrier. But, following a rumor I’d heard going around the school, my student meant to ask if I was a trans woman, which I am not by any definition. Likely misreading the doubt in my lack of an answer, she followed the question with, “People be saying you used to be a man.”
I took a slow breath. I said, as evenly as I could, that I was not a trans woman, but that a trans woman was not a bad thing to be, or an insulting thing to call someone. I had heard plenty from my students about the requirements of masculinity, from clothing down to greetings. I wanted to challenge them by not sounding defensive and giving as much honest information as possible. I didn’t explain hormones or PCOS or “intersex” to her, or to any of my students, and I still don’t know if I wish I had.
She kept looking at me sideways. She insisted that people were spreading lies about me, and I insisted that she let them talk. I’m not bothered by a fourteen-year-old’s persistent belief that I’m a trans woman because I have a beard. More than that, I don’t want children getting into arguments (or worse, fistfights) defending me and my assumed identity. But part of her suspicion stemmed from a curiosity about something she sensed I understood on a deep level. She’d seen me answer difficult questions from other students. If she’d asked what “trans” meant, I would’ve explained it to her, and she knew that. I don’t think she knew how to ask, though.
Earlier in the year another student had approached me (after joining the LGBTQ+ History & Advocacy club) and asked if I “believed in” nonbinary people, in the same tone of voice they might’ve used to ask about the tooth fairy. I said yes, and the student immediately said, “I’m one of them, but I don’t tell people because they don’t believe me.”
What lingered for me after both these conversations was that my students, their peers, and whoever started the rumor about me had no frame of reference for my existence, and it took a femme-presenting person with stubble to allow space for a conversation around trans identity. If I had claimed I was a trans woman, I would have lost the trust of several of my students; instead I redirected the subject away from myself.
Both of these interactions left me wondering who was left to educate our youth. A year into my time in this rural, predominantly Black and low-income community, the only other queer or trans people I knew were students, plus a handful of students’ family members. Cities and other hubs might have queer centers or organizations, but in the rural South we have none of that. Most of the students I taught had limited internet access outside of school. Older queer and trans students moved away. Those few of us left, already at risk by our mere existence, cannot carry the burden ourselves.
About the author
Rita M. Pérez-Padilla is a queer, intersex, mixed race Puerto Rican speculative fiction writer. Rita recently graduated from Oberlin College with a major in Hispanic studies, focusing on Puerto Rican literature, and a minor in computer science. This past year, Rita was teaching ninth grade math in rural eastern North Carolina. This fall, Rita will begin working towards a Spanish-English translation certificate at UNC-Charlotte.
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