Gender and School Psychology

Trans: A Personal Story

By Jill Davidson

Volume 44 Issue 2,

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By Jill Davidson

I am a school psychologist, a member of NASP, and a woman of transgender history. If you meet me, you've met only one trans person; we all have different stories and different places we have located ourselves in the gender universe.

Assigned male at birth, I knew by age 4 (1959) that I was more like the girls in my neighborhood. I transitioned to female in 2010, by which time it had become safe to do so.

Much has changed in my lifetime. The flared slacks, blouse, and blazer I might confidently wear to work today would have gotten me arrested in 1970 in most U.S. cities, if I was perceived by the arresting officer to be biologically male. The crime might be called vagrancy, impersonation, fraud, or moral turpitude, but the real crime would be gender nonconformity. If I had been arrested, I might have been offered “treatment” in lieu of jail, which might include hospitalization, electroconvulsive therapy, extra testosterone, or other treatments without evidentiary support. Today, many trans people still believe their safety depends on “passing”; that is, their safety depends on being invisible.

My early childhood seemed gender free. We all climbed trees, built forts, had chicken fights, learned to cartwheel, and played with Barbies. But I knew I wasn't like the boys. Gender policing became intense when I entered elementary school. Boys were not supposed to cry. Boys were supposed to fight to defend themselves. I was praised for fighting. My parents put me in Little League. Uncorrected myopia made it difficult to see the ball. I believed that I was bad at baseball, not because I couldn't see, but because I should have been a girl. I didn't see girls playing, and I assumed girls couldn't play ball. I didn't correct that error until I met several champion female ball players.

The 1960s were isolating for young transgender people. I believed I was the only person who thought they were the other gender and was sure that no one would understand me. At age 11, I heard a news story about Christine Jorgensen, an American soldier who had medically transitioned in 1952, and realized that there were people like me. She was not the first person to medically transition, but she was one of the first to talk about her transition, and she became a media celebrity. I wanted my parents to help in the transition process, but knew they would not. My dad was critical of “queers” and anyone who didn't measure up to his idea of masculinity. I knew people could be involuntarily hospitalized, and was sure that would happen if my parents knew about my true identity. I had a bout of major depression at age 11, as male puberty started early, complete with acne and whiskers.

I survived by going “undercover.” I could live my life as if I were spiritually female. It helped that I was popular, smart, and had many adults watching out for me. I spent time in libraries, scouting books and articles about transgender people. My disappointment in psychology was in how little information there was in the scholarly literature about transgender people or gender nonconformity. This was just not discussed in the 1970s.

At age 19, I was in college and living in a house off campus. I had answered an ad seeking a housemate. The five other housemates were gay, lesbian, and bisexual. I was happy to be in a “queer” house, with people who seemed like me. One housemate had a large collection of literature about gay men, another had an extensive lesbian library, and I explored my own identity reading extensively and having many conversations. Christine Jorgensen gave a lecture on campus, advocating acceptance for transgender youth. I was still in denial about my own need to transition.

I had panic attacks since high school. These intensified and became more frequent during the first few weeks at the “queer” house. One night I became suicidal when I could not stop a panic attack that was lasting for hours. My girlfriend Linda took me to an emergency room where I was given Valium and told I must get counseling. My counselor believed I was dealing with “identity issues.” I never told him about the gender issues, fearing I would be hospitalized. By senior year of college, I was interested in children's mental health. Because nearly all children go to school, I was interested in school psychology. I was accepted at the University of Texas at Austin. Linda and I were married. We thrived in Austin, my panic attacks and all, and I entered the school psychology work force.

As I began my professional life, most trans people were still in hiding. Films and TV talk shows depicted trans people as deceitful, immoral, or crazy. Those who were “out” commonly lost jobs, houses, and families. As the Internet became accessible, transgender people had a tremendous resource for information, friendship, and organizing. By 1995, I had a dozen trans friends and many practical resources for transitioning. My gender identity was still a secret known only to me. I did not want to lose my family. In 2003, our only child began college, and I came out to Linda. My panic attacks stopped. Linda stood by me. Our relationship would transition from a straight to a gay relationship and that took some adjusting. In 2006, my state passed a nondiscrimination law that included protections for gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. I began gender psychotherapy that year, and hormone therapy in 2008. I then began negotiating my transition with my school district. Still presenting male, I had to bind my breasts during the 2009–2010 school year.

I knew that transition was something I needed to do for my own well-being. How could I transition without harming students, their families, or the district? There were no role models. I knew of no other school psychologists who had successfully transitioned gender on the job. One option was “going stealth”—giving up my career and starting over elsewhere, with no one the wiser. That was the traditional thing to do. But why should I deprive my schools of the skills and relationships I had developed? Always worrying about my past being discovered was no way to live either.

School psychology training was ideal preparation for transitioning gender in a large organization. My training in consultation, organizational development, and advocacy were most relevant. I may not have needed to do my job backwards and in heels, but I had to be a very good school psychologist. The district could not fire me for being transgender, but they could fire me over late evaluations, or for other transgressions having nothing to do with gender. I had accrued 10 years of satisfactory personnel evaluations and I had a large group of supporters among families I served.

I understood a successful transition plan would depend on my consultation and advocacy skills. I had many audiences. I had to frame the transition conversation in ways that made sense to them, while at the same time countering myths about transgender people. I carried pictures of myself as Jill, because I knew they expected a man in a dress who would alienate families, and I wanted them to see the real me (who isn't very fond of dresses). I knew that while I had many allies and they would understand, we'd have to communicate with district leaders who had no idea who I was. I had to become knowledgeable about the various cultures in my buildings, and how those cultures viewed women and men and transgender people.

I approached our district's employee assistance program (EAP) director. We met over many months, my proposing how I might proceed, and the EAP director countering with what might go wrong. Eventually, we worked out a way to proceed. She first informed the superintendent and school board members. I wanted to inform my principals, but their supervisors, the school directors, would have to be informed first. We waited more than 6 months before finding the right time politically to tell the school directors. Seattle had had some financial scandals, rapid turnover in leadership, and understandably risk-averse managers. My transition was perceived as a potential public relations disaster. We put together a transition team, including my supervisor; and the district directors for public information, safety and security, and special education; an LGBT family liaison; a Somali community liaison; and others. The EAP director then informed my principals. Each principal supported me. I was then able to inform the teams I worked with in my buildings, and then my psychology colleagues. Messages emphasized my friendship and respect for my colleagues that I was the same person I'd always been, and that when we returned for the 2010–2011 school year, I would be female and known as Jill Davidson. If they had concerns or questions, they were given the EAP number to call.

My team expected the worst when I began the year as Jill. However, nearly everyone was accepting. Word spread fast among families. I think it helped that they saw this as personal, and not an abstract event. I was a person they knew. “Did you hear the news about John?” not “Did you here there is a transsexual in our school?”

The most common student question was, “Are you a boy or a girl?” “I'm a woman” satisfied most of them, who seemed to be asking what pronoun to use. Some said, “But your voice is funny,” and I would say, “Women come in all shapes and sizes and have different voices.” Students and adults often gave me compliments (e.g., “I like your necklace,” or “I love your hair”). I realized that girls and women greet each other with a compliment. This has made social interaction more delightful than I imagined. Parents seemed more interested in what I was going to do for their child than what my gender was. Sometimes parents seemed confused by my name, asking me to spell it more than once, especially on the phone. I would explain that I was transgender, and that I was still working on my voice. I was prepared to follow this with, “I know you may have many questions about me being transgender, but I really am here to help your child.” Most parents just said, “Oh,” and quickly moved on to talking about their child. In the first year, I had parents tell me that they were very happy I was in their child's building, and that they found my transition inspiring. I've had parents and colleagues compliment me on outfits, and have received bags of castoff clothes that they thought I would make good use of (“hand-me-rounds”). My schools serve two Orthodox Jewish communities and immigrant communities from East Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia. Only two families took exception to me during the first year. One was an Orthodox Jewish family who did not like that they had to answer questions from their 11-year-old before they were ready. The second was a Sunni Muslim single mother who requested that a cisgender woman do direct testing with her daughter. We accommodated that family in a way I felt comfortable with. I am respected and loved by many families from these communities who know me and understand my history. They know my being transgender is not the most important fact about me. In the four years since transitioning, my transness has faded into the background, as I act, sound, and feel more natural. I am a better employee, bringing my full authentic self to work.

Jill Davidson, PhD, NCSP is a school psychologist in Seattle, Washington