Tobi Hill-Meyer

A Trans Person's Photo in the Hall

Filed By Tobi Hill-Meyer | May 22, 2009 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: elementary school, transgender

I've heard of administrators or parents complaining when a trans speaker talks to a class, when a teacher comes out as trans, or even when a student does - but I never expected that the mere presence of a photograph would cause a similar reaction.

The photo exhibit, "Shared Community, Mixed Identities," was not even about trans people, but about representing the diversity of backgrounds that multiracial people come from. My photo was among them, along with a small bio which mentions that I am trans. It was designed as a part of a community project and made available to whatever spaces wish to display it. And when a local elementary school requested to display it, it suddenly became a significant controversy. Yesterday, multiple local news outlets decided to pick it up as a story.

I want to be careful not to overstate the complaints. It's only a very small number of parents that complained about my photo. Many parents have come out in support of the exhibit, including my photo. The publicity generated from this controversy has led other parents to request the exhibit in their children's school. But the minority who have a problem with it have been very vocal and very persistent. When the issue arose, staff voiced their own complaint - not so much about the exhibit as much as their lack of preparation and concern that in discussing trans issues they might mistakenly say something inappropriate.

I've actually been quite impressed with the school administrations response, and in particular with Meadowlark principal BJ Blake. In a letter inviting parents to a meeting on the issue she wrote:

I do not ask that anyone change their personal opinions or feelings about LGBT issues. I do ask that we allow children to be who they are without the risk of abuse from fellow students. I believe that having the photo array will help the ML/BV student body understand the need to respect all people in a deeper way. A safe environment creates an atmosphere that is conducive to and supports learning.

They decided to take down the photo exhibit - temporarily. Then they provided training for staff on trans issues. Now the school district is creating a new copy of the exhibit which will permanently be held in the county's Education Service District library and be available to any school that whishes to check it out. This new copy will contain new age-appropriate bios. To be clear, it will have the same content, but be specifically written for a younger audience. Here is the current draft of my new bio:

Kids bullied me at school and that was really hard, but I had friends to help support me. I loved math and the chess team, even though sometimes I was picked on for it. I loved going to the Gay Pride parades with my two moms when I was little. I still do. I love being a part of the queer community. I'm trans. That means that even though others told me I was a boy I knew they were wrong and one day I decided I was going to be a girl. Sometimes it's hard having light skin because people don't notice I'm multi-racial and I wish they would. In the same way, sometimes people notice I'm trans because I don't fit their idea of what a girl looks like and other times people wouldn't know unless I told them. If people are nice about it, I like it when they notice I'm multi-racial and trans, but it's good that not everyone notices because some people are mean about it and I like to have the choice to tell them or not.

This seems like a great solution, indeed an excellent example of gaining the most from a teachable moment. There's a meeting tonight with parents from the school. With luck things will move forward smoothly and the controversy will die down.

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I was recently asked by an ex-employer to cut off contact with students I used to teach. My response was simple: you don't pay me, and I'm just answering questions that students have. The sooner we stand up and say "No, we are not monsters," the better.

Least, that's my plan. :)

I don't know what your old bio was like, but I love your new one!

To help those with limited Trans experience share this superbly made video.

Made with gentleness and straightforwardness.
I recommend it to all GSA's. Businesses, especially service businesses. Colleges...pre-med majors of ALL types.. EMT, nursing, MD etc. Social workers. Just everyone!

Everyone Matters: Dignity and Safety for Transgender and Transsexual People

Sounds like the school is on the ball.

Sounds like your new bio is about perfect.

Sounds like some very damaged people are going to make themselves look ridiculous, while a whole lot of students are going to just go right ahead and benefit from this exhibition.

i'll be near Portland this weekend. Wished i would have known where you were earlier...i would have tried to make plans to meet you.

All my girlfriends are cissexual. Never really met another T before, and you being the first would have been cool.

I think the principal's response was letter-perfect, advising the parents that this is about respect rather than changing opinions, and making sure the staff got the information they needed to respond appropriately. I admire your courage and willingness to stand up and be counted, Tobi.

I noticed some of the press coverage. Good on you and good on the Principal for continuing the display.

Maybe I'm sticking my head out too far, I always do. I live in the neighborhood where the school is and I have been on the neighborhood association. I know some of the people who talked against Tobi. What did happen was a few of the parents googled Tobi. Now, I don't care what Tobi does for a living but I don't think that he would have been the right person to represent the transgender group. Her first bio had some words that just were not appropiate for elementary school kids (pre-school-5th grade). I thought the exhibit was great and I did like Tobi's second bio. I think Tobi is a very nice and kind lady. I just think it was all about her work that she does. In this town, you mention the word transgender and there are a few who come unglued.

Keep in mind that the original exhibit was designed for a general adult audience and we were told it was going to be up in community colleges and other community spaces. I'm not the only one who used large words like "hierarchies."

But I want to be clear about another point you make -- I'm not in this exhibit to represent the trans community and that's not why they asked me to participate, I was asked to participate because I'm a multiracial activist.

Putting anyone through the vetting process to be "the right person to represent the transgender group" would be a horribly painful experience. Also it would weed out most of the folks who have other marginalized experiences.

And why would we have done that when it was just going to be a face and a paragraph? No one expected that there would be opposition to this degree. If we'd known, it might have been first names only to prevent invasions of privacy like what happened. By the way, it happened months after the original complaints and was a minor complaint that most people at the parent meeting didn't care about. That certainly wasn't what it was all about. In fact, from the reports I've heard, the most common complaint is actually that I use the word "queer" in my bio as opposed to lesbian or bi, it's just not as newsworthy a complaint.

The intention wasn't for us to become role models or to be golden representatives all the identities we held, but just to be one more face out of several to show a bit of the breadth of human experience.

I've never really bought in to arguments about who the "right person" to represent us is. We set the best example we can right now, and don't sweat the stuff we can't change (history, "passability") or shouldn't have to change (the occasional variance from gender stereotypes, sex-positive attitudes, unique ways of thinking).

The "right person to represent" becomes a divisive and pointless debate. A person could be "perfect" and still be objectionable in much of society's eyes if trans.

I believe in showing real faces, not trying to find socially-acceptable faces. Stressing the latter creates the illusion that we're all squeaky-clean, passing, usually white, successful people, and not everyone can (or should have to) live up to that. We're not "perfect" by societal standards, nor is any other community. Sometimes, people just have to deal with that.

Which I'd think would be part of the point that needs to be made in a display about diversity.

I just got a letter from the principal saying that they have decided NOT to put the photo array back up. I am very disappointed.