When our pronoun buttons came in the mail, you put two on your backpack. A couple of days later, you decided to wear one on your shirt: he/him/his. You didn't know how long you'd be able to keep the button on; you were a little nervous.
"Hey, if you don't feel comfortable, take it off," I told you as you walked out the door for the bus stop.
After school, the button wasn’t on your shirt anymore, so I knew you had taken it off at some point during the day. I didn’t ask you about it right away.
"After lunch," you told me later. You noticed your classmates reading the button, but nobody asked anything, so you started to feel uncomfortable.
I wish you could speak your truth loudly, but I know that is difficult. Sometimes, you need help. So, you often creep halfway and watch for people to bridge the distance.
All it would have taken would be for one of your classmates who had noticed your button to say, "Hey, are your pronouns he/him?" Or, "Do you want me to use he/him pronouns from now on?"
You would have answered, “Yes.” You would have taken that first step toward your full(er), in this moment, truth.
In preschool, you were fine being a girl who wasn’t “girly.” Teachers brushed off the constant questions you got about gender. Your peers kept asking, “Are you a boy or a girl?” Your teachers never intervened.
When I asked for help, I got the same non-answers over and over again. "Kids are learning to categorize their world," they'd say. Or, "They'll need to be able to answer these questions."
The teachers weren’t very good at saying, “Girls can look different.”
Sometimes, Even with a Committed Leader in Place, Change Doesn’t Come
Elementary school was really much the same. Your principal was more interested in test scores than social-emotional learning, so you didn’t have much opportunity to better understand yourself. The few times you tried to advocate for yourself didn’t go very well. At some point, you just stopped trying.
Then came Ms. Luna, the principal you’ve had for the past two years who is honestly invested in diversity. As a parent, I like to think that a leader who understands what needs to change will magically make those changes happen. But I was reminded time and again, that’s not the case (and not for lack of trying.)
There was parent pushback. There were teachers afraid of parent push back. There was a lack of understanding and a real need for educating the community on issues, like gender identity, that they might not have thought about before or needed to rethink and then grow their perspective.
I might not have been as charitable as I could have been, or maybe should have been, at times. I might have expected more than was realistic. But, that’s the reality of having a trans kid who you’ve watched navigate a world that has been uniquely cruel to them. Change feels not only necessary, but urgent.
One wish I have for this world is for less of the burden to be on trans kids. I don’t want you to always have to be the one to advance the conversation. It’s hard and humbling work.
Teachers, Please Let Kids Like Mine Know You See Them
And here’s what people need to understand: Even the smallest changes make a big difference for you. You were excited to see all the “Happy Pride Month” notes on the whiteboards in your classrooms. When a teacher put a safe space sticker on their door, you noticed.
All of these small gestures add up. They give you space to talk about your experience and share yourself more fully with your teachers and your peers. But, they’re not enough on their own.
You see many teachers aren’t making these small efforts, and you internalize that as a lack of interest. Truthfully, I know coming out feels like a huge risk for you, and having so few visible cues in your educational environment has tipped the scales: there is too much risk right now for too little reward.
When I imagine a world for you, I imagine a world where you're met where you are. I imagine a world of kind words and sincere questions. I imagine a world where what's noticed doesn't go ignored, where you don't always have to be the brave one, where sometimes others will step up and out of their own fear or anxiety of being wrong, their own not exactly knowing, and tell you: "Hey, I see you."
Michelle Vallet (pronouns she/her), lives and works in Chicago. She is the mother of a trans child (pronouns they/them), who constantly amazes her and has helped show her how to live a more honest and authentic life.