‘Just a person doing my job’: KFHS transgender teacher goes public

Published 9:51 pm Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A teacher at King’s Fork High School who came out to colleagues and students as transgender at the beginning of this school year said there has been good support from the school division, colleagues and the teens in the classroom.

The teacher now goes by the name Allison White, though White’s legal first name is still Sean. White has taught at King’s Fork High School since it opened in 2004 and has been an International Baccalaureate teacher for 10 years.

“I think it is important to show transgender people do make positive contributions to society, whether that’s teaching at a public high school or serving in the military,” White said recently, referencing the controversial “ban” on transgender service members in the military that has been a source of public debate since President Donald Trump announced it via Twitter in July.

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The term “transgender” generally describes “people whose gender identity is different from the gender they were thought to be when they were born,” according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Many transgender individuals, though not all, choose to transition to their preferred gender. They usually do so through some combination of medical treatments, outward expression such as clothing and hairstyle, and legal changes of name and sex listed on official documents.

For White, 45, the time was now or never.

“It’s kind of always been there,” White said. “It wasn’t something I could put my finger on. It was always there, but I didn’t understand it. When these feelings first came up, I was embarrassed and ashamed.”

More conversation in the public sphere about transgender individuals helped White understand those feelings.

“Now that it’s more out there, things started clicking,” White said. “I’m glad I figured it out before it was too late.”

White informed Suffolk Public Schools administrators of the transition on Aug. 7, and informed colleagues during a staff meeting on Aug. 25. However, the transition has been going on a lot longer than that.

“It wasn’t a whimsical decision,” White said. “That first day was probably 18 months in the making.”

The first move was to do a lot of research. White urged a School Board member behind the scenes to add gender identity to the school system’s non-discrimination policy.

The school system’s non-discrimination policy was revised in April 2016 to add sex, gender and gender identification, as well as sexual orientation, as characteristics that are protected.

“I had to be careful, because gender identity isn’t a protected class in Virginia,” White said, noting that although it now is for the school system, it still isn’t for the state in general.

White next talked with Dr. Suzanne Rice, the school system’s assistant superintendent of student services and former principal at King’s Fork.

“She’s been great,” White said of Rice. “I wanted to work with the administration. I needed the support.”

Although White would have preferred to wait a few more months to take the next step in the transition, it was deemed best to do it at the beginning of the school year, rather than in the middle.

“I think it was more responsible to do it right, be up front about it and go on with the school year,” White said.

Support from everyone — from students and parents to colleagues and administrators — has been great, White said.

“Everyone’s been great so far,” White said. “I haven’t had any issues with students — none with my students, none in the building. It really has exceeded my expectations, and I didn’t have low expectations, either.”

White teaches Theory of Knowledge, pre-IB AP U.S. Government, and IB History 11 and 12 to a small group of students in the challenging International Baccalaureate program. The intersection of those content areas with transgender issues could make for interesting discussions in the classroom, but White has encouraged students to ask their parents if they have specific questions about what it means to be transgender.

“I’m not trying to impose anything on them,” White said. “I try to do it in a professional manner.”

Suffolk Public Schools spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw said teachers use single-stall staff bathrooms and that she was not aware of any complaints about White’s presence in the school.

Students have been asked to refer to White as Ms. White and to use female pronouns, Bradshaw added.

“The school division expects mutual respect, civility and orderly conduct from all individuals on school property and at school events,” Bradshaw stated in an email.

School Board policy on dress for personnel states only that employees “are required to be appropriately dressed to perform their duties.” The employee handbook states, “Staff members are expected to uphold a professional appearance in the workplace as dictated by the current staff dress code. All wardrobe decisions should be mindful to create the best image possible for Suffolk Public Schools.”

“I’m just a person doing my job,” White said. “I don’t feel like I have a choice. How you feel about yourself is not a choice. It really isn’t.”