Transition In Translation
Lucian: Tell the class what your partner said.
Japanese Woman: I am the partner.
Korean Man: Her favorite movie is “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” There is a man…and he is…gay? Gay. And he is a trans…a trans…
Italian Woman: I know! A transformer!
I had a sex change in front of adult English as a Second Language students from Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, China, Colombia, Ecuador, France, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, and Ukraine.
When I told my boss that I was only going to use male pronouns from then on, she thought I would teach my students that they would have to call everyone “he,” “him” and “his” for the rest of their lives.
Transitions often draw some kind of audience, but rarely an international assembly.
When I started teaching at the English language institute in 2008, I had unkempt, red hair down to my waist and chronically dowdy women’s professional footwear. One year later, I got a haircut that I thought made me look just like the seventeenth century Romantic composer Robert Schumann, but everyone else thought made me look like a brunette Ellen DeGeneris circa 1999. So I started testosterone. When I told my boss that I was only going to use male pronouns from then on, she initially thought I meant that I didn’t want to teach my students how to say “she” or “her.” If they wanted to speak English, they would have to call everyone “he,” “him” and “his” for the rest of their lives.
In fact, I adopted the opposite strategy. I never informed my students that I was transitioning at all. Instead of restricting their pronoun choices, I allowed my students to use any pronouns they wanted for me and never corrected them. If one student called me “he” and another “she,” each assumed (or at least, I assume they assumed) that her partner was still a little iffy on English pronouns in general. Or, if he himself was a little iffy on English pronouns, he simply didn’t notice the discrepancy. Hey, they may have had Ph.D.s in molecular biology, but they were still people who said things like, “The table, she is brown.”
Oddly, this actually worked. My classes had rolling admissions and I interacted with at least sixty students every month; yet, in the eight months between starting testosterone and being read as male consistently by strangers, only one student asked me anything about my gender. The remarkable aspect of my experience wasn’t witnessing a vast array of multicultural responses to a visibly transsexual teacher, but rather trying to wrap my mind around how easy it was for each person to build and maintain a relationship with their own private version of the man or woman they believed I was.
Such as the straight hipster guy from Korea who smiled and asked why I didn’t have a boyfriend – or eight months later, the shy girl from Korea who brought me cupcakes and asked why I didn’t have a girlfriend. Such as the fiery lady from Belarus who complained to me about working conditions for honest women in accounting firms – or eight months later, the gruff Russian man who tried commiserating with me about women drivers. Such as the seventeen year-old Saudi woman who shooed all the men away so that she could show me her hijab-less wedding photos and talk about fashionable Parisian mini-skirts – or eight months later, the male Saudi professor who slapped his arm on my shoulder and advised, “If you ever come to my country, do not try to talk with the women, and if you meet an old man, you must kiss him on the cheek.”
Politically, I’m ambivalent about my choices. In some ways, it would be genuinely radical if I straight-up told them I was a gay transsexual and left them to grapple with that. Admittedly, the most pressing reason I won’t tell them is because I see them every day, I want them to like me, and I don’t want to field questions about penises and vaginas at work. Regardless of my cowardice/prudence, in light of the rigid educational environments most of my students came from before entering my classroom, I ultimately think it’s more radical to give them the tools and the permission to express their actual opinions in school, sometimes for the first time in their lives. Imposing my own political agenda, no matter how just, would make me somewhat of a low-grade creepy imperialist. A good English teacher gives words away and doesn’t get to keep their meanings for himself. The students are free to do what they want with the language I give them; it’s my job to disappear and keep them talking from their own perspectives. Which is why I’m a gaybot in disguise.
That said, there was the time I assigned groups of three to write fictional OK Cupid profiles as writing practice for the unit on modern technology. The following submission gave me pause.