Education Workers' Rights

Transgender Day of Remembrance: How my union were my rock through transitioning as a teacher

Despite months of planning, I was at my most vulnerable. I knew my career hung in the balance; my job would have become untenable had I lost the confidence of my pupils and their parents.

On Transgender Day of Remembrance we remember trans people who have lost their lives in the face of ignorance, oppression and violence. I remember Lucy Meadows, a teacher who took her own life on 19 March 2013. Three months earlier she had transitioned in the full glare of the media after Richard Littlejohn wrote an infamous article in the Daily Mail: “He’s [sic] not only the wrong body … he’s [sic] in the wrong job”. Coroner Michael Singleton had no doubts about the role of the press in Lucy’s death. “Shame on all of you” he said, as he accused them of ridicule, humiliation, and a character assassination.

Unbeknown to the Mail, another teacher transitioned at exactly the same time. On 20 December 2012, the same day they published Littlejohn’s article, my news was shared with the pupils in my school. Despite months of planning, I was at my most vulnerable. I knew my career hung in the balance; my job would have become untenable had I lost the confidence of my pupils and their parents.

I should not have worried. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and encouraging emails flooded in over the following days. Three weeks later, my pupils returned bright and eager but with probably more than physics on their minds when they waited outside my laboratory. It was very simple, I told them. Sir becomes Miss, he becomes she and – er – Dr Hayton becomes Dr Hayton. I knew that PhD would come in handy one day. They were curious – they are children for goodness sake – but there was too much work to be done to dwell on my transition and, quite frankly, whether I was living as a man or a woman had zero effect on the teaching and learning of electrical circuits. Some of the trappings were useful, though. Longer hair is far better when demonstrating the Van de Graaff generator, and jewellery is very useful when teaching magnetic and non-magnetic materials. Much of mine was fabricated from mild steel.

My rock throughout all of this was my union, NASUWT. The tireless work of union reps goes unreported all too often. For me they were a job saver. They were with me throughout the process with expert legal advice and injections of confidence when I needed it most. I am not the first teacher to transition but fear of the press ensures that many kept a very low profile. Because of the support I received I have become more active. I do campaign for LGBT equality at work, but I am more than that. I am a teacher and a trade unionist who happens to be trans. My concerns are the same as everyone else’s: fair pay and conditions, safety at work and building a fair and just society. Trans people are not some exotic species, we are much the same as everyone else and quite normal, as long as we stand up straight. Some of my classes even laugh at that physics joke.

This article was first published by the Huffington Post UK on the Transgender Day of Remembrance, 20 November 2016: How My Union Were My Rock Through Transitioning As A Teacher. On the same day, the TUC  published new guidance for union reps on how to better support trans people in the workplace.

By Debbie Hayton

Physics teacher and trade unionist.

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