I first met Peou last year when I was subbing in the elementary school. Both my wife and I were both offered contracts at the school we are currently working at in the winter of 2020 just before the #COVID19 pandemic broke. We had to get certification from a certain government agency back home in order to work here attesting to our qualifications as a teacher. Ma Belle Femme sailed through. I, of course, procrastinated — thanks, pathological demand avoidance — and couldn’t get my until July because the lockdowns stopped many government offices from being able to access their records or just work more slowly from home. It didn’t help that I had to get records from three countries sent to them and had to deal with three different lockdown schedules. I know poor little old me. But, that happened.
Anywho, my certification arrived so late that they couldn’t offer me a regular position that year, so I was subbing when school was meeting, which wasn’t actually a lot, but it was long enough for me to sub a few days in the elementary and spy Peou on the playground during recess and remark upon the child’s striking hairstyle — dyed a deep dark almost black purple, shaved on one side, shoulder length on the other.
As this school year approached, I was offered a contract to teach sixth grade — A job I LOVE, by the way; that age group is really just fun — and Peou was in my class. A smart engaging capable child always willing to try and offer up answers and risk being wrong where many of my students won’t since the student population was made up mostly of Cambodians, Chinese, and Koreans who came to us from their more traditional educational systems, i.e. ones that require rote memorization of the “correct” answers that the teacher gave and where asking a question was an insult to the teacher because your not knowing reflected badly on their teaching ability and answering a question wrong meant corporal punishment and parents put incredible pressure on their children to succeed in school.
Peou was a refreshing child to have in class.
One of the things I like to do as a teacher is write up positive behavior reports on my students when they things well in class. Being the parent of a “special needs” neurodivergent child means I hear lots of negative comments from school, so the power of the positive ones really stands out to me. I go out of my way to make positive comments on every child, especially the ones who find school more difficult to cope with.
Peou was an especially easy student to make such comments about.
Apparently, partway through the comment I switched gender pronouns going from “he” to “she,” which prompted a concerned email from a colleague. My colleague, a Mr. Z, was concerned about Peou’s gender orientation because of my switch. It seems that in the school’s electronic records Peou was recorded as female!
Was Peou born with a male phenotype, but really identifying as female? Should he be calling her, he or he, she? How could we know for sure? It is all just so confusing! What is the right thing to do?
Ha! I responded. Peou is a boy. I know this. I had met him last year when he was in fifth grade. I’ve been teaching him for two months now, albeit mostly via Zoom, but on occasion he’d come to class when the rules allowed.
He is a boy.
The next chance I got, I assured Mr. Z, I’d clear it all up because Peou and I had a relationship that could withstand such a question.
That opportunity came the other day. So, I showed him the electronic record and explained that the question had come up concerning whether the “F” under gender was correct. Peou said it was.
I tried not to let my chin rest for too long on the floor lest Peou realize what had just happened. I quickly thanked her and moved on to other topics.
This revelation set off a firestorm of self-searching, questioning, and… what? Curiosity, maybe? Just exactly how do we determine the gender of those we meet? Does it really matter what those genders are any more? Why did I find this whole situation to be so disturbing other than the humiliation of being wrong?
Then it occurred to me that this could be similar to what conservatives feel when they are told that they have to accept transgender people. Could I really be that similar to those god awful bigots? Might there be the smallest bit of humanity in their discomfort?
I’m not saying — let’s be really clear here — I’m not saying that trans discrimination is in any way, shape, or form acceptable or tolerable. It isn’t. But, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take some work and effort to get from bigotry to acceptance. If our goal is to build an accepting society where our differences are unimportant, then understanding what makes that acceptance difficult is an important part of overcoming it.
Be sure to read my analysis of the psychological factors that contribute to transphobia.
If you’ve enjoyed this amusing little anecdote, the existential angst it caused me, and deep soul searching that resulted, then consider doing one or more of the following:
- Comment: Misery loves company. Surely, you’ve called a woman, sir, or a man, ma’am once. Surely, you’ve encountered a trans person that left you confused as to your response. There has to be more of these anecdotes out there!
- Like: Take just a moment more to reach out and like a post, won’t ya?
- Rate: The five stars are right up there under the title of the post. You’ve got to pass them on your way out of the door, you may as well drop a rating on me, right?
- Share: Who doesn’t love a good gender ambiguity story? All of your social media followers will KNOW you are the coolest kid among ’em after you share this one!
- Follow: Seriously, the 7,000+ followers of the blog can’t be wrong… the now nearly thirty who are email followers just might be, though. Find out by following the blog yourself!
“Khmer children, Soctrang, Vietnam. January 27, 2014” by CiaoHo is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Categories: Cognitive Psychology