Photo by the Tampa Bay Times
Mass emails and robocalls to parents are usually about school closings or conferences, but on Thursday, J.W. Mitchell High School principal Jim Michaels had a different sort of announcement: Robert Konrad, a social studies teacher at the Pasco County, Florida, school, was beginning a gender transition. “Mr. Konrad has begun the process of gender transition and is anticipating presenting as a female no later than August of 2015,” he wrote in an email, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “As you can imagine, this is a very private decision, but Mr. Konrad has indicated that he will respond to appropriate questions you may have about the transition process.”
Konrad declined to be interviewed for this story. “In the interest of my family, I have to pass,” she wrote in an email to Yahoo Parenting.
While Konrad is certainly not the first teacher to transition, the school’s decision to openly address the issue, and to publicly support her, was a notable one, says Laura Durso, Director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. “It’s incredibly helpful to have the support of school officials when someone is choosing to transition on the job,” Durso tells Yahoo Parenting. “That she’s made herself available to her students to help walk them through this process shows that she’s a real role model, demonstrating how to live an authentic life and also her commitment to her job. Ms. Konrad is courageously offering to help her community understand transgender people.”
Addressing the issue head on was a decision dictated by Konrad, Pasco County School District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe tells Yahoo Parenting. “The district and school administration worked with him on how to present the information, when it would be presented, and to whom,” she says. “We made it clear that we expect everyone to be respectful of his decision, and that this a private decision. We have been emphasizing a culture of respect for the last couple of years, so this really speaks to that.”
While the decision certainly is a private one, the reality is that students will notice differences as Ms. Konrad transitions, Harper Jean Tobin, Director of Policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality, tells Yahoo Parenting. “This is still something that’s new to a lot of people. It’s natural for students to have questions, and for coworkers to have questions,” she says. “The lesson here is that, as with any aspect of diversity, it’s OK to be curious, it’s OK to ask questions, but you need to be respectful.”
Tobin notes that there are 700,000 transgender adults in the U.S. and a large number of transgender students in K-12 schools, so Konrad may also serve as a role model to students or teachers who may be struggling with their own gender identity. “In many schools there are one or two transgender students, whether or not they are open about it,” she says.
Of course, there were concerns from local parents who didn’t agree with the school’s decision to make the announcement so publicly, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “[Parents] are afraid of disruptions in the classroom,” Wendy Howard, a local school choice activist speaking on some parents’ behalf, told the paper.
But Cobbe says that, overall, the response of the community has been positive. “People are getting the message the way we intended it and are being respectful,” she says. “This is not going to affect what he teaches or how he teaches, and if he’s a good teacher now, this won’t change that. That’s our focus.”
Tobin says by getting ahead of it, the school is actually ensuring that this won’t be the focal point of Konrad’s classes. “They’re saying, ‘she’s still going to be there, doing her job, being a part of the staff and the community.’ When people encounter something new, the lesson that this doesn’t have to be a distraction is smart,” she says. “At the end of the day it’s another part of diversity, and very quickly it will become just one more thing that happened at school.”
Still Tobin says she hopes this kind of public declaration doesn’t become a mandate for transitioning teachers. “This kind of openness and advance notice and broad announcement throughout the community may have been a smart personal and professional decision for this teacher and this school, but it may not be necessary for everyone, and it may be intrusive,” she says, noting that transgender teachers often choose to transition over the summer in the interest of privacy. “Nothing else about a teacher’s personal life would be handled this way.”