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Not that many years ago in New York City, a high-school teacher with a long record started transitioning from male to female, and initially didn’t meet any resistance as she quietly started modifying her appearance. That changed in 2011, when a student complained, and she was summoned to the principal’s office and informed that her appearance was unacceptable. She told the principal that she was transgender, and his response was that this made her “worse than gay.”
Now, she’s been fired, and she charges that she was wrongfully dismissed from the Catholic school where she spent 32 years of her career. She’s claiming damages for emotional distress and lost income, and we shall see if the school settles out of court or is willing to take the matter before a judge.
There are a lot of things about this case that interest me; one, of course, is the discrimination against a transgender employee, and that’s the reason many people have been pointing me in the direction of stories about it. Another is the media’s handling of the case, in which a collision of transphobia and other factors are conspiring to cloud the details of what’s really going on here, a common issue in media coverage of trans people. Another is the larger picture the case paints, of an environment in which the United States desperately needs to make gender identity and expression a federally protected class.
TRANSITION: NOT AS SIMPLE AS WAKING UP A DIFFERENT GENDER
You’ll notice that I haven’t used the teacher’s name. All of the reports I’ve been able to dig up on this case reference her male name, Mark Krolikowski, and they also use male pronouns. Her own attorney uses male pronouns in reference to her, and it’s unclear whether this is because that’s what Krolikowski prefers, or if it’s because the attorney is classifying her as male since she hasn’t completed transition, or for some other reason.
And we know Krolikowski hasn’t completed transition (if that’s even a goal for her) because the media has taken exquisite pains to inform us of that with comments like “anatomically male.” The Post managed to sneak in an astounding number of digs at Krolikowski's gender and presentation into its coverage of the case, illustrating the media's puerile fascination with genitalia. It sounds like Krolikowski was at a very awkward and delicate phase in transition when she was initially called on the carpet to account for her appearance in 2011, and she is still on the trajectory of transition rather than being settled into her new identity.
Transition is not an all or nothing, flip the switch and then you’re done thing. People can spend weeks or months slowly changing their appearance before they even start with medical transition, if that’s something they’re pursuing. It might begin with lengthening or shortening hair, wearing different clothes, adding or removing makeup. As people start to feel more comfortable and work with a gender clinic, they might add hormones to their regimen, which can cause more noticeable changes like the development of breasts or a deepening of the voice, depending on their goals.
Some people going through transition also work with coaches on things like walking, speech and mannerisms, changing the way they present outwardly over time. All of these things happen long before gender confirmation surgery, and this can be an awkward time for some trans people as they watch their bodies shift and change.
This can also be a very dangerous time, as the way other people read their gender can shift from moment to moment; one minute you’re welcome in the women’s restroom, the next you’re viewed with hostility. People don’t know whether to ma’am or sir you. “She-male” and “it” are hissed behind your back.
TRANSITIONING AT WORK
That goes double for trans people working in environments that could be potentially hostile, like, say, a Catholic high school. Krolikowski probably took her transition very slowly in an attempt to ease into it, and may have been living largely male at school and female outside of it; we don’t know, because Krolikowski hasn’t spoken in-depth about the case. It seems probable that she very much wanted to keep her job, enjoyed working with students, and knew that despite the fact that gender is a protected class in New York City, being transgender in a Catholic school could be very dangerous.
She was right; after being forced to come out, she was relieved of her duties. The school assures all and sundry that there was a perfectly non-discriminatory reason for the firing, but really, what is the school’s attorney supposed to say? “Yes, we fired an employee for being transgender despite the fact that transgender people are protected in the city of New York”?
Gender is not a protected class across the US (sex is), and that’s why we desperately need the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) or something like it, because no transgender people should have to fear the economic consequences of coming out at work. Social issues aren’t going to magically go away with the passage of a law; workplaces that are welcoming and supportive now will continue to be so, while those that are not won’t suddenly decide that trans people are a-okay, but ENDA would be a very positive step in the right direction.
The fact that Krolikowski was trapped in an office with hostile administrators telling her she was “worse than gay,” whatever that is supposed to mean exactly, is appalling. She was told that she couldn’t express her gender identity and was expressly forbidden from attending public events as a woman. And she’s going to have to relive all of that over the course of the suit, spearheaded by attorney Andrew Kimler, a member of a law firm that, among other things, specializes in cases just like this one.
And, of course, the media coverage of this case is going to contain lots of confusing and hurtful language about Krolikowski’s gender and body, which cannot make for pleasant reading for her. In the midst of all this sensationalist reporting, people seem to be forgetting that there is actually a real woman involved here, and that she was harmed by discriminatory actions at work stemming not just from social attitudes, but from the embedded beliefs of leaders of the Catholic Church.
The Church is, after all, not exactly known for its progressivism and enlightened stance when it comes to gender and sexuality. People like Krolikowski are viewed as threats because they destabilize beliefs about what it means to be male, or female, and of course because some people seem to be convinced that the very presence of a trans person will corrupt the children. After all, it looks like so much fun that everyone will be wanting to try on the hot new trend.
There are reasons many transgender people live in stealth and choose not to undergo transition at work, and cases like this highlight one facet of the dangers facing members of the trans community. Krolikowski lost not just a livelihood, but a job that it sounds like she enjoyed and was deeply committed to, because of who she was.
Winning the suit won't turn back time, but it would send an important message.