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Opinion: Teacher of the Year: Transgender students aren’t political pawns

On Tuesday, May 25th, the Michigan Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee held a hearing on SB 218. This bill proposes that high school athletes would be required to compete on the team that aligns with their “biological” sex, regardless of their gender identity.

Owen Bondono
Owen Bondono is an English teacher at Oak Park Freshman Institute, and the 2020-21 Michigan Teacher of the Year. (Courtesy photo)

While a number of people were able to give their testimony, time was called on the hearing before many of us were heard. Had I been called to testify in opposition to this bill, this what the senators would have heard:

Related: Michigan GOP: No transgender athletes in girls’ sports. Critics: Shame on you.

My name is Owen Bondono, and I am the 2020-2021 Michigan Teacher of the Year. In my classroom, I work tirelessly to develop three skillsets in my ninth-graders: strong critical thinking, clear communication, and deep empathy for others. In my opinion, those are the skills that prepare students for success in life, no matter what their future holds.

I am also a transgender person. There have been times in my life when I have been told that these two identities – teacher and transgender man – were mutually exclusive.

When my students meet me, I may be the first transgender person they’ve ever met. By being my authentic self, they see that a transgender teacher cared about them, made them read books, and helped them succeed, just like any teacher – that transgender people are just people. I hope that my students leave my room knowing that there is no “us vs them” when it comes to transgender and cisgender people. That we are all people deserving of respect. I hope that my existence deepens their empathy.

 

For my students who may be questioning their gender identity, I hope that my presence reassures them. I hope they see that it is possible to be transgender and to grow up and have the life you want. That some people may tell you that you won’t be respected and loved just because of who you are – that, for example, no one would accept a transgender teacher in front of their children, or that you will have to hide who you are in order to find success – but those people are wrong.

Senate Bill No. 218 sends the opposite message to vulnerable youth in our classrooms. It tells transgender youth that, in order to live authentically, they may have to give up the things they love, like a sport that brings them joy. It tells transgender youth that their feelings of isolation, pain, and rejection may never go away. It tells transgender youth that they may not achieve a future where they are accepted and loved for who they really are.

It is the school’s job to welcome students into classrooms where they are respected, supported, and loved. If passed, it will no longer be possible to fully provide that for transgender students in Michigan.

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