Five things I need(ed) to hear when coming out

This is a letter I am writing for my younger self, and for myself in general – at age 12, 14, 16, 18, 19, 20, 22, 25, and 27 – all key ages when I “came out” as something to myself and/or the people around me.  A student in my world recently asked me for advice related to coming out as trans, and I wrote something specific to that student (shout out if you’re reading this!).  I wanted to adapt this to something more general and more specific – an open letter to myself, past, present, and future, for coming out and thriving as myself in the world as it is.

So, here you have it – my message to myself & others as they emerge on a particular place of “coming out,” whether that’s related to gender, sexuality, sexual preferences, or something else entirely!

1.  Celebrate!  Sometimes when queer and trans folks come out, we start worrying right away about what other people are going to think of us, how much discrimination we’re going to face, or how to deal with all this hecking dysphoria, internalized oppression, and body stuff that inevitably comes up.  The first piece of advice, that I myself need to do more often, is to celebrate.  Queer and trans people have been valued and revered around the world and throughout history because we have experiences that are unique, beautiful, and sacred.  Throw yourself a party, even if it’s just you in attendance.  Eat your favorite food, or go for a walk on a beautiful day, or make something with your hands to commemorate the day you felt open enough to start talking with other people about your queer and trans identity.  It’s incredible that you exist!
2.  Don’t focus on passing, focus on being yourself.  If you are confident in who you are, that becomes clear to others that you are defining how you want them to see you. I won’t lie, regardless of what your body looks like, there will be plenty of moments when people misread your gender expression or identity.  But in general, it is more important to act the way that feels comfortable than to put on one specific set of behaviors that you believe people will read as a particular gender or sexuality.  There is no one way to be masculine, feminine, genderqueer, or agender; you get to decide how that looks on a day-to-day and minute-to-minute basis.  I recommend finding clothes you feel confident in, that show your body the way you want it to be seen – that’s how I ended up wearing sweater vests nearly every day, since they are coded masculine, came in bright colors, and hid my pre-surgery chest.  This may require a lot of experimentation in the dressing rooms at Goodwill and in front of the mirror at home.  🙂
3.  Find a point person to talk to when you need support.  This could be a queer or trans person, or it might not – the important thing is that you know who you can turn to when things get hard or you’re feeling stuck.  My first support person was my 9th grade religious studies teacher, Pete.  When I came out to him as a young person as bisexual, he was kind of baffled, since he himself wasn’t queer – but when I came out as trans later down the line, it made since why I chose him to turn to for support.  He embodied a lot of the masculinity that I wanted in my own life, and I feel like I emulate him now as a teacher, a male leader, and a mentor for other students.
4.  Be easy on yourself and others.  You’re not going to figure everything out overnight.  Your friends and family will struggle, and it sucks, but we gotta be easy on them at least to start.  Be clear and firm in your wishes and boundaries, but don’t take it too personally if people are stumbling into their accomplice status.  Similarly, you may find that as you explore your identity more, things that you took for granted (including your gender identity, sexuality, and other identity markers) may shift.  That’s OK.  No one is going to ask you to “prove” your trans-ness – and if they do, send them to me so I can give them a piece of my mind!!
5.  Remember, nobody knows your experience better than you.  It took me a really long time to accept my identity as male (rather than as genderqueer/nonbinary) not because of things cishet people would say to me, or the pressure of my given family to conform – it was mostly other trans and queer peoples’ judgments that held me back.  It’s important to remember that the world is large and that there are lots and lots of people in our community who will “get” you – no matter who you are or what you’re experiencing.  I was very afraid to lose part of my chosen family if I was open about who I really am.  I totally had it backwards – I have only been able to build a strong, beautiful, and resilient chosen family by embracing all that I am, no matter what.
Keep being yourself and finding ways of sharing all that you are – whatever your identity – with the world!  It’s the best gift that only you can bring. ❤ If you want a much more comprehensive and in-depth list of affirmations that can be helpful as queer and trans people, here’s a link to an awesome set of cards that I use as a daily practice.

Body breaks: 5 minutes of somatic learning

This year, I’ve changed my daily routine to include five minutes called a “body break”: a physical activity that either increases students’ understanding of current topics or gives them time to explore getting to know their body and brain better.

As students and teachers, we spend a lot of our time in our minds somewhere else, whether that’s on the next step of our lesson plan, the reading we forgot to do the night before, or stressing about an email we have to respond to, like, yesterday.  Taking 5 minutes from my regular class time more than makes up for itself during “regular” instruction because it regrounds my students and me in the moment.  Pausing to take a breath and think about bodies from a physical perspective allows the brain to relax, focus, and really listen – it gives me and my students fresh eyes during each class period.

Learning with the body and putting this as the priority has also led me to develop a number of creative ways to think about anatomy, physiology, and health topics in a more kinesthetic and somatic way.  I start my classes with five minutes of a “body break” each day.  I lead them Monday-Thursday, and a rotating student leader takes it on during Fridays (which are also our reading discussions).  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Five minutes of mindfulness.  Taking a breath and noticing the sensations in your body are a great way to spend 5 minutes regrounding in the present moment.  I’ve used body scans, breathing exercises, and simple “body time” (where kids can just notice themselves and be in their own headspace without interacting with others) on many occasions, especially when a class seems particularly rowdy or stressed.  I once had a student enter my classroom crying and after just 2 minutes of sitting in silence, she was fine to continue class.  Silence is powerful stuff!
  • Building self-knowledge of one’s own body and how it works.  We practice stretching specific muscle groups as a way to learn about the anatomy and physiology of muscles, and look at the differences between muscles, tendons and ligaments in interesting parts of the body like the fingers. We also observe muscle strain and lactic acid buildup during anaerobic exercise by doing wall sits or planks, noticing how different it is to do repetitive motion versus sustained motion.  We also do proprioception practice, using balance and self-awareness as a natural relief for those experiencing stress at home or school.  Kids also love to share their favorite weird body tricks, including pressure points, double-jointedness, and proportions – did you know that your foot is about the same length as your forearm, for example?
  • Modeling anatomy and physiology features.  In addition to looking at our own bodies, we can model major body systems and tissues using fun and engaging tactics!
    • Surface area to volume ratio: dodge ball!  When talking about villi being built to maximize surface area, we modeled randomly moving nutrient particles using soft balls that were thrown while blindfolded.  We measured how many of the balls made it when student targets stretched out as big as possible, and how many hit when those students were crumpled up tight like a ball.  In general, the bigger the surface area, the more successful contact with the “nutrients” there was.
    • Peristalsis: hula hoop pass!  We played this game while talking about peristalsis, which passes food down the esophagus using muscle motions that move in one direction.  Have the class race itself to see how quickly they can move that bolus!
    • Polysaccharides & enzymes tag  Like “blob tag” – students are all saccharides trying to join as one large chained molecule.  1-3 students are enzymes that can split apart people whose hands are joined, creating a kind of homeostasis if the numbers are just right!
  • Core skills of medicine.  Students can practice the skills that medical practitioners use in their daily operations!
    • Measuring heart rate/pulse with the fingers.  During our cardiovascular system unit, we discussed a number of things that impact heart rate and why they change it.  We measured our pulse one day, then did experiments the rest of the week using aerobic exercise, mindfulness/resting, and even an ice bath!
    • Using a stethoscope and measuring blood pressure are fun skills to practice if you have access to stethoscopes and cuffs.  Students learn a lot about blood and the heart through the physical nature of these tools.
    • Directions of the body can be learned using motions on the body or around the room to learn and review important location terminology (dorsal/ventral, anterior/posterior, superior/inferior, etc.)
  • Content review.  It is always nice to be able to go through recent content with kids while playing a game or moving our bodies!
    • “Cerebrum’s Coming”: Uses the same model as “Captain’s Coming,” but the things that are called out are locations in the brain (relative to the whole classroom) or motions associated with parts of the nervous system.  (Amygdala = freeze in a “fight” stance, neuron = “nerve cell” with a salute, etc.)
    • Pepper is a technique from “Teach Like a Champion” that asks kids fast-paced review questions while tossing a ball back and forth as they answer them.  I always play it before quizzes and tests as a way to “warm up” and get kids in the zone for the assessment.  It can also be a fun body break reviewing from the previous day, or from a distant unit that kids haven’t thought about in a while!
    • Paprika is my riff off of Pepper, where kids are the ones asking the questions.  All students stand up, and I start by asking a question and passing the ball to a student. Then, that student asks a question about the unit and passes it on.  All students need to both ask a question related to our unit and answer a different person’s question correctly before they can sit down.  The benefit of being last?  You get to ask me anything you want!
    • “Oh Cells” is based on “Oh Deer” , a game I loved as an outdoor educator teaching about ecosystem dynamics.  In this game, cells are the ones looking for nutrients, water, and oxygen in the body.  When they reach the Hayflick Limit (3 turns), they go through apoptosis.  Later in the game, a twist comes in when cells develop mutations that lead to cancer: they don’t “pop” any more and cancer takes over the living system!

Takeaways: One thing that I LOVE about body breaks is that it turns our classroom into a laboratory.  As an anatomy & physiology teacher, the kinds of inquiry-based labs I used to do when teaching physics don’t work in the same way… unless kids are doing things that are feasible with their own physical selves.

Another thing that body breaks emphasize is how different each body is from others.  Textbooks tend to imply that everyone’s insides are identical, or that the way each brain is wired is precisely the same.  In reality, though the basics are the same for every human being, there are distinct differences for each individual that make each body unique.  Not weird, or wrong, just different – that’s the beauty of the human experience!