Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
Most will be familiar with the following scenario: a young girl, a teen or tween, gets in trouble with her school’s administration for a dress-code violation. Her supposed crime against decency: looking provocative.
It will turn out that the girl was wearing some normal teenager outfit, jeans and a T-shirt or something equally boring, but had the audacity to attend school in a body with breasts, hips and a post-pubescent-looking behind. Cue the feminist outrage, and rightly so. A girl with womanly physical features is still a child. She is not choosing to draw attention to herself simply by existing. It’s the fault of the adults around her for sexualizing her.
That is the way it usually goes. But in a twist to the typical narrative, this time around, a high-school teacher in Oakville, Ont., made headlines for her curvaceous classroom presence.
That the teacher is a transgender woman is the first clue that her bodily contours may be a bit more her own creation than those of the average 12-year-old girl. But the big clue – or rather, the two big – would have to be the anatomically impossible prosthetic bust, complete with protruding nipples, near-visible through her shirts in images circulating in the conservative press and right-wing social media.
It is difficult to convey the proportions in words, but the best way to explain it would have to be that the story seemed to be fake until it emerged that the school district is defending the teacher of her gender rights. The story, at least, would seem to be both real and spectacular.
Here’s what is not a problem: the existence of transgender teachers. In the 1990s, when I went to school in New York, I had plenty of gender nonconforming teachers, most if not all of whom were openly gay or lesbian. This was absolutely fine, as I recall, with everyone in our community. Conflating LGBT identity with inappropriateness or, as in conservative parlance, “grooming,” is bigoted and cruel, as well as simply a category error.
When it comes to the Ontario teacher, it’s easy to fall into a philosophical sinkhole: Surely it would be acceptable for a cisgender woman teacher to wear a padded bra and to have breast enhancement surgery, cosmetic or post-mastectomy. And, insofar as any breasts on a transgender woman are the result of artifice of some kind, is there a particular size past which they become obscene?
And people do not choose their gender identities. Is it fair to say that a transgender teacher really chose to have large breasts, any more than that a young cisgender girl chose her own physique? Are those who balk at the Oakville teacher engaged in body shaming?
But then you return to planet Earth and see the images of a teacher with what are rather obviously pornographic prosthetic breasts. Breasts that would, no matter a teacher’s assigned sex at birth, make the news. This is not like when (as happened in my own school days) an oblivious teacher showed up for class with a shirt with buttons misaligned.
Gender identity is not a choice. However, showing up to teach in cartoonish fake breasts is one. It’s a choice to wear what is effectively a fetish outfit while teaching, in a way that is visible to all. Whether done as a stunt or a sincere expression of sexuality, if anything qualifies as inappropriate, that would be it.
Now, is it traumatizing to high school students to have a teacher who looks the way she does? I suspect not. They’re teenagers, and to them, adults simply seem old. I cannot imagine the teacher will inspire her students to sport enormous faux bosoms, although according to The New York Times, the latest trend among young people is wearing jeans intentionally unbuttoned, so anything’s possible.
No, the people this story will harm most – as it already has, after being picked up by the right and used to attack communities more broadly – are the many LGBT teachers who are trying to go about their lives, and who are, in the United States, up against Republican legislative backlash for doing so. Such a story fits into the push to conflate outlandish behaviour with the everyday existence of LGBT and inclusive educators.
It feels like the progressive thing to do is to support this teacher’s right to self-present in the classroom as she does, or at least to honour her side in the matter. But there’s something about treating her decision to wear enormous fake breasts to class as a reasonable form of self-expression that makes a mockery of countless young girls who’ve been told at school that their bodies – developing bodies they themselves are still getting used to – are a distraction.