Fired Trans Teacher Tackles School System, Refuses to Settle

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday April 12, 2011

A Canadian transgender teacher who lost his job at a Catholic school has refused a monetary settlement, vowing to press forward with a human rights case, the Canadian Press reported on April 11.

Transman Jan Buterman worked as a substitute teacher for Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools in St. Albert, near Edmonton, Canada, until he was fired after disclosing that he planned to transition from female to male. An April 12 column in the Edmonton Sun recounted that the main reason for Buterman's firing appeared to have been publicity around the teacher's medical history, rather than the gender transition per se.

"I asked Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools superintendent David Keohane Monday if the board considers it unacceptable for an employee to have a sex change, " wrote columnist Mindelle Jacobs.

" 'It's not acceptable to demonstrably let that be known to the community as part of your engagement within our organization,' he said. Kind of like 'don't ask, don't tell,' I guess," the columnist continued. "Seeking further clarification, I asked Keohane if it would be OK for the board to hire someone who'd had a previous sex change but didn't speak about it. In other words, the staff and students wouldn't even know that he used to be a she, or vice-versa.

"If that person behaves with students in a manner that's 'being true to our Catholic faith teachings,' explained Keohane, "that would be absolutely appropriate,' " Jacobs recounted.

"If you're doing something the Catholic church disagrees with, for heaven's sake, keep your mouth shut and perhaps it'll get swept under the rug and no one will notice," the columnist added.

Buterman told the school system in 2008 that he was transitioning. After his disclosure, Buterman found that he'd been taken off the list of substitute teachers, the columnist recounted.

After Buterman went to Alberta Human Rights Commission about his dismissal, the school system offered him a settlement of $78,000, but the cash came with a condition: Buterman would not be allowed to talk about his dismissal.

Buterman refused.

"I don't want to be muzzled," Buterman told the Canadian Press. "They don't want me to talk about the fact that they, as an employer, claiming authority from the Catholic church, have discriminated against me because of my medical status as a transsexual person."

Both the teacher and Keohane indicated that the school system would try to convince the Alberta Human Rights Commission that the settlement was "fair and reasonable," meaning that the Commission could, under law, decline to send the case on to a tribunal.

"Everything is completely reasonable," Keohane told the Canadian Press, "given the absolute nature of how the issue represented itself, and we believe that we have been abundantly fair."

Jacobs reported that another part of the offer made by the school system was for Buterman to teach for a year--online, and not with St. Albert students. Such a teaching position would not, however, have counted toward the professional experience Buterman needs to one day obtain certification as an educator.

"How big a closet are they letting me work in?" Buterman said.

Buterman may be in for a lonely quest, the Canadian Press article noted, since his cause has been abandoned by the Alberta Teachers' Association, which had been covering Buterman's legal expenses but will no longer foot those bills.

"After dismissal, the issue of focus could then be on the monetary amount or types of settlement offered to you, rather than the nature of your complaint," a letter to Buterman said. "It is easy to imagine the variety of negative conclusions that could be drawn from it, including those that focus on the generosity (of the board) towards you."

Buterman was not only public about his transgender status with the school system's administration; he was also a visible figure for trans equality, pressing for a law to expand Canadian anti-discrimination law to include transgender people. Buterman is part of the Trans Equality Society of Alberta. The suggestion of taking a payout and keeping silent didn't square with him.

"People like us have all experienced job harassment, job discrimination, job loss--it is a common theme in the community," Buterman told the press. "The only difference between me and everyone else is that I got mine in writing. I have no interest in pretending it didn't happen."

A letter from the superintendent informed Buterman that "gender change is not aligned with the teachings of the Church," an Edmonton Journal article carried in the Montreal Gazette reported

on April 10.

"As an academic and activist, the need to talk about this, I think, is pretty valid," Buterman told the press. "I think it's really important that we're able to point to this and say it really happened, this is what was said."

Meantime, the Canadian Press article noted, the public school system in Edmonton has already undertaken the creation of policy to ensure that trans teachers do not face discrimination.

The chair of Edmonton Public Schools, Dave Colbourn, assured the press that trans teachers would not face the prospect of dismissal based upon gender identity, the article reported.

"I would say the possibility of someone being fired because they identified themselves as being transgendered or a member of the sexual minority population--that would be absolutely abhorrent, unacceptable and simply would not be allowed to happen," Colbourn told the media.

"I don't think a person's sexuality should be a determinant in their professional standing as a teacher. We are talking about ensuring basic human rights are accorded people regardless of their sexual identity."

Such enlightened attitudes were not always prevalent in Edmonton, however, the article said, going on to relate how in 1988 a trans teacher, Carol Allen, was yanked from her classroom after disclosing to the school board that she was transitioning from male to female.

Allen was eventually allowed to return to teaching--but not in her original elementary school classroom. She was restricted to teaching adults, the article said. Over time, the school board relented and Allen went back to teaching elementary school students. Allen offered words of support to Buterman, the article said.

"Jan, fight the fight," Allen said. "Don't give in. Don't say ... 'I'm not going to fight you. I'm going to be good and quiet and not talk about this. I won't bother you about this.' No. Fight the fight."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.