Eastchester Teacher who had Sex Change Battles District
[SANTA FE, NM] - When Eastchester High School's students and faculty gather this morning for graduation, teacher RandeyMichelle Gordon will be missing.
He cemented a reputation as a caring and cool jewelry teacher and then made headlines last summer as Westchester County's first teacher to switch gender and continue working at the same job. But she lasted only half of the year.
The trauma of Sept. 11, a few hurtful classroom incidents and the residual stress of being stuck in a man's body for 52 years resulted in a major breakdown in December, she said. On the advice of doctors, family and friends, she took a leave of absence and has not returned.
"I'm a very dedicated teacher. I love my students," Gordon said from her new home in Santa Fe, N.M., where she underwent sex-change surgery. "There's no way I wanted to leave. But I didn't have a choice. Mentally and physically, I had to go."
Diagnosed by her doctor with chronic depression, she said her life is now in limbo.
Even as she compliments officials for her treatment during her paid year off to undergo gender reassignment and on her return, Gordon is battling the district over her absence and eventual retirement. After using up her allotted sick days, she applied to continue her medical coverage and salary through the district's sick-leave bank. The application was denied.
The Eastchester Teachers Association has appealed the decision. Meanwhile, Gordon is living off dwindling savings and fears for her financial and medical future.
She uses her good days to make jewelry, paint and write letters to major media outlets advocating for gay, lesbian and transgendered rights. She is working on a memoir called "Charade" and serves on Santa Fe's Human Rights Alliance.
She said her bleak days are nothing compared with dark times when she was living as a man and twice attempted suicide.
"This is the happiest I've ever been in my life," said Gordon, who bought her first bikini last week. "I love being who I am and thank God I was able to become the person I should have been in the beginning."
Her return to the district followed a meeting last summer in which parents and students debated whether Eastchester was ready to accept back its popular teacher. Despite warnings by a few parents of corrupting influences, few pulled their children from Gordon's classes.
Eastchester alumna Allison Esposito, who just finished her freshman year at SUNY Purchase, said she was pleased by how unbothered students seemed over her favorite teacher's sex change.
"People were surprisingly cool and comfortable with her being gay and transgendered," said Esposito, who stays in touch with Gordon.
Gordon said her mental illness was brought on by the strain of coming to terms with having lived so long fulfilling male roles such as playing high school baseball and being a husband and father. But the shock of Sept. 11 also took a toll. Gordon recalled the difficulty of trying to comfort a student whose father died that day.
She joined hundreds of other dazed volunteers at the Javits Center the following Saturday. "I remember clapping for the workers going down (to Ground Zero) and seeing the ones coming off their shifts with their heads down," Gordon said. "It's an image I'll never forget."
Still, Gordon said she was doing fine until a few incidents occurred at school. A boy in one of her classes pushed her. Out of instinct, she said, she pushed back. No one was hurt, but Gordon was reprimanded by the principal.
Gordon believes the child acted like that because of her gender. "If I was in my other role as a male and I was 230 pounds and basically looked like a biker, I'm sure he would have never have done what he did."
She was also "betrayed" by a female student whom she considered a friend from when she was a man. The girl told school officials lies about her, she said, declining to elaborate.
She doesn't recall when the meltdown occurred, but remembers collapsing in her apartment. While she hoped to return to her classroom after Christmas, she found herself overpowered by emotions and unable to focus.
In January, she applied for disability benefits through the New York State Teachers' Retirement System, thinking it would solidify her case for entitlement to the district's sick bank.
It backfired. Eastchester Superintendent Robert Siebert said the fact that Gordon has been approved for those benefits is the reason the district denied her access to the sick bank, which would provide her 190 additional sick days as a buffer until she is eligible for full retirement benefits on her 55th birthday in 2004.
Siebert said the district has offered Gordon two options for taking advantage of a retirement incentive by Sunday, providing partial pay and medical coverage. "We've done everything we could to accommodate this unusual situation," he said.