Kirkwood ‘sexualized my identity’: 3 trans educators claim discrimination, say they were forced out
When Hollis Moore was looking for their next teaching position four years ago, they read news articles and tried to look for signs that a school district would be supportive of their identity.
Moore is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns and the gender-neutral title “Mx.” After doing their research, they decided to accept a job in the Kirkwood School District.
“I really did think that there were a lot of good signs for Kirkwood being a good fit,” Moore said.
But before Moore even started their position as a gifted education teacher, they say they started to see signs that Kirkwood wasn’t going to be a welcoming place after all. Now, Moore and two other openly transgender educators say they were pushed out of the school district and faced anti-trans discrimination during their time working there.
The transgender educators are grappling with the situation against the backdrop of proposed Missouri policies that would limit how trans children and adults can exist openly in the state, including in schools. As Republican politicians focus on anti-trans legislation, two of the educators are joining other trans Missourians in considering moving out of the state.
At Kirkwood’s April Board of Education meeting, parents, teachers and community members stood outside the school building wearing red shirts to show their support for trans rights. They held signs saying “Trans People Belong at Kirkwood” and “Support Trans Students.” A former student ran up to hug Moore as they walked through the crowd.
Ashley Davis was there with her family. Her son, Zachary, is one of Moore’s students. Davis grew up in Kirkwood but said this situation has made her feel much less confident as a parent in the district. She showed up to support Moore.
“They've created a really amazing space in their classroom for a group of kids that don't necessarily fit in perfectly anywhere,” Davis said. “They have created a place where these kids can be themselves. For my child, specifically, it is by far his favorite class. It is the only class we ever hear about.”
Kristin Lueders, another Kirkwood parent, was there with her wife and two young children. She wants her kids to see diversity in their community, including transgender educators.
“I think it's important for our kids to grow up and see that reflected,” Lueders said. “They might identify with it themselves, we don't know. But I think that's really helpful for them growing up to see that in a community.”
During the board meeting’s public comment period, every in-person speaker voiced support of transgender rights.
But this wasn’t always the case in the school district. Before Moore even started their job, they say the district started to receive complaints about them. At multiple school board meetings, commenters denounced Moore’s title, “Mx.,” while others spoke out in support.
Over the course of Moore’s four years as a Kirkwood teacher, they say there were multiple shifts in how they were allowed to talk about their identity with students, and it seemed that many were in response to complaints from parents or community members.
Initially, they were told they could only say their title and pronouns were their preference and were not allowed to correct people if someone got those wrong. Eventually, after Moore filed an internal discrimination complaint, they say they were allowed to tell students they are nonbinary, not a boy or girl.
“At the time, it felt like a big victory,” Moore said. “It was like, ‘OK, this is one movement in the correct direction.’”
Expectations for how Moore could describe themself changed again in February of this year. Moore said an administrator read them a new directive.
“I was not to say that I was nonbinary, I was not to say that I was not a boy or a girl, I was not to talk about ‘genderless lifestyles,’ because these things would be considered sex education, and sex education was something governed by Missouri laws,” Moore recalled.
Also in February, a second openly trans employee heard about the same policy. Delilah Wylde said she was told she could not discuss her identity two days into her new job as a guidance counseling substitute.
“They read some very offensive policy on how they considered my gender identity to be sexual education, which I obviously was not happy about, because they have essentially sexualized my identity,” Wylde said. “And that's a very dangerous place to be in as an educator because you're working with kids.”
Wylde said she was in tears and felt unsafe during the conversation. She left work early that day and resigned soon after.
St. Louis Public Radio was unable to interview the third transgender educator who says they were forced out of their position for this story, but in an online petition, they allege that around the same time, they were put on unpaid leave before being terminated in response to what they say was a “transphobic fabricated complaint.”
A Kirkwood School District spokesperson said the district will not discuss specific personnel issues in response to questions from St. Louis Public Radio. But in response to a more broad question about the district’s policies, the district did confirm it considers discussions of gender identity to be sex education.
“We acknowledge and respect that a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are a part of who they are,” wrote Steph Deidrick, chief communications officer for the Kirkwood School District. “At the same time, gender diversity is an aspect of human sexuality. Discussion of and providing information regarding diverse gender identities is sexual education. This is consistent with the National Sex Education Standards, which name gender identity as one of the essential topics."
Deidrick went on to say, “staff may use titles and pronouns without explaining sexual concepts that accompany them.”
The focus on sex ed to prevent discussion of identity is something Moore and Wylde said is deeply inappropriate.
Moore said it also felt like a double standard. They wondered if it would be considered sex ed for a teacher to explain they were changing their title from “Ms.” to “Mrs.” because they were getting married.
“It's almost wild to think of that as sex ed, to try to draw that line of what would count,” Moore said. “It's not possible to say that a teacher can come to school absent of any aspect of their identity. It’s just not possible.”
The Kirkwood School District said its policies are based on Missouri’s sex ed law and the board’s policy. Both only reference gender when talking about schools’ ability to separate students by gender during sex education instruction. But the Kirkwood spokesperson added that the district recently updated its health curriculum to include gender expression and identity starting in 7th grade.
“The lesson, titled ‘Understanding Sex, Gender, and Sexual Orientation,’ includes the importance of developing a culture of inclusiveness for gender diverse individuals,” Deidrick said.
Advocates for transgender rights disagree with the idea that sharing information about gender identity is sexual education.
“No one should be denied the opportunity to be themselves at home or at work,” said Lynly Egyes, legal director at the Transgender Law Center. “When we restrict someone's ability to show up authentically and fully, we create the harmful conditions that allow for trans people to experience both discrimination and lack of autonomy.”
A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2020 found it is illegal to discriminate against transgender people, but Egyes says this isn’t fully enforced across the country.
At the state level, Missouri’s anti-discrimination law does not include protections for LGBTQ people. This leads to a lack of avenues for reporting workplace issues or a lack of trust in those avenues, said Michaela Joy Kraemer, executive director of the Trans Umbrella Group.
Kraemer said there is also a dearth of knowledge of transgender issues in the St. Louis area, both in schools and out.
“In St. Louis, and greater St. Louis, as I've grown up here, there isn't much conversation around queer topics in many circles outside of the queer community,” said Kraemer. “I think that's a failure of a lot of us to be able to create spaces or environments where people are seen as people, where I can be seen as human and relate to someone on that level, rather than be defined by a school as a part of sex education.”
All of this is happening against a backdrop of some of the most extreme proposed anti-trans policies in the country.
While Moore and Wylde were being told discussing their identities was sex education, Republican lawmakers in Jefferson City had introduced what is known as a “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which sought to explicitly limit how teachers are allowed to talk about sexuality and gender identity with students. The Missouri bill narrowly passed out of a committee but hasn’t seen further action in the legislature in more than two months.
Now a new rule from Attorney General Andrew Bailey seeks to restrict gender-affirming care for both minors and adults. The rule was intended to take effect on Thursday, but a judge delayed that in response to a lawsuit. The uncertainty over this potentially wide-reaching policy has left transgender Missourians to quickly fill prescriptions for gender-affirming medicine. Wylde said because she is between jobs, she has been navigating this situation without health care.
For Moore, the district’s new directive on how they could describe their identity to students pushed them to take a break from teaching.
“My fire for education, that love for education could not overcome that constant quenching that came from the fear of all of it,” Moore said. “All of the concern of, am I hiding it enough? Is it hidden well enough? Is something going to be a problem tomorrow? Is someone going to misinterpret what I've said or say that I've said something else?”
Moore sent their resignation letter to the school board on April 4. They plan to eventually return to teaching in another state.
“I still very much want to teach,” Moore said. “That desire to create that classroom so that kids like me can feel that sense of belonging, that's so much still there. … I just don't think I can do it in the state of Missouri anymore.”