I wasn’t necessarily bad at math; in fact, I pulled in mostly As and Bs all through high school. It’s just that I hated it. So by the time my senior year at West Linn High School rolled around and I’d already decided I wanted to become a writer, my patience for multivariable equations was pretty much nil.
With his tucked-in polo shirts, khaki pants, tennis shoes, prematurely balding head, and innocent church-boy demeanor, Mr. Kintz was the perfect foil to my math-averse class clown persona. My friend Wisa and I loved to crack him up, and I could tell he loved us for making one of his five class periods less of a bore.
It had been 17 years since I’d seen Mr. Kintz when Wisa called last summer to say she had “some very big news about our math teacher.” The news—that he’d come out as a transwoman—left me emotional. I pondered how miserable he must have been all those years, and worried, like a protective sibling, that kids would be mean to him.
Turns out that Nick Kintz had been secretly living as Nicole outside of school for three years, but it wasn’t public knowledge until last summer. On August 20, parents and students received a carefully worded letter from West Linn High School principal Lou Bailey that said Nick would be returning to school in the fall as Nicole. “While understanding the complexity of the situation, we fully believe that this presents the opportunity for a teachable moment for our students, this community, and ourselves” Bailey wrote. “As educators, we stand for tolerance, authenticity, honoring diversity, and developing character.”
For Kintz, this wasn’t about realizing some kinky hobby in public view. Unlike drag queens and kings, who often dress as women and men for fun or fetish, transgender people like Kintz not only want to dress this way, they want to live and ultimately function in society as the opposite gender. Transgender people typically struggle with a feeling that their biologically assigned gender fails to describe who they really are—what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) currently describes as “gender identity disorder.” This has little or nothing to do with sexual preference. Recent findings suggest there may be structural differences in the hypothalami of transgender people, meaning that the misalignment of physical appearance and gender identity may start in the womb. Scientists theorize that for some people, that sex-differentiated area of the brain develops to more closely resemble that of the opposite sex.
While the biology of gender continues to crystallize, experts can offer only vague estimates of how many among us are transgender. It might be as rare as 1 in 2,000. Or it might be 1 in 100.
By the spring of 2009, Kintz’s need to go public had become urgent. After a four-year regimen of oral hormone therapy (spironolactone, a testosterone blocker, and estradiol, an estrogen that promotes breast growth), her A-cup breasts were beginning to defy the camouflage of baggy sweatshirts. She was also finding it increasingly difficult to curb feminine mannerisms, like saying “honey” in class. “I’d catch myself doing that a few times a day,” Kintz recalls. “It really stressed me out.”
Lucky for her, the law was on her side by then. Effective January 1, 2008, the Oregon Equality Act added protection for sexual orientation, which includes gender identity, making it illegal for the district to fire her. The bill put Oregon on a short list of only 13 states (plus Washington, DC) where gender identity discrimination is illegal. “It helped make my decision,” Kintz says. “I don’t think I would have risked losing my job had that law not been in place.”
Comforting as this progressive bit of legislation might have been, Kintz was still “scared shitless” at the thought of going public. And for good reason. She’d heard horror stories of transgender teachers being forced to change schools, or losing work. Take the story of William McBeth, a beloved substitute teacher in Eagleswood Township, New Jersey, who became a woman in 2005 and was forced to retire due to a sudden dearth of gigs. And then there’s the community outrage. In 2008, in Vacaville, California, parents pulled their kids from an elementary school music class after the teacher transitioned from female to male. “Understandably, a lot of teachers go stealth,” Kintz says. “But I wasn’t going to do that. How is anybody going to learn? If not me, who? If not now, when? Besides, I’d already put in 20 years at the school. I didn’t want to start over somewhere else.”
Kintz’s coming-out process began officially in June 2009, when she alerted her union representative from the Oregon Education Association (OEA), Karen Spies, of her plans to go public. Spies then set in motion a series of meetings with the district to make sure this revelation was handled as prudently as possible.
Spies explains that there was no union precedent for advising transgender teachers, nor do they keep records of teachers in Oregon who have transitioned on the job. “You don’t want to get into profiling,” she says. “These are handled case by case.” As far as Kintz knows, she’s the first teacher in Oregon to transition in the workplace. At the very least, she’s been the most public about it—though that wasn’t exactly her call.
Spies and district officials all agreed that to protect Kintz—and to minimize disruption to students—media coverage should be limited or, ideally, avoided. Kintz was happy to oblige. But on August 27, as Kintz enjoyed the last remnants of summer vacation at home, her friend Sara called to say that her husband had been listening to Lars Larson’s KXL show and there was talk of a transgender teacher in West Linn who had apparently come out in a letter sent to parents. Kintz flipped on the radio, and what she heard made her heart sink. For two days, she was the subject of an aggressive discussion about whether a transgender person should be allowed to teach kids.
“Most callers agreed with me that someone with that kind of psychological malady shouldn’t be teaching at all, let alone [teaching] impressionable teenage kids,” Larson tells me over the phone in March, seven months after the show. He reads me the entry on gender identity disorder from the DSM-IV, punctuating it with a question: “How can we allow someone who is making chemical and surgical alterations to their body to teach our kids?”
“What about teachers who take medication for depression, or who have had nose jobs or breast augmentation surgery?” I counter.
“It’s about an agenda to make decisions about our children’s sexual health,” he continues, going on to compare Kintz’s situation to that of a convicted murderer being allowed to teach kids after leaving prison. “If my daughter were in that class,” Larson says, “I’d strongly suggest she leave it.”