“Il n’y a pas plus sourd que celui qui ne veut pas entendre.”
I have been a French teacher for many years, so I can tell you what that phrase means, both literally (“No one is as deaf as the one who does not want to listen”) and in terms of my own experience.
Last winter, I was fired by the West Point School Board, whose members did not want to listen.
They didn’t want to listen to my students and their parents, or to the clear directives of our state constitution (and Virginia law), or to what I tried to explain to them with my words and in the way I lived out my professional life on the West Point High School campus. Indeed, the administrators proved themselves deaf to virtually everything but the current political mandate which decrees that only one perspective on gender identity is to be accommodated.
Over the last seven years, I taught French and did many other things at West Point High — coached sports, sponsored clubs, managed special funds, even drove a school bus. I thoroughly enjoyed all of that, and my joy was reflected not only in a warm rapport with my students and fellow faculty but in excellent professional evaluations.
Just over a year ago, one of my favorite students — a smart, witty girl, thoroughly engaged in my classes — announced that she had started identifying as a boy. She told me her new name — a traditionally masculine name — and said she would also like to change her French name, the one that we use in class.
More than just allow her to choose a new, masculine French name, I offered all my students the opportunity to select new French names, so she would not be singled out.
I also made it a point not to refer to her with feminine pronouns. In fact, I avoided pronouns altogether, which wasn’t particularly difficult since you usually refer to your students by name in class.
The pronoun issue is important to me. I am, after all, a language teacher. Pronouns mean something—they refer to a person’s biological sex. I believe that sex is biological, not psychological, and that it cannot be changed, no matter how much physical and emotional effort a person invests to that end. It’s simply a fact of life, as far as I’m concerned. It’s also a fundamental tenet of my religious beliefs — beliefs that teach that it’s wrong to tell a lie.
Those beliefs soon put me on a collision course with school administrators. Though I’d been trying hard not to offend this student, it wasn’t enough. When school officials understood that I wasn’t proactively using male pronouns with this female student, they told me that I’d have to immediately make a concerted effort to do so or risk losing my job.
Using the wrong pronouns would mean denying not only my faith, but objective reality. What’s more, it would mean sacrificing my freedom of conscience. I’d also be permitting the administrators to violate my legally protected freedom of speech by allowing them to compel me to express ideas I don’t agree with.
I tried as gracefully as I could to explain all of that — to the student, her family, school officials, and the division superintendent. They would not listen. My spotless record was irrelevant. My reputation for fairness among my students and peers counted for nothing. My willingness to go several extra miles for this student didn’t mean anything if I wouldn’t go one final inch.
In the end, they fired me, and now I’ve filed suit against the school division in state court.
I’m not looking for an official endorsement of my point of view — only the freedom to exercise my profession while maintaining my convictions. This freedom is the right of all Americans — the freedom to honor our personal convictions and our religious beliefs … the freedom not to speak a message we don’t believe.
I don’t mind not using a pronoun that might offend this student, but I’m not willing to use one that offends my conscience. It seems a simple, fair request, but division administrators turned a deaf ear to it. I can only hope that a judge will not.
• Peter Vlaming is a French teacher who has filed suit against the West Point School Board over his dismissal.