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First transgender teacher discusses life, activism

April 7, 2018

When Karen Kopriva returned to her job as a teacher at Lake Forest High School in fall 1998, it was national news.

After more than 15 years of teaching as Mr. Kopriva, she began that school year as Ms. Kopriva, America’s first openly transgender teacher.

Kopriva — who since changed her last name to Topham when she married years later — was at the center of a brief but intense media storm. In 2002, one of Topham’s children came out as transgender, and transitioned to life as a transman, or a man who was assigned female at birth.

Retired from teaching since 2016, Topham is a writer, theater critic and public speaker who discusses her unique experience as the transgender mom of a transgender son. She will speak at the Kankakee Public Library at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Ahead of her presentation, Topham talked with the Daily Journal about the future for transgender people and her life as an activist.

Since you’ve started giving these talks, what have you found is a common misconception people have about transgender people?

One misconception even the people at my talks have is (they think) they don’t know anybody who’s transgender. One of the things I point out is we’re all over the place, and chances are you do know somebody who’s transgender and you may not know that fact about them. “Transgender” is one in a list of things I could use to describe myself, and it’s not even the most important one. That’s another misconception that people seem to have, that transgender people are weird or strange because they’re transgender and that it’s the most important thing to know about them. Most of the time it might be the least interesting thing about someone.

A lot of transgender people choose to be “stealth” and not disclose their backgrounds to people. Tell me about your decision to be publicly out as a transgender woman.

I was in a very public position to start with, but I made every effort in the ’90s to let it die out because I had little children and I didn’t want them to be caught in the crossfire with transphobic people. I decided that while I had transitioned publicly, I decided to be as stealth as I could be in the rest of my life.

That lasted for a while; but gradually my own inclinations as a teacher took over, and I recognized the fact that I had an experience that was interesting and different, being both transgender and the mother of a transgender child.

To give somebody that experience, to have someone hear that experience, might help. I came to realize that though I didn’t talk about being transgender all those years, my presence at the school was something that made a difference.

Considering the national political climate, how are things for transgender kids growing up today?

The reality is there is so much more acceptance of difference among the young people in this country, and one of the reasons is they grew up with social media. They are used to sharing what used to be considered private information and having conversations about it.

The result of this is almost everybody who is a young person these days has the opportunity to know openly transgender people and to recognize openly LGBT people of all nature and see they’re not the “freaks” previous generations made them out to be.

The future bodes well. How quickly it will bode well remains to be seen, but as the young people of this country come into power, we will see changes, big changes. Whether Trump has the ability to put conservative judges in place and slow those changes remains to be seen.

Speaking of young people, we often hear debate about whether the increasing number of openly LGBT people is part of a “trend” or whether it’s somehow cool to be a part of the LGBT community. What would you say about that argument?

These days, the “trends” people might be seeing are that more and more LGBT kids are willing to say “I am” and are willing to say that sometimes without being completely certain of it. They’re not as loathe to talk about things, about themselves, as the previous generations have been, and they’re willing to be honest and open.

When I was transitioning, of course, it still was an extremely homophobic school — one of the reasons I was really frightened about my transition. Throughout the course of the next two decades, I saw the growth of acceptance among the student body, among the teachers. And I saw the growth of a transgender group within the school’s LGBT group.

When I left in 2016, there were five or six transgender or genderqueer (editor’s note: a person who doesn’t identify as either male or female, but neither or a combination of both) kids in the alliance and another three not in the group.

Most of them waiting for the end of high school to fully transition, which I think does happen a lot, but they absolutely had the intention of transitioning. And I’ve spoken with many people from previous generations of students who have gotten in touch with me, and I didn’t know they were transgender but they were. If there’s a trend, it’s toward openness rather than pretense.

What will your talk cover, and what will people get out of it?

They’ll get what they take from it, but what I’m going to talk about basically is my life. I have a unique set of experiences. I have a different perspective on what it means to be transgender than most other transmen and transwomen have because I’ve seen it from the other side. I’ll cover a little of the basics, of course, because not everyone knows everything, but mostly I’ll talk about what it is I’ve discovered.

Anything to add?

The only thing fundamentally to add is we’re human. We’re people too, and we are in all walks of life. I was a teacher, but there are dentists, truck drivers. There’s everything. In every walk of life, you’re going to find transgender people there. The fact that they might not be open about it is about society’s acceptance of transgender people, not about anything else.