After nearly 30 years of teaching band, orchestra and jazz at Wichita’s North High School, Stephanie Byers plans to hang up her baton and retire this month.
The longtime educator has seen many changes over the decades — including her own personal transition from male to female.
"There’s some uniqueness about me," Byers said. "I can’t say that I am the only transgender person who teaches in public schools in Kansas, but I’m one of the few."
Byers is a trans woman, she explains, meaning she was identified male at birth.
"Five years ago, [I] transitioned to be able to be an authentic expression of my true self," she said, "and in the process, did so at one largest high schools here in Kansas and without hardly any repercussions whatsoever."
Which was a relief to Byers, who said deciding to transition was a very complicated thing.
"People sometimes have the wrong idea that you decide one day that I am going to do this," Byers said. "The truth of the matter is that it starts forever ago.
"For me, the recognition that something was different about me came very, very early on, before I was in kindergarten, not really understanding and putting words to it until I was about 8 years old and then not having names for it until I was probably 12. That was in 1975."
Byers says the names and terms for transgender people have significantly changed since then. She says trying to present as one person when you actually feel like somebody else can be emotionally exhausting.
"And that exhaustion takes its toll and it shows up in stress, it shows up in depression, it shows up in suicide attempts and things like that," she said. "And so the freedom to be able to be authentic helps to remove all of that."
Byers says that for the most part, students have been fine with her gender transition.
"The current generation of students that we have here at the high school never knew Mr. Byers. They’ve only known Ms. Byers," she said. "The kids that first year, my coming-out story was to sit down with them after I was presenting as my real self, and they all came and I said, 'Obviously we need to talk about something and so here it is‚ instead of Mr. Byers, it’s now Ms. Byers, and now let’s talk about my goals for our classes this semester.'
"That's pretty much all it was because what happens, yeah, it's a very visible thing, but it's also a very personal thing."
Byers acknowledges some people don’t understand and still question why someone would want to change their gender.
"We don't question someone if they get divorced, we don't question someone if they change religions, we don't question, we just go, 'OK!'" Byers said. "And we learn to interact in a new perspective.
"So, the idea of being transgender, to me, that should be more no more indicative of who I am than the fact that I'm also Chickasaw Indian or that I can speak a little bit of French. It's just another thing about me."
After she retires, Byers says she and her wife plan to run their company, Gender.Training, which offers services to corporations, schools and civil groups training on how to respond to people who are gender different.
"People want to know and want to understand and sometimes, there's really no way to explain it to somebody else because it is so deeply personal," Byers said. "I think that the bottom line is that you don't really have to understand, if someone's transgender, why. All you need to know is to be kind."