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CPS Teacher Comes Out to Community as Transgender

By Serena Dai | April 1, 2014 8:18am
  Known as Mr. Rowell, Murray Academy teacher says she's ready to tell the world she's a woman.
CPS Teacher Comes Out to Community as Transgender
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HYDE PARK — At Murray Language Academy in Hyde Park, she's known as Mr. Jeff Rowell.

But the longtime CPS teacher, 47, says that's not who she is. She is transgender, and for the last two years, she said she's been going through hormone therapy to help her body and mind feel more like the gender she really is: a woman.

Now, Rowell is coming out to the community, and she said she wanted to show students and adults that it was OK to be transgender or to question their gender.

Rowell also said she wanted to show that transgender people were just as much a part of the community as anybody else.

"It's not like I'm some alien creature," said Rowell, who has started going by the name "Jess Scott" with friends and family. "I've taught your kids for a number of years. I go to restaurants. I'm here, as a transgender person in your neighborhood."

Rowell, a parent of two CPS students and a Hyde Park resident, is a Wisconsin native and former chef who has a master's in forestry and chemical engineering.

Rowell and her wife Catherine Celimene, who runs an after-school program, moved to Chicago about 13 years ago after Rowell was assigned to teach middle school in Englewood through Teach for America.

About six years ago, she started teaching at Murray, 5335 S. Kenwood Ave., and she's now a fifth- and sixth-grade math and science teacher.

It's taken a long time for Rowell to come out to herself. Starting two years ago, she took major action on a feeling that she'd had all her life — that her body did not feel like hers.

"It's such a large part of my mental function, I [had] to do something," she said.

She told her wife. She started taking hormones. They told their two children. She came out to a few close co-workers, too. She started feeling "relaxed" and "relieved" as her gender dysphoria, or the discomfort over the feeling that her body didn't match her gender, began to dissipate.

Hormone therapy helped her body — and her mind — line up with her gender, she said.

"There's a misconception that hormones only changes bodies," she said. "My hormones now match my internal sense of gender."

Her wife initially feared social repercussions, but after a year to digest the situation, she was ready for her partner to come out as transgender, too, Celimene said.

"To have this flower blooming, and you want to hide it in the closet," Celimene said. "No. You just want to see beauty. And she was becoming who she wanted to be. That was good."

People at the school have already noticed changes in her physical appearance, which became more pronounced this school year. Rowell started painting her nails. She doesn't wear a wig and avoids skirts and heels — "you can't teach in heels," she said — but she started wearing women's slacks, jeans and shirts, which fit better than men's clothes after she started hormones. Her skin started noticeably changing, too. 

Recently, a group of fourth-graders murmured among themselves as Rowell worked at a copy machine, chattering "Is that a boy or a girl?" she recalled.

"That’s the wonderful thing about kids. They’re so honest," Rowell said. "I like that."

Rowell said she didn't feel the need to explain her changing appearance. But she sees moments like that as potential opportunities to talk to kids in a frank way about gender stereotypes.

For the most part, people have not asked her directly about the changes. It hasn't come up in the classroom or during work meetings, when teachers tend to mostly talk about the students, Rowell said. At most, female students have commented on nail colors, and female co-workers have complimented or asked about Rowell's clothing.

But some curious co-workers have questioned Rowell's closest friends.

School librarian Eileen Holzhauer, who's been at Murray for 16 years, said some people have asked about Rowell in a "not terribly accepting tone of voice," treating the changes as "an oddity" without explicitly condemning Rowell.

"The tone of voice makes me wonder if there's some lack of acceptance," she said.

Teacher Nini Paulinski, who shares a classroom with Rowell and is newer to the school, said co-workers asking about Rowell have seemed more curious than judgmental.

Rowell's current students haven't had problems at all, Paulinski said.

Older kids might murmur, but students tend to have preconceptions about teachers in general — such as about who's the mean one, or who's the fun one, Paulinski said. Things change once they're in the classroom, she said.

"He's got a good rapport with the kids," said Paulinski, who like other close friends occasionally still refers to Rowell as "Jeff." "They laugh, they goof around. They know he cares about them."

Rowell hasn't legally changed her name or gender yet but plans to officially become "Jess Scott Celimene-Rowell" soon. She's still using her legal name of Jeff Rowell at school, and while she asks close friends to call her "she" and "Jess," she doesn't plan to ask others until she makes legal changes.

As far as the school's administration, Rowell told Principal Greg Mason last week, who told Rowell that he's supportive of her.

But Rowell said she's struggled in the past to get school officials to address LGBT issues. She's asked about adding sensitivity training or posting rainbow-colored "safe place" stickers to make gay parents and students feel more welcome.

She said she was told it was not appropriate at a middle school.

CPS spokesman Joel Hood said in a statement that the district "encourages tolerance and respect for all genders, races and creeds from every member of the community."

"It is the goal of the Chicago Board of Education to create healthy, supportive learning environments that reinforce positive behavior and for teachers, parents and students to feel safe and accepted for who they are," he said.

Outside of school, Rowell said there's also work to be done to change attitudes. Her efforts include volunteering as the transgender community liaison for the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St., a nonprofit community center dedicated to helping LGBTQ people in the Chicago area. On Saturday, her work at the center was recognized at its annual Human First gala, which was was attended by Gov. Pat Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

She also started a social group for transgender people so that people with an understanding of being trans could hang out together. Some support groups end up being places where transgender people focus on their struggles, and Rowell wanted to provide an alternative — where trans people could just embrace being alive, she said.

"I’m part of humanity. I’m part of this world," she said. "You’re not going to sequester me off to the side."

Yet, she lamented the "exceptionally high" suicide risk of transgender people: Studies show 41 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide at some point, or nine times the national average. Many transgender people end up homeless, are turned away from doctors and are targets of violence and discrimination due to their gender, studies show.

It shouldn't have to be that way, Rowell said.

"I'm not trying to be something I'm not," she said. "I'm just trying to be who I am. That's what anyone wants — to be their honest self. I think people can understand that."

DNAinfo Radio's Jon Hansen spoke with Jess about her journey. Listen here: