For the first day of school, Natalie Williams picked out a gray skirt and blazer with a black blouse. Luke Skywalker, she said, wore black when he was at his strongest.
An English teacher, Williams, 42, has endured the first day of school a dozen times, including the past two years at Dunwoody High School.
This year was different.
Every year before, Natalie had entered the classroom as Nathan.
“This is it,” she told herself that morning before leaving home. “This is how they are gonna see me.”
Caitlyn Jenner still grabs headlines two years after her transition began, and new federal guidelines on transgender student bathroom use caused an uproar across the nation last spring. While society is still coming to terms with transgender people, Williams has put herself at the heart of the conversation locally.
It’s not a lesson she planned to teach.
A long time coming
Her decision came after years of angst and confusion. As a teenager growing up in Tucker, Natalie settled on a more androgynous look. Girlfriends would comment that she wasn’t like others they had dated. Classmates at Lakeside High School knew something was different about her even then. At 16, she came out as bisexual.
“I’ve struggled with identity my whole life,” Williams said. “I didn’t feel like I was … a man.”
Williams’ mother, Gloria Williams, said she remembers little Nathan telling her he should have been born a girl. Once, she received photos from college where her son was dressed as a woman.
“Looking back, she thought staying a male was what would please us,” Gloria Williams said, mentioning that Natalie “had been fighting depression and all kinds of demons.”
“She wasn’t thinking of herself.”
Growing up in the South didn’t help, Natalie said. Boys were meant to play sports, get married, live happily ever after. She tried that, twice, with two nice women. Both at some point commented that their husband was the female in the relationship.
Little did they know.
She said she wasn’t totally happy walking the fine line between her truth and what was socially accepted. “Finally, I reached this point where (the desire to live as a woman) would not go away.”
Last year, after months of research and conversations with doctors and therapists, she began taking hormones that make her body appear female. During her transition’s early stages, she wore Nathan’s clothes to school but worked behind the scenes to better define Natalie. That meant facial surgeries to soften her features, dressing lessons, practicing makeup.
The day before school started, Williams sent a text to her department head that was half funny, half from fear.
“Do I have to come in tomorrow?” she wrote. “I don’t know if I’m ready.”
The reply? “You can do this.”
Meeting Ms. Williams
Seventeen-year-old Graciela Danois was eager to meet Natalie on the first day. Graciela is vice president of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, and Williams has been the group’s adviser more than a year. Still, the teen didn’t know what to expect.
“She’s got boobs!” the teen said. “I don’t know why, but I didn’t expect that. I was so happy for her. She looks great — brighter and happier.”
Not all reactions were so buoyant. Williams had talked to other faculty members about her coming transition at a summer meeting the Anti-Defamation League held on other issues. Some vocalized their disapproval there, saying it was against their beliefs.
Since school started, some who used to greet her every day no longer do so. Others stare awkwardly.
On social media, she would see things written that showed colleagues who had given her their support really felt differently. On one, the person talked about how Caitlyn Jenner wasn’t a real woman.
“You spend your whole life hiding your true identity,” Williams said, “and when you finally reach the point that you simply cannot hide or deny it anymore, your entire existence gets discarded in a simple phrase.”
There are teachers who have been very supportive, she said. The students’ general acceptance, she said, is inspiring. She was worried students would want to transfer from her class after meeting her this year. Instead, she was told students have requested to transfer in.
Many of Williams’ students learned of her transition at the end of last school year. On the last day, she told them Mr. Williams was not returning in the fall. “But Ms. Williams was,” she said.
Principal Tom McFerrin said he wasn’t concerned when his teacher disclosed her transition. There had been hints — the visible hormone effects and surgeries.
“’Whether it’s Nathan or Natalie, I just want to make sure you’re the best teacher for these kids,’” he remembers saying last spring. “I was new to this, and (she) understood that. I got some support from the county office and we were able to give Nathan … Natalie some support as well.”
McFerrin said while he supports Williams’ choices, he admittedly fumbles over pronoun choices still. After two years, “she” will take some time getting used to.
Graciela said gay, lesbian and transgender folks don’t expect support in Dunwoody, a mostly conservative community where she says they don’t have a voice. ”To see the school’s support behind her,” Graciela said, “is inspiring.”
A self-described homebody, Williams’ interactions with other people come while shopping or the occasional sci-fi movie. She scours the Internet for people in her same situation. Atlanta has one of the country’s largest LGBTQ communities and support groups are everywhere in the metro area, but she said she shies away from groups and public places.
Dating came to a halt after the transition began, too. More people, she said, are interested in her difference than the fact that she wants to be seen as a woman.
“You encounter a lot of people who are incredibly rude and mean,” she said. “Some of them treat you like an experiment they want to try.”
Dunwoody High senior Max Leach, 17, was eager to see if anything would change about the teacher he’d bonded with over shared music interests. He learned about her transition from another classmate this summer. His mom, though, was the first to see Ms. Williams, bumping into her over the summer.
“I forgot to tell her,” he said.
Their music conversations continue. Williams’ classroom displays drawings and pictures of musician Jimi Hendrix and poet Langston Hughes, Shakespeare and others representing gay pride, transgender pride and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Part of my passion for teaching is to create a safe space,” she said. “You can say things here and not be judged.”
A senior from the previous graduating class was a transgender male. Max said he thought that experience worked in Williams’ favor.
“I think it opened a lot of people to it,” he said.
Nationally, people still are wrapping their heads around the idea that people can identify with the gender opposite of their sex at birth. A 2015 U.S. Census report estimates about 90,000 transgender people live in the country. A recent report by UCLA’s Williams Institute puts that number closer to 1.4 million. About 56,000 live in Georgia, the report said.
Transgender people are becoming more visible in the cultural mainstream. Actor Jeffrey Tambor won his second consecutive Emmy last week for portraying a transgender woman. Chris Mosier was heralded last month as the first openly transgender athlete to compete in an Olympics.
But they also are a flashpoint in the nation’s culture war. A furor ensued earlier this year over the Obama administration’s guidelines saying public schools should let students use bathrooms and locker rooms matching the gender they identify with. Georgia is one of 11 states suing the administration over the issue, and the state school superintendent voiced “safety concerns” about the guidelines.
Fannin County residents packed a school board meeting in May to voice their concerns over the threat of transgender students using the bathroom of their gender identity.
A judge in east Georgia refused an Augusta University student’s name-change request, saying the chosen name was too masculine and potentially misleading. A Gwinnett church posted a sign in June saying “Satan made gays & transgender.” The head of Georgia’s ACLU chapter resigned instead of defending the Obama administration’s bathroom guideline.
DeKalb County School District Superintendent Steve Green said last spring in response to the bathroom guidelines that the district would do everything it could to accommodate and support all its students.
A reconfiguration, of sorts
Recently, Williams sat among a group of students, explaining the day’s assignment. She tugged often at her red sweater, covering herself with its long flowy folds.
The adjustment takes time for everyone, herself included.
Her first trip to Target was a nightmare. She said she fretted over what to wear and how people would receive her. In the store, people looked her up and down until the staring became awkward. She couldn’t get out of the store fast enough.
She said she’s never been satisfied with the face staring back at her in a mirror. The hormones and surgeries have helped.
“All those years of self-doubt and criticism aren’t ever truly washed away,” she said. “Everything to do with my appearance makes me self-conscious.”
She worries about raising her voice, saying the lower tone is more obvious when she yells. It’s one thing you can’t change, only train.
The family has accepted Natalie’s transition, Gloria Williams said. “If any family members are saying anything, they’re not saying it to me.”
When Natalie shared her news with her parents, she told them they’d have to mourn Nathan to embrace her true identity. Not so, Gloria Williams said.
“We didn’t lose our child,” she said. “Whether she’s male or female. It took awhile, but I’ve gotten real good at calling her Natalie. I still see my child, whether she calls herself Natalie, Nathan, whatever. I know I lost the form of my child that I was used to for years. But I didn’t lose my child.”
Gloria Williams says seeing her child readjust is like sending her out into the world all over again.
“We’re scared for her,” she said. “We know there’s crazy people out there. There’s gonna be some people that are really nasty. But you can’t sit on top of her. We worry constantly. Not because she’s a girl.
“We worry about what other people will do because they disagree with it.”
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) offers tips on their website on transgender specific terminology and words to avoid: www.glaad.org/reference/transgender