Born to Create a New World

UW educator sj Miller is helping the next generation of teachers and students create a less binary, more inclusive world for all.

It’s taken sj Miller a long time to find sj Miller’s true self. But Miller, who identifies as agender and uses no personal pronouns such as “he” or “they,” has devoted Miller’s life to helping others accelerate their own journeys to self-discovery. 

Miller is a teacher educator who currently serves as the coordinator of the UW-Madison master’s program for teachers seeking dual certification in secondary English and English as a Second Language. In this capacity, and through research, writing, and public speaking, Miller is challenging narrow concepts of gender in schools. Miller’s hope is that this work will make K-12 classrooms more welcoming—places where young people can recognize themselves and be accepted just as they are.

“Fortunately, I’m in teacher education and teachers make a huge difference,” Miller notes. 

Miller knows firsthand what a difference a teacher can make. In junior year of high school, as Miller grappled with gender identity and sexual orientation, Miller’s mom kicked Miller out. Miller lived part of that year with a sympathetic teacher and, from that safe haven, applied to colleges. Miller received a full-ride scholarship to the University of California-Berkeley, thanks to Miller’s status as a star scorer on the high school soccer team. 

At Berkeley, Miller found a family of sorts. “I was part of the butch dykes,” Miller says. Like Miller, all of the members of this group of friends have medically transitioned as adults. “All without knowing the others were transitioning,” Miller adds. Miller points to the lack of a more precise identity term than “butch” to explain the slowness of their self-discovery. “Our generation got missed. There was just an emptiness. There was no language.” 

Finding a new language  

Miller is relentless in making sure the next generation has the language they need. Interviewing Miller is a constant lesson in neologisms: Miller doesn’t say that Miller has transitioned “from female to male,” but rather “transitioned toward male,” as a way to acknowledge “being in an in-between space” outside the binary.

Miller then takes it one step further: “I don’t use ‘transgender’ in my work anymore, because it’s become very binary. It’s been collapsed into that ‘LGBT’ that’s too confining. I’m using ‘complex gender identities’ in my latest work.”

While Miller attempts to stretch the English language to accommodate the complexity of identity, ultimately Miller believes that “the students are creating the language we need. We just have to shut up and listen to them.”

When working with classroom teachers, Miller challenges them to be open to the full potential of their students. On the first day of school, they should “just assume none of the students have any gender,” and notice how that changes the classroom. “We don’t know how identity is going to evolve,” Miller says. “One of my students identifies as an emoji. Do we gender an emoji?”

Noted social justice teacher educator Bill Ayers recently recommended Miller for an award for distinguished contributions to gender equity in education. “Dr. Miller has inspired colleagues and students across the nation with courage, conviction, and passion for deconstructing norms and social binaries,” Ayers wrote in his nomination letter. “Dr. Miller is in many ways the embodiment of a social justice educator and researcher, one who provides multiple pathways for students and scholars in education to explore important issues of equity with respect to gender and sexuality.”

One of those pathways is through writing. Miller has two books in the works, about Gender Identity Justice in Schools and Communities (forthcoming from Teachers College Press) and Navigating Trans*+ and Non-binary Gender Identities (forthcoming from Bloomsbury). Miller is also the editor of a column called “Beyond Binary Gender Identities” in English Journal, and the author of numerous scholarly articles.

Miller’s impact is spreading across the globe. One of Miller’s books has been translated into Spanish for distribution across Latin America, and UNESCO tapped Miller to serve on an international committee that recently created a guidebook for textbook writers on social justice issues. In November, Miller gave a talk at TEDMED, the healthcare field’s edition of the popular TED Talks, which streamed worldwide and is in final production for future viewing.

Another generation at risk  

While this impact is gratifying, Miller worries that recent progress in accepting queerness and gender complexity might be at risk. Miller cites the reporting on the October 2018 synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh. Reports on the attack often noted that the building was home to three congregations, Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, New Light, and Dor Hadash, and that the attack took place as members were preparing for a baby-naming ceremony.

“What they didn’t say was that the baby naming ceremony was for the child of a lesbian couple,” Miller observes. “The population of queer Jews tends not to be talked about in the media. People in that temple went unnamed—it contributes to an erasure.” Dor Hadash was Miller’s temple when Miller lived in Pittsburgh.

“Unless you name it, we’re actually contributing to erasure. That silence keeps other people comfortable.” Miller is determined to break that silence.

The Trump era has made the threat of erasure even more pronounced. Miller is particularly distressed by recent moves by the administration to narrow gender identity to the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate. During transition, Miller says, “the one thing I didn’t do is change my birth certificate.”

Miller was born in Louisiana, a state with “an antiquated way of doing things that’s very binary.” In order to prove the medical transition, Miller had to fly to New Orleans and be subjected to a doctor’s examination. The doctor sent a notarized letter, accompanied by a packet of 20 other documents assembled by Miller, to a judge who ruled that Miller’s birth certificate could list the gender as male.

“I don’t want to be a gender but this is all for formalities. I’m only doing this because of Trump, because the birth certificate will be definitive.”

Even so, Miller holds out hope that the next generation will find a way to grow past these narrow binaries—a hope captured in the first line of Miller’s TEDMED talk: “When you’re born into a world you don’t fit in, it’s because you were born to help create a new one.”

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