What I Learned about My Pay as a Trans High School Teacher in India
Learn what it was like for writer Ess to learn about her discriminatory pay as a trans woman and how her boss reacted when she asked for more.
My identity as a trans woman has naturally affected my feelings of self-worth. This is mostly because of the way I look, but also because it’s so much easier to overwhelm my agency because it is based on a simplified premise that I exist neither here nor there, sexually, and as such, my voice seems to come across as inauthentic and suspect.
Whether it’s the general respect I'd like from my students — which I don't expect to come intrinsically — or the open-mindedness I've come to value from my cis colleagues — but don't harangue them for — my relationship with work and money has always been necessary but distant.
In quite the same manner, my tenuous relationship with money and the expectations I have for acquiring it are predicated heavily on whether or not I work and suffer enough for it. And of course, when I’m confronted with the byzantine ethical burden around equitable pay, I tend to shy away and pray that my superior sees my worth and my competence as a well-loved and respected science teacher.
My tenuous relationship with money and the expectations I have for acquiring it are predicated heavily on whether or not I work and suffer enough for it.
I had suspected that I've been paid below my worth for many years, but the most damning evidence came last year. I’d decided to contribute to the ongoing celebration of the school’s golden jubilee by volunteering to collect all the money from my colleagues.
I would have to collect a day’s pay from each teacher. I hadn’t known what their salaries were, and I’d expected they’d each contribute between 500 Rupees (about $7) and 1,000 Rupees ($13). I’d contributed 500. To my surprise, all the teachers were giving me 2,000 Rupees and 2,800 Rupees, which would make their pay three to five times mine.
It would be a lie if I said I was surprised. I wasn’t, but it dug deep and my self-worth took a giant gash across my already weakened heart.
It hurt me to realize how undervalued and underpaid I was. It made all the praise and commendation I’d gotten from some of the parents disappear into thin air, like the paint and dust that settles in my room in a thin veil of decrepitude. It made fun of my destitution. It hurt. A lot.
For the first time in my life, I gathered courage and wrote a heavily revised letter to our school’s principal, begging him to consider granting me a liveable wage. I had to be tactful and come from a space of understanding and genuine inquiry about whether something could be done to allay my insecurities — not a demand.
I sat there, opposite him, the leaf of my letter trembling in the air with every passing second, the guile on his face turning to a scowl, the very color of his skin draining of blood, white lines delineating on the tip of his dark lips as if bereft of moisture, hand trembling with something that had kicked him swiftly in the heart. My own heart caving in, feeling jilted for some reason.
He folded the letter carefully, cleared his throat and argued that I had volunteered for the job.
That was the only thing that crossed his mind in that tense moment. Not the details about how my pay wouldn’t cover the insurance policies; how I hadn’t been able to save for my future; how I was getting paid below the minimum wage; not even how, by every measure, I had been an exceptional science teacher, a professional through and through, and deserving of pay that honored my competence.
"You can always find another job," he said in protest and gave a sad chuckle.
I couldn’t say anything to that. What was I supposed to say to that? Yes, I should? Or no, that wasn’t the question? Or, no, my dear sir, that salary of mine would have me in debt — knee-deep in unpardonable debt — if, God forbid, I became ill with the hormones and treatments coursing through my body? Or, no, my dearest sir, the salary wouldn’t cover the monthly complete blood test I’m supposed to take — instead of once every three months I’ve been surviving with?
“You can always find another job,” he said with a sad chuckle.
I walked back to my office but not before apologizing for my letter and letting him know I’d only wanted to be honest about my situation. As a priest, he valued honesty above all else, and it was my duty to say it, no matter how difficult it had been. What I hadn’t told him was how, after collecting a day’s pay from my colleagues, I’d come to realize how base and insulting my pay was.
And as I sat, counting my minutes until the bell rang so I could teach my students about amplitude, wavelengths and particle vibrations, I was tempted to question my motives.
Was it reasonable to ask for a raise? Wasn’t that up to the employer to decide? I sat in my chair waiting for the guilt and shame to wash over me, over the faux-pas I’d committed. It didn’t happen.
The shame and guilt didn’t come. And I know why. I was right, and I felt right to have done it.
I was damn right to think what I thought. I deserved more. I wanted more. I ached for more.
Yes, my letter had put the principal on the spot. it made me an easy target, as a trans person, for future ridicule. It probably made me come across as desperate and needy. It probably made me look like a flamboyant know-it-all by quoting “minimum wage” and “lower than a day laborer’s wage” and “moral compass behind my back.”
The problem was, until I wrote that letter, I didn’t believe I even had his ear. Now, I knew I did. And I was damn right to think what I thought. I deserved more. I wanted more. I ached for more. Not because I was greedy but because I needed an employer who had my back.
Two months later, my pay came 10 days late. And a surprise: I’d gotten a 20% raise.
It hadn’t gone as planned, but the raise was a small victory for believing in myself. And my employers know as well as anyone that I’m worth even more than that. But I’ll take that 20% as a vote of confidence and an assurance that better bargains are up ahead.
About the author
Ess Aye is a science teacher at a private school in rural Meghalaya, India. She’s a fantastic baker and an occasional writer of prose and poetry.
Image by cottonbro via Pexels.