Leo Soell came back to school with no hair, a new name and an announcement.
The Hall Elementary School fifth grade teacher left to undergo cancer treatment last fall as Brina. A double mastectomy and four rounds of chemotherapy clarified a few things.
For years, Soell had lived a double life. At home in Southeast Portland, friends knew Soell was transgender and used the gender-neutral pronoun "they." At work in Gresham, coworkers called the 26-year-old "she." But after treatment, Soell was ready to be known as "Leo" and "they" at school, too.
"Because I was dealing with cancer, you think about the fact that you need to be yourself and nothing less than that every single day," Soell said. "I chose to stop lying."
Soell returned from medical leave in May, and expected coworkers to celebrate. Instead, other teachers said, the principal told staffers they could not announce Soell's gender transition or name change. Some coworkers stopped talking to Soell, teachers said. Others called Soell "lady" or simply "Soell."
Oregon and Washington have long barred employers from firing workers because of their gender identity. Portland-area districts celebrate diversity in school mottos and warn against discrimination in board policies. Yet most schools remain unprepared for the coming wave of transgender teachers, staff and students.
In the worst cases, teachers and students say they have been harassed or bullied. Even in progressive Portland, where principals routinely remind educators to ask students their preferred pronouns, transgender teachers say they still worry about how administrators will respond to parents, who may not understand or care what the law requires.
And in Gresham, investigators are now reviewing what happened to Soell last spring.
"I honestly don't think the district had any clue that all of this would happen," Soell said. "The frustrating part is I knew without a clear policy this would happen. I don't think it was malicious. I think it came from lack of understanding."