EAST NEW YORK – When the eleventh graders at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School came to their biology class last November, their teacher had an announcement to make – something very important and personal.
“I dedicated the class to announcing I am trans,” Brielle Hoban says. “My students told me they never felt close to a teacher before, because I was so open and vulnerable. After I was done, I said ‘I still love you guys.’”
After the announcement, Hoban allowed her students to ask away. Meaning, they could ask any question they wanted. She had even given out two note cards to each student so they could privately ask questions or comments. On some of those note cards, the students wrote: “I love you too”.
For Hoban, that day was the start of not only having a new community to turn to, but also the start of a new direction not only in her education career, but also as an advocate for the transgender community.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Hoban, 29, had a feeling she was different, though she could not explain why.
“I had no idea about trans people,” she says. “But there were red flags.”
Those red flags came about in seventh grade, when the division between boys and girls became more apparent. While attending a conservative Christian school, Hoban realized that, unlike the other boys, she had no interest in sports or competing with others. She also developed body image issues.
“I had a horrible body image. My voice was horrible, my hair was disgusting. I would shave my legs in the winter because I hated hair,” she explains.
Things didn’t improve when she headed off to college at another conservative institution. There, Hoban continued to struggle with her identity.
“I was not successful with other guys,” she says. “I started to be embarrassed about being a dude.”
Despite her gender identity issues, her sexual orientation did not waiver. Hoban explains she has always been attracted to women and even dated the same girl throughout high school.
But by her sophomore year in college, things went poorly. Her grades dropped and relatives were passing away. She decided to drop out of that school and enroll at LaRoche College. Knowing she wanted to help people, Hoban aimed to be a nurse.
“It was awesome,” she says. “There were only two guys in the program, so there were girls all day. I felt more comfortable there.”
As part of her training, Hoban had to assist at a local hospital. There, she did the clinical delivery floor where she helped deliver babies, care for the mothers and educate the fathers about the birthing process.
“That environment boosted me,” she says. “I fell in love with teaching that way.”
Since she enjoyed teaching so much as a nurse, she decided to become a biology teacher. So she enrolled at Robert Morris University. During that time, she took a job at a pharmacy and did what she loves most: teaching about the body, from biology to physiology.
Around this time, Hoban got married and soon her wife, Ashley, was pregnant. Their daughter was born on the last day of Hoban’s student teaching.
Desperate to make ends meet, Hoban took a job at a small Catholic school. She enjoyed the small school environment due to its intimacy but struggled with its curriculum.
“I taught an Anatomy and Physiology class,” she says. “They did not permit me to teach the reproductive system or contraception.”
It was during this time that Caitlyn Jenner emerged and transgender people became more visible in society. Hoban’s students knew all about this and that led to class discussions about the anatomy, as well as theological questions.
It also made Hoban realize what was really going on with her years-long struggles with her gender identity.
“I knew it was for real,” she says. “I used to have weird dreams about girls I knew, and then wake up and be sad not to be a girl. In 10th grade, I wrote about it but pushed it down. I thought I was weird.”
Everything changed once Ashley became pregnant with the couple’s second daughter in 2017. During the pregnancy, it was discovered that the baby had extra fluid on the neck and limbs. There was also a chance she had Turner Syndrome, which is when she would just have one X chromosome and would never hit puberty unless she received shots.
The pregnancy was stressful. So was Hoban’s secret, and the weight was getting harder to carry. When the child was born, she was fine. But Hoban’s wife severely hemorrhaged and had to be put in the ICU.
“That was the scare of my life,” Hoban remembers. “I almost lost Ashley, and it put things into perspective. You never know what will happen. My knees buckled and I couldn’t carry the weight anymore.”
When Ashley survived and came home, it was as if they both had a new lease on life. Hoban explains that when her wife nearly died, something else died in her as well.
“Something turned off and needed a new turn on,” she says. “It was time to be real, and nothing will stop me.”
Telling Ashley was not easy. She was also from a conservative background, so Hoban eased her into the revelation. When all was done, the couple had a cryfest and were very shook up. However, they regrouped as a team. Hoban credits their strong faith in God for getting them through this big step.
“Honestly, it’s the most important thing that has kept us going,” she says.
Shortly thereafter, Hoban started seeing a therapist to prepare for her transition. She began taking hormones in April 2018, and her physical changes started quickly.
Then came the question on what to do next.
“I knew that I could not do the work I love and transition where we were living at the time,” Hoban explains. “So we looked all over and applied to jobs across the country, focusing most of them on New York.”
At the same time, Hoban’s family was unaware that she was trans.
“It’s a tight-knit community,” Hoban explains. “I told them we were moving to New York for money.”
Moving To New York City
She obtained a job at the charter school, Achievement First East Brooklyn High School in East New York, but was unable to find a new place to live in time. Instead, she spent a few months traveling back and forth between Brooklyn and Pittsburgh.
It was then that Hoban’s parents realized what was really happening. While she will not go into details, Hoban will only say that her parents took it hard.
With nowhere to go on weekends, Hoban became desperate to find a place to stay. She started making phone calls in the middle of the night, and eventually, got hold of fellow AF teacher, Jordan Eshelman.
“She told me she had lost her place to stay and was stuck on a bus bench,” Eshelman says. “I was coming down from a night out and it was important to help her. I offered my couch until she got back on her feet.”
When Hoban arrived at Eshelman’s studio at 5 am, she explained everything, and also came out to him.
“We quickly became good friends,” he says. “I’m from rural Michigan, so we’re similar in terms of family and religion. I encouraged her to be more open and to come out to the principal.”
Hoban agreed, and told the school’s principal, Sabrina Silver, who took it fine, according to Hoban. Silver also organized for her to come out to the rest of the school’s faculty.
“Everybody took it well,” Eshelman says. “She did a fast fact sheet for them. People in New York are pro-trans, but some people still don’t come in contact with them very often. They don’t fully understand. Everyone was on eggshells a bit.”
There were some issues, though. At first, a few did not use Hoban’s pronouns. Then came the issue of how to fill-in for her whenever she went to doctor’s appointments. Since AF has fewer substitutes than other schools, other teachers had to cover for Hoban, which led to extra work, and thus, some friction.
“People need more experience with trans people,” Eshelman says. “Brielle was the first trans person some met. It was a learning experience.”
Then came time for Hoban to tell her students, just before Thanksgiving. Nervous as she was, Eshelman encouraged her to be honest with who she was with them. When they fully accepted their teacher as trans, Eshelman was proud of them.
Even more so, when Hoban explained how her family reacted to her coming out, one student simply said, “We’re your family, too.”
“They meant it,” Eshelman said. “I expected that.”
Shortly thereafter, Hoban’s wife joined her in Brooklyn and they found a new home together with their two young daughters. They also now attend a church that is affirming for the LGBTQ community.
“Life has gotten better since then,” Hoban smiles. “Ashley became a warrior. All we had was each other.”
With her family by her side, and a new family at Achievement First, Hoban set out to become a warrior herself. With her knowledge of biology and her life as a transwoman, she knew she had a lot to say, and do. She was elected to Stand Out, Achievement First’s inclusiveness committee and runs her school’s GSA, which stands for Gender Sexuality Alliance. One student at her high school came out with Gender Dysphoria, and before, had no one else to talk to.
“Bri reached out in 2018 for better support,” says Michael Rady, the Associate Director of Expeditions at Achievement First, as well as the leader of Stand Out. “What she did was really powerful and it was good for others.”
Rady also believes there’s no one else better to handle LGBTQ issues at Achievement First than Hoban.
“She is a person we definitely want in the room,” he says. “There’s so much opportunity, from sex-ed to schools with trans children. She’s a resource for other people.”
But Hoban wants to go beyond AF. She sees herself as making a difference in both education and for trans people.
“I want to become a better advocate for people,” she says, snapping her fingers confidently. “I don’t want someone to be afraid. My dream job is someone who gives encouragement.”
The first step towards that was a blog post on Achievement First’s website that interviewed Hoban on her coming out to her students. The post went nationwide, and teachers from around the country, some of whom were trans themselves, responded. One of them was a student teacher in Chicago who was inspired to be true to themselves because of the blog post.
And Hoban wants to challenge the way biology is taught in schools. To her, the curricula is sterile and there is so much more to biology than what many schools teach.
“People don’t know their body is so amazing,” she says. “God made our bodies. They’re very complex and adaptable. Things are not set in stone. [Students] learn about cells, but not people. Health and biology are separate classes, but why?”
Rady agrees. “For sex-ed classes, it’s really important to include trans and queer issues. Queer people need this information. This is a huge opportunity to make sure sex education is inclusive.”
Her colleague, Eshelman, is equally excited for Hoban’s goals and determination.
“She’s a fighter and she’s tough,” he says. “She’s known who she was for a long time. People will learn a lot from her. I can’t think a person better qualified.”
He also believes people need to understand more about what it means to transition.
“No one transitions for attention,” Eshelman says. “It is a duty to listen. If not, you’re hurting them and their community.”
As Brielle Hoban ponders her future as an educator and advocate, she also is thinking about her upcoming voice operation. She wonders what her new voice will sound like. It is just another step towards being true to her true self.
“I’m scared but excited,” she says. “It will be closer to what I want.”
“Next year, I’m not going to take no’s. This is the real me. I want people to see it. It would’ve come out sooner or later. I never met anyone else before who was trans. I had to figure it out by myself. I knew that transitioning was the right decision for me.”