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When the Gender Boxes Don't Fit

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When the Gender Boxes Don't Fit
by Ericka Sokolower-Shain

The first day of high school is hard enough. Walking down the halls, trying to find my next class, surrounded by a sea of people who looked hundreds of years older, I felt like I had a red blinking sign over my head that flashed "freshman" every five seconds.

When I finally reached my classroom I was beyond relieved. I already knew my teacher, one of many perks of going to the same school where your mom teaches, and I was excited about her class, "Identity and Ethnic Studies."

Our first activity was a game called "Stand and Declare": the teacher reads a statement, and students who feel the statement is true about themselves are instructed to stand silently. The idea is that the statements get deeper and more personal as the game progresses, but you have to start out easy. And what could be easier than the most basic aspect of human identity, the first question asked about a newborn baby? As my teacher read the first statement aloud, "Stand if you're a girl," my heart dropped.

What was supposed to be an easy question, a throwaway, a way to break the ice before delving into more personal issues, was for me a question I had been grappling with since elementary school. With what ease that teacher, herself a lesbian feminist, asked me to completely define my identity, something much more complex than standing for five seconds could ever express, something that I had been struggling with for years and continue to struggle with to this day. The simplicity of the question in her mind was apparent to me.

Although I was unsurprised, having lived my entire life in a world defined by a gender binary system, I was still angry.

That an otherwise excellent and caring teacher could so quickly alienate some of her students is a reflection of the way gender identity is taught and viewed in schools: the first and ever-present question on any school form, the gendered bathroom system, boys-vs.-girls locker rooms and sports teams. Even without looking beyond high school, it is clear how sharply gender divides and defines student life. For many this division is simple and their place on one side of the gender line is clear, but not for me -- and I'm not the only one in this situation.

Looking for Language, Looking for Community

For years I have struggled with finding my place in the gender binary. In elementary school I was constantly mistaken for a boy. I didn't feel comfortable in the girls bathroom, so I would wait until after school, even if I was in agony. I always played on sports teams that were predominantly boys, and, up until fourth grade, most of my friends were boys. By the time I reached middle school, I was pretty good at flying under the radar. Except for when I had to change for gym, I could manage to never be in a situation where I had to outwardly
define my gender.

It wasn't until ninth grade that I found a language to put into words how I'd been feeling, as well as other people with similar experiences to my own. PISSR (People in Search of Safe Restrooms) met every other week at the San Francisco Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center. I always felt a sense of pride walking into the giant pink building. At my first meeting, we broke the ice by describing our ideal toilet paper. The humor was refreshing. Even though we came together to fight for a simple human right, a safe place to go to the bathroom, the meetings didn't have an atmosphere of life-and-death struggle. PISSR disbanded a few months after I joined, but my experiences with that wonderful group of people had a lasting impact on my life. They introduced me to a new vocabulary, words like "genderqueer" and "gender-variant,"* and to the idea that gender doesn't have to be so black-and-white. It's possible to see gender choices as open, fluid, even undefined. With a stronger sense of my own identity, I was able to live more freely in the gendered world.

Back at my high school, I tried to bring these new ideas to the Gay/Straight Alliance. My idea was to start a campaign to get a gender-neutral bathroom available to all students at my school. I was braced for a fight with the administration but was unprepared for the reactions of other members of the club. What seemed like such a simple solution, a clear way we could work together for the rights of gender-variant students, became an internal struggle. A gender-neutral bathroom wouldn't be safe, some people said. I countered with the danger gender-variant students had to face daily in single-sex bathrooms, but my argument failed. I was shocked that a club whose purpose was to fight for the rights of all students could so bluntly let me down.

While I have grown into myself and become more confident, I can't forget the failures of my schools and the ignorance of well-meaning but misguided teachers. I can't blame that ninth-grade teacher for asking what many people believe is a simple question. Instead, I hope I can teach her something so she doesn't continue to alienate her students. What she needs is something the world needs: lessons and a language for the fluidity and complexities of gender.

*People who identify as "genderqueer" or "gender-variant" may experience themselves as being both male and female, as being neither male nor female, or as falling completely outside the gender binary. In other words, they see the division into "male" and "female" as socially constructed and at odds with their feelings about themselves.

* * * * *

As a Mom and a Teacher
by Jody Sokolower

How can we support children who don't feel comfortable identifying with the gender assigned to them at birth? I enter the discussion from two perspectives. First, I am one of Ericka's lesbian moms. From the time she was a toddler, Ericka has struggled with defining her gender identity "both within and beyond the gender binary system," as she explains it. Second, I am a teacher who has tried, not always successfully, to support students who were struggling with similar issues.

Ericka was a bald baby, and she didn't grow hair for a long time. In the beginning, I thought that was why people said, "Oh, what a beautiful little boy." "Thank you, she's a girl," I would respond. By the time Ericka was 5, she had stopped wearing dresses, and people on the street almost always assumed she was a boy. I almost always told them she was a girl.

One day, as we drove through rush hour, she asked from the backseat, "When I grow up, can I decide to be a man?" While I framed an age-appropriate explanation of gender-change options, the pit of my stomach turned to ice. I know young children see gender, like death, as changeable, but I also knew that for my child this was different. And that it was time for me to deal with my own issues so I could be there for her.

As someone who had been part of the first consciousness-raising groups, and an activist for women's and gay liberation since the late 1960s, I was invested in believing that we fought so that women could be anything we wanted. When Ericka wasn't sure she wanted to be a woman, I took it personally -- as a failure of everything I spent my life fighting for. It took me a long time to understand that freedom of gender expression isn't an attack on women's liberation. It makes more sense to see putting people in rigid gender boxes as one more aspect of sexual oppression.

Just as Ericka has struggled with defining herself in relation to gender, I have struggled to be supportive, to deal with my prejudices and defenses, and to bring what I've learned to the classroom.

Bias Against Gender-Variant Youth Runs Deep

Ericka went to an elementary school with an active lesbian and gay parents' group, which Karen, Ericka's other mom, and I joined. Every year parents went into each classroom to lead activities and discussions about nontraditional families and homophobia. But we didn't talk about transgender issues. Although we were confident that even very young children could understand gayness, somehow gender variance seemed too complicated, like one issue too many. Now I think we were just afraid.

I know from our reluctance, as a parent group committed to fighting homophobia in the schools, how scary it can feel to bring up issues of gender variance in the classroom. But opening up the discussion is a lifeline for youth like Ericka, whose struggles with defining themselves are so often hidden and silent.

Although schools and U.S. society in general are moving toward more acceptance and support of lesbian and gay youth, there is still enormous ignorance and prejudice about those who do not fit gender norms. The impact on these youth can be devastating. Forty-five percent of transgender youth in one study had thought seriously of killing themselves. Ninety percent of transgender students experienced verbal harassment at school in the past year, and more than a quarter experienced physical assault.

The Rocky Path to Support

So what can we do to nourish these kids? As a high school teacher, I brought discussions on gender variance into my social living class. I collaborated with two other teachers to make sure there were gender-neutral bathrooms available to students who were reluctant to use the single-sex bathrooms. But I also learned an important lesson about support from a mistake I made:

One year I had a student who told me before class the first day of ninth grade, "Don't call me Vanessa when you call the roll. My name is Ril." I agreed. For the first week everything was fine. The second week of school we had new attendance sheets from the office, and I forgot to change Ril's name on the sheet. On Wednesday I was out sick and the substitute called Ril "Vanessa." Ril, who was using the beginning of high school as the opportunity to stop presenting as a girl, felt that his cover had been blown and never forgave me. It seemed like a small, unavoidable slip to me, but it was huge to Ril. Ril's alienation was especially hard for me because I saw myself as an advocate. I went back and asked Ericka what she thought teachers could do to support gender-variant students.

"Don't you decide what kids need," she told me. "Remember when you always corrected people on the street and told them I was a girl? You thought you were standing up for me, but I felt like you were shoving me in the 'girl' box while other people were shoving me in the 'boy' box. I didn't want to be in either one.

"What gender-variant youth need are teachers who don't make assumptions, who ask lots of questions and then listen to the answers. Everyone is different. When a kid tells you what's important to them, that's what they want you to do."

This article was first published in Rethinking Schools Magazine, fall 2009.