Facebook shocked a lot of grown-ups last week when it gave users 50 options for identifying their gender, but it wasn't leading a revolution. Far from it -- the social media superpower was coming late to the party, responding to years of lobbying from LGBT users. Facebook finally acknowledged that millennials conceptualize gender in radically differently ways than most of their parents and teachers.
This generation increasingly views gender not as a given, but as a choice; not as a distinction between male and female, but as a spectrum -- or maybe even many spectra -- from masculinity to femininity (regardless of what's "down there") or from gender conformity to nonconformity. Many claim that gender doesn't even exist.
The implications for schools are profound: When middle schoolers can now identify themselves publicly as "Gender Fluid," "Pangender,"or "Neutrois" within a social media universe that they may spend just as much time in as they do at school, teachers may have to play catch-up from the time-honored, "Get in line, boys and girls." When a school culture is not prepared to support gender-variant kids, it can be downright dangerous. Learning how to address Susie who suddenly wants to be called Sam is about far more than staying hip with the kids, being politically correct, or even maintaining a reputation as a liberal, progressive school.
It is nothing short of a life and death matter, especially for residential schools. The rate of suicide attempts for trans individuals are 26 times the national average,a staggering 41 percent
(and that obviously doesn't include the rate of completed suicides due to gender issues, which is a statistic we can't currently know). According to a 2013 GLSEN study, 87 percent of transgender students have been verbally harassed in the last year due to their gender expression, 53 percent report having been physically assaulted, and 15 percent have faced gender-based harassment so severe that they have left school. Even more alarmingly, most transgender students do not feel they can report incidents of victimization to school authorities.
We can no longer assume that every child is happy being a boy or a girl. If we do, we miss the needs of some of the most at-risk students in the building. These are the children and teens who most need the refuge of a caring adult, who are isolated from their peers, who are least able to come out to their parents. These kids are often deeply invested in an online world that accepts them but withdrawn from a real life world that doesn't. They may see no place for themselves. The bodies they walk around in don't match who they know themselves to be, every minute of every day.
Facebook accepts these kids, but does your school? Is your school ready to include and embrace gender-variant students? Do you:
- Have a policy for the child or teen who wants to change her or his name and be referred to by new pronouns to reflect a gender change?
- Include trans acceptance as a diversity issue in the social culture of your school, alongside education about oppression based on race, ethnicity, class, religion, disability, and sexual orientation?
- Know your legal obligations to provide services to gender-variant students, based on civil rights protections and ADA requirements?
- Have known, visible adult allies on-staff that gender-questioning or gender-variant youth can go to for help?
- Know how to help trans youth choose which school bathroom to use? Join a sports team? Apply for college?
- Have a policy for how and when to involve parents in the gender diversity struggles of their children?
- Know how to work with your staff - including teachers, coaches, school nurses, residential personnel, and guidance counselors -- to combat gender-based bullying, particularly in high-risk arenas like locker rooms, bathrooms, and cyberspace?
- Know what you will tell the first parent who walks into your office insisting that her or his biological boy is really a girl and will be wearing dresses to school and using the girls' bathroom?
If the answer to many of these questions is "No," you are in good company. Unfortunately, training programs in education rarely address gender diversity issues, leaving teachers and administrators to rely on on-the-job training, usually through trial-by-fire when a crisis arises. Like Facebook, we are being led into this uncharted territory by those who urgently need our help.
Even well-meaning, progressive educators need help rethinking something as fundamental as gender. Guidelines for schools, like those developed by GLSEN are an excellent start to educating schools on working with gender-variant students.
However, when I work with schools, I tell them there is no one-size-fits-all (or even -most) approach that will take schools the full distance. Public schools have their own legal obligations and accountability to their local community. Private schools face heavy, often-conflicting pressures from multiple constituencies (students, parents, alumnae/i, faculty, admissions staff, development staff). Single-sex schools will soon have to answer the question of what to do with the current student who wants to transition and remain at school, as well as whether to admit already-transitioned teenagers. Boarding schools struggle with various dilemmas, like whether a female-to-male student should room with a male or female. Each community is different and will require a response that is individual and specific.
It's a brave new world where gender is concerned, but educators can do a world of good in helping some of the most vulnerable youth in their classrooms. They can even take a page out of Facebook's playbook. Tackling the understandable fear of new, confusing language and concepts is required, but isn't that what we ask our students to do everyday?