The New York Times reports that the practice of separating public school students into classrooms based on traditional definitions of sex has increased in recent years. The article leads with describing decorations in two classrooms -- pink and cheetah print for the girls' classroom, racecars and footballs for the boys'. In case anybody was fooled that sex-segregation would give male and female students the same opportunities, the decorations in themselves show a clear reinforcement of gender stereotypes that plague the American workforce and create sex-based inequality. Sex-segregation in public schools is not only an archaic policy, it also threatens the safety of trans students and institutionalizes patriarchal definitions of gender that harm our entire society.
Though policies allowing sex-segregated classrooms claim participation must be voluntary -- the pressure trans children feel to assimilate and conform to external expectations about male or female behavior is incredibly strong. The policy is such that if a student was able to identify themselves as trans and and have the courage to articulate their identity to school officials, they would hypothetically be placed in a classroom that reflects their identity. There are blatant problems with these assumptions.
Trans students already feel isolated by a social structure crafted around genital-based segregation. Bathrooms, even for small children, are segregated by sex and clothing, starting in infancy, is separated based on perceived sexual identity. Though the Department of Education confirms that schools must respect students' gender identities in single-sex classrooms, the reality is that young children do not often know they are trans and should not be put in a situation where they have to decide their sexual identity and articulate why they may not feel comfortable in their bodies or traditional sex-based roles to authority figures. Policies that separate children based on their genitalia isolate trans children and create an environment where children who already feel discomfort with their sexual or gender identity are asked to forfeit their opportunity to learn and develop next to peers of varying sexual identities.
As an elementary school student, I did not have the emotional capacity or language to identify my discomfort with my body as a part of being trans and would never have been able to articulate this to school officials. If presented with sex-segregated classrooms, I likely would have gone along with it, burying my discomfort with existing feelings of disassociation with my peers. I can only imagine how limited my experience would have been in a female-only classroom and the increased pressure I would have felt to conform to female expectations.
Trans students, however, are certainly not the only population disadvantaged by sex-segregated classrooms. Sex-segregation in itself is a product of an oppressive sexual binary that limits sexual identity to "male" and "female" silos. Male individuals -- rather those people our culture defines as "male" -- have historically dominated society physically and hierarchically. One response to male domination is to separate female-identified individuals and create female-exclusive spaces, like female-only classrooms. Some might mistake this as a brand of feminism. But feminism without intersectionality isn't feminism, and separating children with vaginas from children with penises (and completely ignoring intersex children) isn't empowering.
Rather than separating students and teaching children to relate to peers based on similarities or differences in their sex, we should confront rampant inequality, misogyny and sex-based oppression across American society and beyond head on. Laws that regulate what people can do with their reproductive organs, legislation that denies health care for trans bodies and general acceptance of widespread sex-based violence are the forces in our society that create the inequality and misogyny that trickles into our school systems. If we want our female children to have the same opportunity as male children, separation and isolation are not the answer. Honest discussion about what sexual identity is, how it defines our cultural norms and how traditional sex and gender roles limit our collective development will offer real opportunities for creating safe and non-discriminatory public schools.