A Paradigm Shift that Can Help Students Thrive and Schools Succeed
Given how pervasively political, cultural, educational, and religious institutions are built on a foundation of stereotypes and binary assumptions, it is easy to understand why people find the current reassessment of all things gender disquieting and disruptive. The consequences of this upheaval can be found in all corners of pre-K–12 schooling, from the first-grade boy who wants to wear a dress to school, to the middle school girl who wants to play football, to genderqueer high school students seeking affirmation and inclusion.
When I began working with independent schools on gender-related issues 16 years ago, the goal was to open educators’ hearts and minds, and help them understand children and adolescents who were diverse in terms of their gender and sexuality. At the time, using the LGB (and reluctantly, T) framework was the standard approach. Even if teachers weren’t comfortable saying the words lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender out loud, LGBT was a recognizable acronym that organized thinking and actions. Over the years, however, this narrow framework has perpetuated a focus on “gay kids” or students who are “different.” As a result, we have missed the broad impact of sexism, homophobia, and heteronormativity on all students, of every age.
A Robotics Tale
A fourth-grade teacher shared with me his observation that the boys in his robotics class typically dominate the building, programming, and operating, while the girls make the colorful posters for their team. “I try to encourage the girls to get more involved, but they are really reluctant,” he said. He invited me to visit and observe. After a half hour, with the teacher’s blessing, I stopped the class to share a three-minute video montage with the students. The video exposes Lego’s sexist, binary approach to marketing the salon, the mall, and the Lego Friends beach party to girls and the volcano heavy-lift helicopter, deep-sea operations base, and heavy-haul train set to boys. I read a seven-year-old girl’s letter to Lego in which she complains that boys get to go on adventures and work, while the girls shop and don’t have jobs. When these fourth-graders learned that Lego did make a very cool set of women scientists a few years ago and then, in spite of its enormous popularity, discontinued the product, they grew indignant. Fourth-graders care a lot about fairness, and they saw Lego’s gendered marketing manipulations as blatantly unfair.
The students understood that what was happening in their classroom was more complicated than “boys taking over” and “girls being shy.”
Then I shared my observations with the class: The boys are, indeed, doing most of the building and cool stuff, and the girls are making the posters. When I asked, “Why do you think that is?” the discussion that ensued was rich with discernment, critical thinking, and humanity. The students understood that what was happening in their classroom was more complicated than “boys taking over” and “girls being shy.” The teacher emailed me a week later to say that his students were themselves working to mix up the team responsibilities and frequently used the video and our discussion as a reference point. They want to undo the imbalance and disrupt sexist stereotypes; they want to play fair.
How does changing the gender dynamics in elementary school matter? Susan Silbey of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been studying gender patterns in engineering education for years. Her recent article, “Why Do So Many Women Who Study Engineering Leave the Field?” (Harvard Business Review, August 2016) demonstrates the rampant sexism women experience in the group-project format — a format central to work in engineering. What begins as exclusion in fourth-grade robotics becomes a corrosive perpetuation of marginalization and workplace hostility.
While independent schools invest heavily in STEM initiatives, female students who go on to pursue a career in science are at high risk of being harassed out of the field.
Every Student Is Affected, Some More Than Others
Students who don’t fit the heteronormative paradigm often endure psychological, physical, and sexual harassment throughout elementary, middle, and high school.
Because they live and breathe gender stereotypes from the moment they are born (or before they are born!), too many students reject all kinds of activities and subjects, even before they are old enough to know why they are doing so. Boys don’t dance. Girls don’t wrestle. Boys are good at math. Girls are better at English. And the gender bias leads seamlessly into sexuality bias. Boys who are “too feminine” are gay; adolescent girls who are “too masculine” are threatening. Boys who have sex are players; girls who have sex are sluts. The impact of sexism, misogyny, homophobia, heterosexism, and heteronormativity on the healthy gender and sexuality identity development of all children at every age has been ignored at great cost to our students.
Students who don’t fit the heteronormative paradigm often endure psychological, physical, and sexual harassment throughout elementary, middle, and high school. In 2015, the federal government used its biannual Youth Risk Behavior Survey for the first time to document that students who identify as lesbian, gay, and bisexual, or those who have sexual contact with people of the same sex or both sexes, are at much greater risk than students who identify as heterosexual for physical violence, sexual violence, bullying, substance abuse, depression, unwanted pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases. A senior official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the results of the survey “heartbreaking,” yet middle and high school educators have witnessed the vulnerability and victimization of nonheteronormative students for decades.
Shifting the Framework; Gathering Data
This magazine devoted its summer 2010 issue to examining the role of gender and sexuality in independent schools. I contributed an article back then that proposed a new framework for thinking about these issues, and I developed the concept further in a book, From the Dress-Up Corner to the Senior Prom: Navigating Gender and Sexuality Diversity in PreK–12 Schools (Rowman and Littlefield Education, 2012). In the article and book, I argue that we need to shift our thinking about sex, gender, and sexuality from a primarily binary view to one that is more accurately inclusive of all. To do so, we need to think in terms of Gender and Sexuality Diversity (GSD), which is a broad construct that includes all sexes, genders, and sexualities — even those we might not yet know about or might not yet have named. GSD allows us to consider the multiple, complex, interrelated components that make up biological sex, gender, and sexuality for every human being.
Even though there have been regular additions to LGBT (QQIAA) over the past 10 years, this long queue of identities cannot accommodate the depth and breadth of our collective gender and sexuality diversity, no matter how many letters we add. In the years that I have been using GSD in my work with independent schools, pre-K–12 educators have had a variety of responses to this conceptual framework and to the New Diagram of Sex, Gender, and Sexuality (NDSGS) (see diagram below), which I use as a teaching tool. Perusing a handout of the NDSGS, some teachers let out a small yip of recognition: Hey! There I am! Others are cautiously enthusiastic, as they consider each spectrum and think about where different people in their own lives might fit in this schema. Some are perplexed by how different this way of thinking is. Yet almost every teacher is quick to recognize a paradigm that adequately encompasses and affirms every single student, every family, and every colleague with whom they have ever worked. Instead of thinking about some children as “not fitting into the box,” teachers can locate all of their students along a normative spectrum of possibilities.
The fundamental premise of GSD is that an exclusively binary view of our biology, gender, and sexuality is inaccurate and ultimately harmful.
Take a moment and locate yourself on these spectrums. Where are you in terms of your identity, expression, and behavior? Now take another moment and think about your 15-year-old self. How would you have identified back then if given these options? When we ask large groups of educators to do this self-assessment, here’s what happens: “How many people changed between age 15 and today?” Plenty of hands go up. “How many didn’t?” Plenty of hands go up. “Let’s look at that again.” It is quiet during the second round of hand-raising as people survey the room, and then there is a buzz of recognition. This in-the-moment experience of variation conveys the truth of human development in a way no textbook ever could. Even though we associate “normal” development with linearity and consistency over time, fluidity can be part of healthy gender and sexuality identity development as well.
The fundamental premise of GSD is that an exclusively binary view of our biology, gender, and sexuality is inaccurate and ultimately harmful. In our recent research project, Team Finch Consultants tested the hypothesis that, for some individuals, sex, gender, and sexuality are not categorical, but varied and continuous. We speculated that the inherent diversity of human beings would be more fully represented by a collection of spectrums, rather than binary categories. (e.g., one is either a man or a woman). The results of the study went beyond confirming the existence of a variety of nonbinary biological sexes, genders, and sexualities.[5 ]The findings also suggest that gender diversity is not limited to transgender people and that sexual diversity is not limited to LGBTQ+ people.
This challenges a question we hear often at our client schools: “Why are we spending so much time on issues that affect a very small percentage of our students?” Here are the big takeaways:
- not everyone fits in a binary box;
- some people do fit in binary boxes;
- some of those who fit in the box express themselves outside the box when given the chance; and
- everyone is affected by gender bias and sexuality bias regardless of how they identify (see fourth-grade robotics story above).
Gender and Sexuality Diversity at School
Independent schools have many more resources and operate under different and fewer rules than public schools. Their greatest privilege is having the pedagogical freedom to create educational communities that actually teach to their mission rather than to standardized state tests. When trustees, administrators, faculty, and staff pair the school’s mission and values with the GSD framework, the entire community benefits (see graphic below).
When a rising senior who had been at a girls’ school since seventh grade wanted to complete his gender transition and graduate as a boy, the head of school called me. “How should the community respond?” she asked. “What should the policy on transgender students be? Are we a single-sex school or a single-gender school?”
These profound questions get to the heart of the school’s identity. What does it mean to be an institution committed to educating girls when the definition of girl is in flux? In truth, there is no widely accepted answer to that question yet. This student was valued as an integral member of the school community, respected, and loved. Ultimately, the school’s values of acceptance, inclusion, and respect prompted the head to support the student’s graduation in his affirmed gender identity.
Making hard-and-fast policy in the midst of not knowing is risky business. As we find our way through this cultural transformation — where no one can predict exactly where we will end up — best practices can be found by pairing greater understanding of gender and sexuality diversity with mission values. For example, many trustees feel that creating new policies related to GSD is a compulsory part of board governance. I have found that board education about sex, gender, and sexuality goes a long way in softening hard-line opposition to (and fear of) any discussion of change or accommodation. There are still strong differences of opinion, but with greater conceptual understanding and a shared accurate language, trustees are less reactive, more productive, and better prepared to make 21st-century decisions that honor the purpose of their schools. And not all decisions come in the form of policies.
There is a growing awareness that school leaders need to reassess many long-standing practices in pre-K–12 independent schools. A short list:
- Admission departments must explore the intention of asking questions about sex (or gender) on the application form. What information are you really looking for and will checking boxes marked male and female provide it? If the first invitation to identify a prospective student is binary, how many families will look elsewhere?
- Dress code battles are age-old, yet today’s struggles over inappropriate (read: too sexual) dress for girls creates a superb learning opportunity. Schools must address culturally driven sexualization of girls and figure out how to create equitable standards of dress for all students.
- Athletic directors wonder how to accommodate transgender students in physical education and team sports. The summer Olympics in Rio provided a vivid education in how the binary organization of sports serves most athletes but not all. For students who are gender fluid, belonging to and competing on a coeducational team such as Ultimate Frisbee provides a nonbinary alternative.
- Boarding schools must reckon with residential life policies that still operate on heteronormative assumptions that all biological females identify and behave like girls, want to date boys, and should live in one dorm, and that all biological males identify and behave like boys, want to date girls, and should live in another dorm.
- In addition to learning about their own identity, students benefit from a curriculum that provides critical opportunities to explore gender and sexuality across cultures, continents, and history.
1. Joan C. Williams and Kate Massinger, “How Women Are Harassed Out of Science,” The Atlantic, July 2016.
2. Adolescent and School Health, Health Risks Among Sexual Minority Youth, www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/disparities/smy.htm.
3. Jan Hoffman, “Gay and Lesbian High School Students Report ‘Heartbreaking’ Levels of Violence,” New York Times, August 12, 2016.
4. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Agender.
5. An executive summary of Letting Go of the Binary: Comparing Continuous Versus Categorical Measures of Sex, Gender and Sexuality, 2015, (Jennifer Bryan, Sebastian M. Barr, Christopher Overtree, and Joe Mangine) is available from the author.