Almost three years ago now, I wrote a post entitled “He or She? Confronting Gender Ambiguity in the Classroom.” I feel compelled to write about how my thinking has evolved since that time.
Through reading that post, it’s clear to me that there was so much I didn’t know about gender and gender identity, and it’s become even clearer to me how much thinking and evolving I still can do around the topic.
“The more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know,” Tracy Palandjian, Co-Founder and CEO of Social Finance, said at the TEDxChicago conference on Tuesday. She was right. The more I learn about identity development in children, the more I realize I have a lot to learn.
I also had the opportunity to hear Paige Leigh Baker-Braxton speak on Tuesday at TEDxChicago. Dr. Baker-Braxton specializes in sexual assault in the LGBT community. She imagines a world where gender identity is not assumed–where it is, instead, explicitly shared upon first meeting someone. Something to the effect of:
Hi, my name is Paul. My pronouns are he, his, and him.
The idea is simple, yet radical. And Dr. Baker-Braxton envisions a world where this simple addition to a greeting could, in fact, change the way that transgender and gender non-conforming individuals participate in what is now a predominantly cisgender world. And it makes sense. By taking the time to stop ourselves from assuming, we open up a world of possibility.
When I look back on the post I wrote almost three years ago, I see what I could have done and said differently. I see the ways in which I could have more proactively set up a classroom where gender was not assumed, but instead explicitly shared. And what’s more, I see that I was missing a pronoun, despite the fact that the student in my class was unconsciously screaming for one that didn’t make them choose a side. Instead of “He or She?”, it should have said “He, She, or They?” Or perhaps it shouldn’t have even named the pronouns at all.
I wish I could go back in time, but I can’t. That said, I have made changes since, and I look forward to making changes in the near future, specifically in the coming Fall. It sounds like a big task to change the way you approach gender in the classroom, but there are lots of things we can do to make steps towards progress–and not only for transgender or gender fluid students, but also for our cisgender students by continuing to help them break confining gender norms that limit their possibilities.
1) Ask your students to identify their pronouns.
I hope I’ve made it clear that this is something I have yet to do in my classrooms, but I also hope it’s clear that this is something I will be doing in the Fall. I’ll be doing it not only to create a space where all of my students feel safe, heard, and understood, but also because I want to send an implicit message to all of students–regardless of gender identity–that we should not make assumptions. Instead, we should make an effort to learn about an individual identities from the experts themselves: the individuals who are continuously cultivating their own identities through self-exploration and self-discovery.
2) Stop making boys and girls lines, or separating by gender in any way at all.
I see this a lot still, and while it may be convenient for teachers, it sends an implicit message that gender is binary and that you will be categorized by it for the rest of your life. While the latter might be true (even if it shouldn’t be), we can make a small step towards breaking this bias towards a dichotomous system for gender.
3) Find new ways to address your class that don’t include gender.
I still catch myself saying “ladies and gentlemen” or “boys and girls” to address the entire group of students, but there are other ways to address an entire group of students that don’t dichotomize gender. You could call them readers, writers, or mathematicians, or you can even use less domain-specific identifications like thinkers, learners, or scholars. You could even just say, “Excuse me, everyone!”
The truth is this: our words matter. And not only because the explicit messages we send our students make an unbelievable impact: it’s because the implicit and unspoken messages we send our students can make an even greater impact.
While celebrating pride this year, remember to include our transgender and gender non-conforming family members. Pride isn’t just about being gay. Pride is about inclusion, and pride is about celebrating everyone’s ability to be themselves, unabridged and unedited. You can make small changes that will compound into monumental change.
And to think: it could all start with a pronoun.