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, as one of Ericka’s lesbian moms. From the time she was a toddler, Ericka, now 19, 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 (Grossman, 2007). Ninety percent of transgender students experienced verbal harassment at school in the past year and more than a quarter experienced physical assault (Greytak, 2009).
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 9th 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.”
Greytak, E., Kosciw, J., and Diaz, E. (2009) “Harsh Realities: The Experiences of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools.” Report by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. Available online at www.glsen.org.
Grossman, A., and D’Augelli, A. (2007) “Transgender Youth and Life-Threatening Behaviors.” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior. 37: 527–537.