When the Gender Boxes Don’t Fit

By Ericka Sokolower-Shain

When I finally reached my classroom I was beyond relieved. I already knew my teacher, one of many perks of going to the same school where your mom teaches, and I was excited about her class, Identity and Ethnic Studies.

Our first activity was a game called Stand and Declare: The teacher reads a statement and students who feel the statement is true about themselves are instructed to stand silently. The idea is that the statements get deeper and more personal as the game progresses, but you have to start out easy. And what could be easier than the most basic aspect of human identity, the first question asked about a newborn baby?As my teacher read the first statement aloud, “Stand if you’re a girl,” my heart dropped.

What was supposed to be an easy question, a throw-away, a way to break the ice before delving into more personal issues, was for me a question I had been grappling with since elementary school. With what ease that teacher, herself a lesbian feminist, asked me to completely define my identity, something much more complex than standing for five seconds could ever express, something that I had been struggling with for years and continue to struggle with to this day. The simplicity of the question in her mind was apparent to me.

Although I was unsurprised, having lived my entire life in a world defined by a gender binary system, I was still angry.

That an otherwise excellent and caring teacher could so quickly alienate some of her students is a reflection of the way gender identity is taught and viewed in schools: the first and ever-present question on any school form, the gendered bathroom system, boys vs. girls locker rooms and sports teams. Even without looking beyond high school, it is clear how sharply gender divides and defines student life. For many this division is simple and their place on one side of the gender line is clear, but not for me—and I’m not the only one in this situation.

Looking for Language, Looking for Community
For years I have struggled with finding my place in the gender binary. In elementary school I was constantly mistaken for a boy. I didn’t feel comfortable in the girls bathroom, so I would wait until after school, even if I was in agony. I always played on sports teams that were predominantly boys and, up until 4th grade, most of my friends were boys. By the time I reached middle school, I was pretty good at flying under the radar. Except for when I had to change for gym, I could manage to never be in a situation where I had to outwardly define my gender.

It wasn’t until 9th grade that I found a language to put into words how I’d been feeling, as well as other people with similar experiences to my own. PISSR (People In Search of Safe Restrooms) met every other week at the San Francisco Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center. I always felt a sense of pride walking into the giant pink building. At my first meeting, we broke the ice by describing our ideal toilet paper. The humor was refreshing. Even though we came together to fight for a simple human right, a safe place to go to the bathroom, the meetings didn’t have an atmosphere of life and death struggle. PISSR disbanded a few months after I joined, but my experiences with that wonderful group of people had a lasting impact on my life. They introduced me to a new vocabulary, words like genderqueer and gender variant,* and to the idea that gender doesn’t have to be so black and white. It’s possible to see gender choices as open, fluid, even undefined. With a stronger sense of my own identity, I was able to live more freely in the gendered world.

Back at my high school, I tried to bring these new ideas to the Gay/Straight Alliance. My idea was to start a campaign to get a gender-neutral bathroom available to all students at my school. I was braced for a fight with the administration, but was unprepared for the reactions of other members of the club. What seemed like such a simple solution, a clear way we could work together for the rights of gender-variant students, became an internal struggle. A gender-neutral bathroom wouldn’t be safe, some people said. I countered with the danger gender-variant students had to face daily in single-sex bathrooms, but my argument failed. I was shocked that a club whose purpose was to fight for the rights of all students could so bluntly let me down.

While I have grown into myself and become more confident, I can’t forget the failures of my schools and the ignorance of well-meaning but misguided teachers. I can’t blame that 9th-grade teacher for asking what many people believe is a simple question. Instead, I hope I can teach her something so she doesn’t continue to alienate her students. What she needs is something the world needs: lessons and a language for the fluidity and complexities of gender.

* People who identify as genderqueer or gender variant may experience themselves as being both male and female, as being neither male nor female, or as falling completely outside the gender binary. In other words, they see the division into “male” and “female” as socially constructed and at odds with their feelings about themselves.

Ericka Sokolower-Shain grew up in Berkeley, Calif., and is starting her second year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.