Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality is a collection of inspiring stories about how to integrate feminist and LGBTQ content into curriculum, make it part of a vision for social justice, and create classrooms and schools that nurture all children and their families.
- How do you respond when a child asks: “Can a girl turn into a boy?”
- What if your daughter brings home school books with sexist, racist stories?
- What does “queering the curriculum” really mean? What does it look like?
- What’s wrong with “anti-bullying” policies? What are alternatives?
Winner of a 2017 Stonewall Award in the “Non-Fiction” Category
“In this moment when forces are rallying to demonize all forms of difference, we must recommit to leveraging feminist, queer, and intersectional politics to trouble education. Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality showcases a diverse sampling of possibilities for doing precisely that. Read and act on this book today!”
– Kevin Kumashiro, author of Against Common Sense: Teaching And Learning Toward Social Justice and Dean of the University of San Francisco School of Education
“One of the most important books I’ve read in a long time. It should be mandatory reading for anyone involved in education. The essays are so thoughtful and passionate–but, more than that, they’re engaging. I found myself eager to get back to this collection, wanting to quote from every writer I read in here.”
– Jacqueline Woodson, award-winning author of Brown Girl Dreaming
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality—11
What does the new misogyny mean for teachers and schools? What does “queering our schools” look like? Does gay marriage mean equality? What’s next? The articles in this chapter define critical issues and set the context for the rest of the book.
The New Misogyny
What it means for teachers and classrooms.—17
Editors of Rethinking Schools
Queering Our Schools—22
Editors of Rethinking Schools
Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall
Moving beyond equality—27
Therese Quinn and Erica R. Meiners
Chapter 2: Our Classrooms—39
How do we create classrooms and schools that nurture all children as they grow and develop? What are the interrelationships between racism, sexism, and homophobia? How do we help children talk about these issues from preschool on? Parents, teachers, and youth share experiences, strategies, and insights.
Melissa Bollow Tempel
10 Ways to Move Beyond Bully Prevention (And Why We Should)—45
Lyn Mikel Brown
4-Year-Olds Discuss Love and Marriage—50
A. J. Jennings
It’s OK to Be Neither
Teaching that supports gender-independent children—56
Melissa Bollow Tempel
A “boy teacher” takes on gender stereotypes—63
The Character of Our Content
A parent confronts bias in early elementary literature—66
Believe Me the First Time—72
7th Graders and Sexism—82
Carol Michaels Foresta
When the Gender Boxes Don’t Fit—97
As a Mom and a Teacher—100
Standing Up for Tocarra—103
In Search of Safe Bathrooms—108
“Aren’t There Any Poor Gay People Besides Me?”
Teaching LGBTQ issues in the rural South—110
Stephanie Anne Shelton
Chapter 3: Our Curriculum—121
We can’t rethink sexism, gender, and sexuality without radically transforming curriculum. But what does that mean concretely? This chapter includes articles on sex-positive and inclusive sex education, teaching women’s and LGBTQ history, creating books and plays, re-envisioning the classics, analyzing popular culture, and more.
Disarming the Nuclear Family
Creating a classroom book that reflects the class.—126
Sex Talk on the Carpet
Incorporating gender and sexuality into 5th-grade curriculum—130
2nd Graders Put On a Gender-Bending Assembly—136
Of Mice and Marginalization—142
Elbow Is Not a Sexy Word
Approaches to sex education—149
Teaching Sex Positivity
An interview with Lena Solow—157
7 Tips for Teaching Sex Ed—165
Intersectionality: Gender, Race, and the MediaAn interview with Liza Gesuden—168
Jody Sokolower and Annika Butler-Wall
Young Women in the Movimiento
Chican@ studies after the ban—175
Curtis Acosta, Alanna Castro, and Maria Teresa Mejia
When Emma Goldman Entered the Room
Dealing with the unexpected in a role play—185
Brian C. Gibbs
Is She Your Bitch?
Confronting sexism on the fly—192
Seneca Falls, 1848
Women organize for equality—197
A Midsummer Night’s Gender Diversity—211
Teaching The Laramie Project—217
Creative Conflict: Collaborative Playwriting—226
500 Square Feet of Respect
Queering a study of the criminal justice system—235
Adam Grant Kelley
Teaching Angels in America—243
Jody N. Polleck
Baby Mamas in Literature and Life—254
Chapter 4: When Teachers Come Out—263
“Should I come out to my students? When? How? What can I do to protect myself?” “I’m an ally—how can I be supportive?” The stories in this chapter illuminate approaches, problems, and rewards.
“My Teacher Is a Lesbian”
Coming out at school—266
Two Men and an Imaginary Dog—273
Challenging Homophobia in the Classroom
Lessons from two students—278
Transsexuals Teaching Your Children—284
“She’s for Real” An 8th-grade teacher comes out—291
A Xican@ Teacher’s Journey—295
Chapter 5: Beyond the Classroom—301
How do we create healing space for young Black women? What can a school do to support trans children? How do you get a district to change its policies and practice? Parents, teachers, activists, administrators, and a children’s book author share their stories of support, advocacy, literature, and activism.
Rachel L. S. Harper
Ask Me Who I Am—305
We Begin to Know Each Other—310
Space for Young Black Women
An interview with Candice Valenzuela—319
“Save the Muslim Girl!”—328
Ö zlem Sensoy and Elizabeth Marshall
Those Who Carry Bias—337
T. Elijah Hawkes
Dear Parents of Transgender Children—342
Rethinking the Day of Silence—345
Gay-Straight Alliances Align with Restorative Justice
An interview with Geoffrey Winder—351
Policy Change: A Student Perspective—356
Mirrors and Windows
Conversations with Jacqueline Woodson—363
Chapter 6: Teacher Education, Continuing Education—367
How do we help new—and veteran—teachers feel more confident and competent to bring explorations of sexism, gender, and sexuality into their classrooms? Teacher educators and parents suggest approaches, curriculum, and resources.
“Let’s Put Our Bias Goggles On”
Reading representations of Black girl identity through critical lenses—372
Still Miles of Sexist Aisles
Helping students investigate toy stores—383
An Open Letter to My Son’s Teacher—393
Using photographs to rethink sexism, gender, and sexuality—397
Fostering writing lives—408
Lilia E. Sarmiento
“It’s Not Appropriate!”
Sexual orientation in teacher preparation curriculum—416
“Are You a Girl or a Boy?”
Reading 10,000 Dresses with college students—424
Teaching and Learning About Sexism
3 conceptual challenges—429
Gayvangelical: Teaching at the Intersection of Religious and Queer—436
Compiled by Jeff Sapp
Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality: Introduction
By Jody Sokolower
Jody Sokolower is a political activist, teacher, writer, and editor. She is the managing editor at Rethinking Schools.
What if schools were places where children could explore their identities and passions without worrying about gender roles—without worrying about gender at all?
What if all groups marginalized by our history books—including women and LGBTQ people—were central to the content we teach and learn?
What if age-appropriate, supportive discussions of sexuality were welcome across grade levels and subject areas?
What if LGBTQ teachers and family members were embraced by schools as essential to the diversity that makes a community strong?
Questions like these inspired this book. We began work in the midst of increasing discussion about LGBTQ issues, fueled by campaigns to legalize gay marriage; recognition by school districts—in the face of a series of murders and suicides—that they had to do something about harassment of LGBTQ students; and the end of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
We are encouraged by the momentum, but concerned that “gay rights” is too narrow a focus and separated from an overall understanding of social justice. For example, we’re sure the “It Gets Better” project, with half a million videos by everyone from Ellen DeGeneres to President Obama telling LGBTQ students to hang on, has helped many youth who felt isolated and alone. But it relies on a very individualized way of looking at the problem—everyone should be nice to each other, and your life will be better once you’re out of school. That’s a pretty low bar, and it doesn’t say much about the ways that schools need to change.
We’re also concerned about the ironic reality of marriage equality surging forward as patriarchy—the systemic control of women by men—reasserts its grip: Abortion and even birth control are less and less available to the women who need them most; the growing economic disparities have plunged single mothers into crisis (one-third of households headed by women are below the poverty line); violence against women continues unabated.
Finally, as I write this introduction, the Black Lives Matter movement is erupting in city after city. Protests against the police murders of African Americans have brought to center stage the systemic racism that continues to plague our country—and our schools. The urgency of that movement reinforces our conviction that LGBTQ struggles cannot be separated from the fabric of all struggles for social justice. Making schools safe for LGBTQ students, staff, and families is inextricably interwoven with the fight against racism.
We’re concerned about the ironic reality of marriage equality surging forward as patriarchy reasserts it grip.
Feminism—A Broad View
We needed a frame for this book that encompassed all those concerns. And one more, too: We wanted to be sex positive. Age appropriate, but sex positive. We wanted to model an approach to gender, sexuality, and sex that is fluid and respectful of feelings and questions at all levels of development. One that presumes that knowledge, respect, and communication are the basis of healthy and fulfilling relationships—to oneself and to others.
As we reviewed the many articles that were submitted, we had far-ranging discussions about how to frame the vision for this book. The five of us on the editorial committee for Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality are spread across the country and the generations. We all brought something different to the table. In Rethinking Schools style, we wanted to avoid abstract and academic language. But we needed a way to talk about what we were fighting for, where we hope all this work is going.
The term feminism has had a conflicted history; in the 1970s, in particular, it was identified with a movement centered on the perspective and needs of white, middle-class, Western women. In the years since, radical scholar bell hooks and others have reclaimed the word and recast it in a broader, more progressive worldview.
In Feminist Theory, From Margin to Center, hooks defines feminism this way:
Feminism is not simply a struggle to end male chauvinism or a movement to ensure that women will have equal rights with men; it is a commitment to eradicating the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels—sex, race, and class, to name a few—and a commitment to reorganizing society . . . so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, expansion, and material desires.
Margaret Randall, who spent many years participating in, documenting, and analyzing revolutionary movements in Latin America, adds this:
Feminism is about . . . confronting and making useful the painful memories that surface in our lives. It is about the conception and uses of power, about relationships in the human, animal, and nature worlds—who holds power and over whom. It requires rethinking and reorganizing both our notions of society and society itself, so that we all may make our unique contributions and participate to our fullest potential.
Hooks and Randall are pointing to a better world for all of us. Our job, in part, is to figure out what that means for education and schools. Children need to be learning about sexism, gender, and sexuality within a framework that includes an understanding of racism and other forms of oppression, and looks honestly at history and current events. For example, we can’t talk about gay rights in the military—or violence against women in the military—without asking what the U.S. military is doing in the Middle East these days.
We want students to feel supported and empowered at school; we also want them to see themselves as part of a world that needs fixing and that they can help fix. We want boys to feel comfortable wearing necklaces and girls to believe they can become physicists. But we are also trying to move the conversation toward something bigger—toward the vision that hooks and Randall articulate.
Teaching the Unspeakable
Most of the articles in this book concern topics often seen as taboo at school—including gay people, transgender people, and sex. Responding to questions from students or planning a unit can raise a lot of anxiety; all of us have been there. It’s easy to worry that once the conversation starts, all hell will break loose. But it’s a mistake to think that silence is neutral. Or that kids, even preschool kids, aren’t already exposed to and thinking about these topics.
The key, as with so much of good teaching, lies in building community in the classroom from the beginning. In constantly teaching and modeling thoughtful, honest, and empathic conversation. So much of teaching young children, for example, is translating content into what is developmentally appropriate. This book is filled with master teachers describing concretely how they do that at every grade level and what rich discussions emerge as a result.
For the sake of all our children, it’s critical to break the silences, but please do it in a way that works for you, given your own history, experience, and school situation. There is an enormous variation in school climates. A unit that will be welcomed and supported at one school could get you fired at another. We hope you will collaborate whenever possible, and think about and prepare yourself ahead of time for possible problems. You know your own situation best. This is not a test; we hope it feels like an invitation.
The articles are as explicit about content and teaching as we could make them. We wanted it to be easy to see what the author-teacher said and did, so it would be easy to see how to apply or adapt their work. Many of these articles pushed us to be more self-reflective. When an article made us nervous, we tried to ask ourselves why: How did it relate to our own history or the school where we teach? What would it take to move beyond our fear? We were lucky to have each other as sounding boards. It’s hard to do this work alone; we hope you find others in your school community for discussion, collaboration, and support.
In Praise of Fluidity
In general, the articles in this collection reject binary thinking. “Are you pregnant?” is a fairly yes/no question, but almost everything else is more complicated. We lean toward fluidity, and use the terminology current in queer and gender studies.
Take, for example, our perspective on sex, gender, and sexuality. Sex refers to the biological differences between male and female, which scientists now see as more of a continuum than a binary. Far more people have complex combinations of sex characteristics than society recognizes.
“Just Say No” is as ineffective and reactionary in relationship to sex as it is to drugs.
Gender is socially constructed, in the same way that race is. In other words, society has created definitions for “masculinity” and “femininity.” Although they are made up, they have an enormous impact on all our lives. Some people feel comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth; some people feel deeply that they are the other gender than the one assigned to them based on external sex characteristics. Some people have a fluid approach to gender—they feel differently at different stages of their lives. Others reject being gendered entirely.
Sexuality refers both to sexual feelings in general and with whom you feel drawn toward intimacy. Sex, gender, and sexuality are different for everyone—some people feel very strongly at one end of a continuum or another, others experience themselves as in the middle or not on a line at all. When working with children and young people, we need to allow them to be who they are and to support their safe exploration. What’s harmful is being critical, silencing, or making assumptions. Some children who explore identifying as the other sex grow up to be trans men or women, while others do not. Being comfortable with ambiguity is key.
The teachers writing about sex education in RSGS are focused on being age appropriate and sex positive. It’s important for students to learn about the risks associated with unequal, un-negotiated, and unprotected sex, but we oppose sex education that is based in fear and blanket prohibition. “Just Say No” is as ineffective and reactionary in relationship to sex as it is to drugs. And, although comprehensive sex education is far better than abstinence-only models, we are also critical of approaches based on the harm-reduction models of drug education—“It’s best not to have sex until you’re married, but if you must. . . .”
Positive sexual intimacy requires self-respect, equality, maturity, communication, affection, and protection from communicable diseases, but it is one of the great joys of life. We should not be teaching children that it is only fraught with peril. In Chapter 3, Lena Solow, Ericka Hart, Valdine Ciwko, and Jody Sokolower offer ways to provide students with age-appropriate, accurate information and lots of opportunity to discuss it.
Before We Get Started . . .
If you glance at the table of contents, you’ll see how we decided (after a few false starts) to organize Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality. There is a short introductory chapter that sets the tone. Chapter 2 focuses on what it takes at different grade levels to create a nurturing classroom for all children in terms of these issues. Chapter 3 centers on curriculum.
Then we have Chapter 4, “When Teachers Come Out.” RSGS is essentially a book of curriculum, but we couldn’t ignore the dozens of coming out at school stories we received as submissions. That topic deserves a book of its own; we’ve narrowed it to a short chapter here. But we don’t mean to minimize the significance of out teachers. At too many schools, there’s a Gay-Straight Alliance and some effort to support LGBTQ students, but it’s not safe for teachers to come out. If a school is not safe for LGBTQ teachers, staff, and parents, it’s not safe for students, either.
In Chapter 5, parents, teachers, activists, and administrators share their stories about advocating and organizing beyond classroom walls. Finally, Chapter 6 focuses on integrating LGBTQ content into teacher education programs and ongoing teacher education.
This book is just a beginning. There are many critical teaching pieces and perspectives that are missing. We hope you will discover new ideas and approaches, and that they will inspire you to develop and teach new curriculum, to organize and collaborate in creative new ways. Then, please, write about your work and contribute to this exciting, ongoing effort.
A final note: Student names have been changed throughout.