Gender and Schooling

Ending bullying and harassment, and promoting sexual diversity in schools.

Letter from a 9th grade reader: “I worry. A lot”

Reply to an email from a PT reader who worries about safety at her school.

I haven't posted much recently because my teaching load this term has taken up a lot of my time. But I got the following email this week from a PT reader and it has motivated me to get back to it. With her permission, I am posting her letter here (with the names changed) so that my responses may be able to support and speak to other students who share similar questions and concerns:

“My name is Hilary; I'm a fifteen-year-old freshman in high school, and I've been reading your PT blog. My closest friend recently revealed to me that she wishes to be called Liliona and is in fact a girl (I won't do her the injustice of calling her a male pronoun.) I'm the only person apart from Liliona herself who knows her gender identity. When we're not alone, she goes by Derek and dresses like a boy. I've been having some trouble adjusting the pronouns in my mind, however. I am extremely frustrated that I still refer to her as a him in my head and have to consciously change the pronoun. Do you know how I can make this easier?

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I'd also like to try to change the culture of our school at least a little bit before she 'comes out.' You seem to have a pretty extensive knowledge about schools and gender diversity. Is there a way that I can influence my classmates to separate gender and sex without letting them know why? Is there something I can do about the eternal problem of the sex/gender separated restrooms? Why is it that on standardized tests they ask for the sex and not the gender? If they're trying to do statistics, wouldn't gender make more sense? On school registration forms (I'm new to this school this year, so I know) they ask for gender, but on the medical forms, they ask for sex. How can I support her once she comes out? Our school isn't very diverse, socioeconomically, racially, or sexually; I get the feeling that even our friends won't be as forgiving as we'd hope. She has no desire to become physically female, but she would like people to identify her as a girl. Is there any way I can do anything so that she can stop living a lie, as she'd like, without fear of rejection and intolerance?

I worry.  A lot.

Thank you for your time. If you don't have time to answer, that's fine, too.”

Hillary brings up some excellent concerns, common issues, and important questions. I will do my best to offer some basic information to address each one. Here is my response:

Dear Hillary,

Thank you for writing. You are asking some excellent questions, and I will do my best to address each one. First of all, congratulations on being such a safe and supportive friend such that Liliona feels secure and ready to tell you about her gender identity and share this important part of her life with you. Don’t beat yourself up about the pronouns – this is a big change and our language is ill-suited to adapt easily to it. I have a good friend who identifies as qenderqueer and prefers the pronoun “they” – I knew them for 8 years before they informed me of this, so I still catch myself making mistakes and correcting my inner speech (and sometimes outer speech). The most important thing is that you are recognizing and validating your friend’s identity. Small mistakes of language are minor compared to the support and value that come from your larger actions. Keep working on it, be aware of it, but cut yourself some slack. It is harder that you still have to publicly refer to Liliona -- by her birth name and sex assigned at birth. It is hard to keep those names and pronouns clear when a person feels forced to live a double life. 

As for your questions about changing school culture – these are amazing questions, and I wish more students were as aware and engaged as you are! Having the students be the driving force for the changes they want to see in the school community can be incredibly refreshing and empowering – however you need to develop some key allies to help you on this path. Possible starting points at the school may include: student council, the GSA and the advisor(s), school counselor(s), or district personnel responsible for Title IX (sexual harassment & gender equity) or anti-bullying initiatives.

Is there a way that I can influence my classmates to separate gender and sex without letting them know why?

This is a great question – how can we gently change the culture of our schools to get students, teachers, and other staff to understand the differences between sex (assigned at birth based on certain physical features), gender identity (how a person feels on the inside) and sexual orientation (who a person is most attracted to romantically for intimate relationships)? Hillary told me that she started off by asking her Biology teacher to “avoid using gender-related terms when in actuality referring to sex. (We're doing sex-linked traits at the moment, so there's a lot of 'daughter', 'son', 'boy', 'girl' type-things going on when actually referring to the sexual genotype of a person.) She didn't ask any questions, and readily agreed as well as promising to persuade the rest of the science department to do so too. It brightened my day a bit.”

This is a good start. Other ways you can do it is gently remind your peers when they are mixing the two up. Something like, “Hey don’t call that kid ‘gay’ because he likes to sing. Why would you make fun of someone for doing what they love? Anyway, you’re confusing sex, gender and sexual orientation and that is a whole different problem. Try not to do that.” You may even consider posting a link to this blog on your Facebook page and see what your friends have to say about it.

Is there something I can do about the eternal problem of the sex/gender separated restrooms?

This is a very large problem for many transgender and gender creative youth. Also, the lack of privacy in school restrooms is a problem for anyone who is modest, afraid for their safety, has a medical condition, etc. So the most immediate solution to this is just to ask your school what options are available to students who might require more privacy when they use the restroom—either for personal or medical reasons. The right to privacy is an important one and it doesn’t start when you graduate high school. Schools should allow use of staff washrooms, nurses’ stations, and other single-user spaces to accommodate ANY students who make such a request. The larger problem of creating gender-neutral washrooms may take more time to address due to physical plant issues and deeply imbedded cultural beleifs. But knowing your rights and options NOW is a good start.

Why is it that on standardized tests they ask for the sex and not the gender?

This is another excellent question and a pet-peeve of mine. For statistical reasons researchers like to break down scores by certain demographic categories. Sex has always been an important one in our culture. For clarity’s sake, generally they want to know your legal sex, or for most people your sex assigned at birth. In rare cases, researchers actually care about the identity of the test-taker and will ask more detailed questions about gender identity and sexual orientation and identity, but you probably won’t see those questions on your local state tests for NCLB. Sometimes they ask for ‘gender’ but what they really want to know is your ‘sex’. So you see, the problem of confusing sex with gender is not unique to your peers or your school, it is a larger social issue.

How can I support her once she comes out?

As a friend, this is one of the most important questions to answer. How to provide a support network and affirmation for a person who is facing a long and challenging coming-out process. A few concrete ideas are:

  1. Reassure her that you love her just the way she is and that you will always be there for her.
  2. Be a good listener. Don’t try to control her process and suggest things she may not be ready for. This is her journey your role can be to be her ‘base camp’ – the safe and warm place to return to from her adventures out in the scary jungle of a transphobic patriarchal world. A place to rest, reenergize, laugh, be herself, and then re-strategize for the next challenge (thanks to Scott Peck for the Base Camp metaphor – we used it in our wedding service).
  3. Find local supports [I've already sent some specific local suggestions to Hillary] – some possible sources of allies and advocates include: your school’s GSA, a local LGBTQ youth group [such as: trans youth support in MN, Gender Spectrum in CA, and TransActive in OR, online trans support groups [trans youth family allies, or other resources listed on genderadvocates.org) school district personnel (counselors, anti-bullying or Title IX compliance staff), and local chapter of P-FLAG. The more you can surround yourself with advocates and allies, the less isolated you will feel, and the more resources will be working towards a common goal.
  4. Prepare for what might happen in her home environment. Speak to social workers (your school counselor, or local youth group may be able to put you in touch with someone) about what happens if she is rejected or kicked out by her family. Too many homeless youth are LGBTQ youth who were not supported and affirmed at home. It is important to know and plan for what might happen if this is the case for Liliona. 
  5. Make sure she knows where and how to report bullying, harassment and cyberbullying if/when it occurs. Start now by keeping track of any incidents: verbal (jokes, name calling, insults), physical(shoving, tripping, bumping, hitting, etc.), non-verbal (gestures, glares, graffitti) -- including date, time, description of what happened and who was present -- will help you have more detailed information to pass on to the school so they can investigate and respond effectively. If you can take pictures, screen captures, or audio/video of anything as it happens that will also be helpful.

Is there any way I can do anything so that she can stop living a lie, as she'd like, without fear of rejection and intolerance?

Your final question is a very difficult one. We do live in a patriarchal culture that is transphobic, homophobic, and misogynist. Anyone who challenges social norms of the gender binary and cisgenderism will most likely face hostility and challenges that others don’t face. The good news is that there are many amazing people committed to equity and social justice that are working hard to change this. You are one of them. The only way to live without fear of rejection and intolerance is to develop a strong sense of self – to love yourself just as you are. To do that, it is important to surround yourself with strong, healthy, and affirming relationships. You are an important piece of that puzzle for Liliona and on this journey she will need to make hard choices about the people to keep in her life and those she may need to put some distance from. I will continue thinking about your questions and plan to blog again about some other ideas for students like you. This post is already very long, but I wanted to address each of your questions individually. I hope this helps. 

BTW: You rock! 

Sincerely,

Liz

Elizabeth Meyer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California.

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