In February of this year, the department of elementary and secondary education for my state of Massachusetts issued guidelines that grant transgender students the right to access school bathrooms, use locker rooms, and play on athletic teams for their preferred, self-identified gender. The document also directs schools to honor student preferences for name and gender-specific pronoun usage. It is relatively easy to see how these newly protected rights relate to the high school setting, but it is less clear what the appropriate translation should be for our younger students who are more likely to be perplexed by their feelings and unclear regarding their choices. A good place to begin is for us to rethink common elementary school practices of labeling and sorting children by gender, because those behaviors both contribute to the stigma experienced by transgender students and reinforce detrimental stereotypes for all children.
Educators have long understood that children must see themselves and their families reflected positively in the toys, instructional materials, literature, and language of the classroom. We agree that such exposure builds self-esteem and challenges societal barriers. Yet we still engage in some practices that threaten to undo that work. For instance, something as seemingly innocuous as labeling lunch bins as “boys” or “girls” sends the message that everyone is in one category or the other, and the identification is both salient and unchanging.
Even though they shouldn’t be, elementary schools are still tough places for girls who like playing football and boys who love reading fiction. "
Similarly, if children are asked to line up by gender or sing a part in music class by gender, then what happens to the children who struggle with gender identity or see gender as more fluid than typically binary? If the adults are addressing and sorting children by gender out of convenience and custom, it is a habit worth breaking. Teachers would never sort heterogeneous classes by religion, race, or socioeconomic status, but we think little about gender-segregated physical education classes or assigned lunch tables. Not only could these practices lead to anxiety and confusion for some students, but it also sends a unique message regarding this one attribute.
Even though they shouldn’t be, elementary schools are still tough places for girls who like playing football and boys who love reading fiction. There is tremendous pressure for young children to conform to the physical images of the media and the activity preferences of their peers and parents. It is why it is critical for educators to support children’s choices and broaden their exposure. By altering sorting practices and classroom language, teachers can diminish the role of gender as an important personal attribute. For instance, a teacher getting a class’s attention by saying “class” or “friends” instead of “boys and girls” is a small change that carries significant social capital. Similar to our learning not to praise children for their physicality or their clothing but for their academic effort and personal kindness, it takes practice and mindfulness. As is true for breaking any habit, it may at first feel unnatural and clumsy. This has been the case every time we make linguistic changes to support greater inclusion and reduce harmful stereotypes.
I recall when it was correct to always use the male pronoun in speech and writing. When it was proposed that it was no longer OK to assume that women were literally subsumed in the male pronouns, many grammarians balked. It was awkward and challenging to create gender-neutral language that truly included everyone. This is when “postman” became “mail carrier” and “stewardess” became “flight attendant.”
People hate change, and the argument that something is cumbersome or unfamiliar is not, and has never been, a compelling reason to maintain the status quo. We are, once again, facing an opportunity to alter our linguistic practices to support greater inclusion. The Massachusetts guidelines correctly suggest that children have the right to determine their name, their pronoun, and their gender identity. We can begin honoring those rights by using gender-neutral language and sorting practices for all children in the elementary schools.
When we know that LGBTQ children are disproportionately represented in bullying incidents and suicide attempts, this change is not insignificant. If children do identify clearly with being a boy or a girl, and they are constantly referred to in this way, what messages are internalized that tell them how to think about what they should like, how they should dress, and whom they should want to play with? When a newly published study by the American Association of University Women concludes that women still make 82 cents to the dollar made by men, then we need to contribute positively to change by altering school-based practices that inadvertently limit the ways in which children see their worth, define their interests, and construct their identity.
What do you say, friends?
A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Breaking the Gender-Labeling Habit Early