While the general public is becoming more and more comfortable with transgender actors and public figures, the debate about gender in schools often takes place in the least likely of places: the bathroom. Since gender is different from—and may not align with—the sex a person was assigned at birth, who uses which school bathroom has become a quick way for people to take sides on the issue of transgender student rights.
In truth, a transgender student is much likelier to be attacked in the bathroom than they are to be the attacker. Many gender-nonconforming students work hard to “pass” as their perceived gender while in a school bathroom, or they simply avoid using the bathroom during the school day (often to health-endangering effect). So, while the school bathroom is a polarizing space that is easy to argue about, it takes much-deserved focus away from other spaces in our schools. In particular, the room where students are confronted with sex and gender daily—the room that deserves our focus—is the one where they also spend the bulk of their time: the classroom.
Every day, in classrooms across the country, students navigate gender identity in a variety of ways. Students may be seated “boy/girl,” or read materials that present gender as overtly “masculine” or “feminine.” While the role of gender in classrooms might vary depending on the subject—it is likelier to come up in health, drama, or physical education classes, for example, than math and English—banishing the discussion of gender to the bathroom ignores how we teach our students about gender and how we interact with those who express their gender in different ways.The choir classroom, where I spent six years as a teacher, is one of the clearer examples of how gender is present in our classrooms, but it is not the only classroom with “gender trouble.”
Here are some of the ways gender is expressed in that classroom and the issues that can surface as a result:
• In the choir room, students are assigned to sections based largely on gender, and are often referred to with gendered language (ladies/gentlemen or girls/boys). What does our classroom seating arrangement say about gender? What words do we use to address our students individually or in groups?
Research shows that when our students have a choice, they will choose to come to our classrooms only when they feel listened to and safe."
• In the choir room, students often participate in activities like concerts (which may require a specific uniform) or overnight trips. For gender-nonconforming students, this makes “passing” next to impossible. How do extracurricular activities, required or optional, affect our students’ gender identities in the classroom?
• In the choir room, students are often assigned to specific courses (Women’s Choir, Men’s Ensemble) based on the assigned sex labeled on the admission form in the main office. How do existing school policies, administrator support, and the other teachers our students interact with affect the way a student presents their gender in our classroom?
Research shows that when our students have a choice, they will choose to come to our classrooms only when they feel listened to and safe. One groundbreaking article, published in the Journal of Research in Music Education in 2013, profiled a gender-nonconforming college student reflecting on middle school and high school music experiences. Those high school and middle school music teachers were ill-prepared to work with transgender individuals and so unwelcoming that this student stopped singing in school music groups, choosing instead to write songs and pursue music alone.
In my experience working with middle school and high school choirs, I tried my best to welcome any student who walked into my classroom and asked to sing. I worked with students to find the seating arrangement that worked best: A transgender male student (assigned female at birth who identifies as male) might feel more comfortable sitting in the tenor section with other boys, even though he may have trouble singing some of the lower notes. Shouldn’t students expect the same flexibility and openness throughout the rest of his or her classes?
To be sure, gender may seem to play a less significant role in the English or math classroom than in the choir room. A transgender student in English class still reads books the same way as their fellow students. However, these courses are often required, and students are left with few options to deal with an unwelcoming classroom.
When transgender students feel unsafe in a required course and can’t simply drop English class or skip math class, they might decide to leave school entirely. In fact, transgender teens are disproportionately more likely than their cisgender peers to drop out of school and be homeless. Teachers who are open to transgender students will develop students who are open to transgender peers. They, in turn, will grow up to feel safe around transgender individuals regardless of where they meet them.
A version of this article appeared in the February 15, 2017 edition of Education Week as The Classroom, Not the Bathroom, Is the Battleground for Gender Rights