(title courtesy of Nancy Flanagan)During the early summer heat wave in Europe, stories were turning up all over the Internet about boys wearing skirts to school and men wearing dresses to work. Jake Steward (our English Department Chair) sent me an email one day with a link to an article I hadn’t yet seen (though it began to crop up increasingly frequently), “Teenage Boys Turn Up at Devon School Dressed in Skirts.” At one level, these boys may not have made that choice if (in order of ease of remedy) a) their schools had a dress code that permitted boys to wear shorts, b) their schools had air-conditioning, and/or c) climate change wasn’t contributing to ever more extreme weather patterns. But at another level, there was fairly rapid and widespread buy-in to the skirt protest. I’m honestly not sure that would have been true just five years ago, no matter what the weather.
Dress codes of course are fairly easy to fix, and indeed the above-mentioned Devon School has announced they will be adding shorts to their summer uniform options beginning next year. Moreover, in the case of Joey Barge who was sent home from his job at a call center in Buckinghamshire for wearing shorts and returned in a dress, his employer loosened the dress code to allow ¾-length shorts. Both actions are at least one step toward equity.
All this may be a sign that, slowly as they change, our cultural attitudes toward gender are indeed evolving as we (we in the west, anyway; a number of African, Asian, Native American, and South American cultures have embraced so-called third genders for hundreds if not thousands of years) are becoming increasingly aware and accepting of gender as a spectrum. In the process, gender norms seem to be increasingly fuzzy. And of course, as a gender activist, I’m all over that.
Interestingly, our awareness and acceptance that sex, like gender, is also a spectrum (witness the existence of intersex people, approximately 2% of our population) is lagging behind. Perhaps this is because sex seems so cut and dried, with the scientifically determined predominance of the common chromosome combinations of XX and XY. But of course, many other chromosome combinations exist (X-, XXX, XXY, XYY, genetic mosaic, etc.), and various conditions and syndromes might lead to hormone levels and/or cell-level sensitivity to hormones that mean a specific person is neither clearly female nor clearly male. (see for example McKnight) Even at the skeletal level, different structures (cranium, pelvis, etc.) can be ranked on a five-point scale from “very female” to “very male” depending on different characteristics, and in one study (see Meindl et al) as many as 6% of skeletons were ranked “not sex distinctive.”
What all this means for boys and girls schools is a question as yet unanswered. Certainly, in a patriarchal society, there continues to most definitely be a place for these schools. As someone (unfortunately, I forget who) recently observed, girls schools are in effect one large affinity group, and the same can be said (albeit with different overtones) of boys schools. Quite likely, each individual school will have to decide for themselves how best to answer what this all means for them given the school’s mission and values.
Language, as Jake has observed on several occasions, often helps define such conversations, and for sure many schools are examining to what extent gendered language still reflects the communities they serve. “Coed” implies a binary gender thinking that is no longer a given in our culture. For a while, I tried using the term “multi-gender” schools instead - but of course, that’s true of any school with more than one gender, including girls and boys schools with non-binary and other gender non-conforming kids, and/or with kids who have transitioned from one binary gender to the other. Do truly single-gender or single-sex schools still exist in actuality? And if not, what language do we then use? And how does that then tie back to each school's individual mission? It's a conundrum. At least for now.
In a private conversation, my friend Nancy Flanagan astutely observed, “Social change--there are myriad examples--does take place at an excruciatingly slow pace; it's hard to predict when centuries-old prejudices and assumptions will yield to kindness and understanding. But--if we want to be fully human, we should (there's the subjunctive verb), be open to expanding love and grace and vision.”
Thinking through fundamental questions of identity. Calling in people to be their best selves. Listening carefully when called in oneself, and taking deliberate action. Understanding even the best-intentioned people are going to make mistakes. Understanding most people are in fact well-intentioned. Understanding that the slower the pace of change, the longer historically oppressed people are asked to be patient in the face of their own marginalization and erasure. All of this matters. But if we can choose to attempt all this in the context of expanding love and grace and vision, I feel hopeful for the future.
The choice is ours.