Over the weekend, I came across an NAIS blog post by Debra Wilson on “Taking Steps to Support Transgender Students and School Communities.” I know that for national organizations, policy statements on transgender people can be fraught with difficulty as some member schools may be part of communities who simply do not accept trans identities. (Just the other day, at the AISNE Diversity Conference, several people in a session on supporting trans students said they as LGBTQ+ adults did not feel safe coming out in their schools. And that’s in New England, a region generally considered to be more LGBTQ+ friendly than many others.) I wondered what path NAIS had chosen. It turned out to be, perhaps unsurprisingly, a somewhat tentative middle ground.
The day when the transgender anti-discrimination bill becomes law in Massachusetts is fast approaching. On this Saturday, October 1, gender identity (which, as it is defined in the law, essentially includes gender expression) will become a protected class with regards to public accommodations. Businesses may no longer legally refuse service, provide deliberately inferior service, advertise or publicize that they discriminate based on gender identity, lie in order to facilitate discrimination, or harass or intimidate people based on their gender identity. (Gallitano and Zules) Massachusetts thus becomes the 18th state to offer this level of protection to transgender and gender non-conforming people.
trigger warning: transphobia and gender-based violence
“Just be yourself,” they say. “No one can be a better you than you. There is only one you in the world.”
They also say “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.” and “Haters gonna hate.”
Yes. Well. All these well-meaning words of affirmation are certainly true at some level. And yet.
The Family Research Council has issued a five-point plan to, as Brynn Tannehill put it in her Huffington Post piece And Then They Came For the Transgender People, “legislate transgender people out of existence.” Their goals include ensuring transgender people may not legally change their gender, have no legal protection against discrimination, may not use public facilities in accordance with their gender identity, may not receive medical coverage related to transition, and may not serve in the military. (Tannehill) On their website, they urge resistance to non-discrimination laws, for example because they “mandate the employment of ‘transgendered’ individuals in inappropriate occupations, such as education.” (FRC)
As it turned out, Alaine Jolicoeur, our French teacher-intern, and I wanted to attend the exact same sessions at Saturday’s GLSEN-Massachusetts conference and, as it turned out, we both had good instincts as that made for just about the perfect flow for the day. It began with keynote speeches focusing on affirming the wonderful spectrum of people attending as well as the inclusive theme “both/and,” moving on to a morning session dominated by trans and non-binary kids telling their stories and sharing methods of self-care, lunch, a session on intersectionality with a mix of kids and adults, a session attended entirely by educators on supporting K-8 kids, and finally a closing moment written and performed by those attending Trenda Loftin’s final workshop session.
From the moment Caitlyn Jenner first announced that she identified as a woman to her recent Vanity Fair cover and beyond, national attention has perhaps been more focused on transgender people than ever before. And as often happens on such occasions, the resulting storm of invective and counter-invective is deeply depressing, and the interspersed comments of respectful support deeply affirming. In the end, Ms. Jenner has chosen a path that makes sense for her true self; she is not there to further anyone’s political agenda nor to denigrate anyone’s personal values. And if, in the process, the general public learns some things about privilege in general and transgender people in particular, including those who, like Ms. Jenner, continue to identify within the gender binary, so much the better.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” I turned to see a woman approaching me as I sat working at Rao's coffee shop. “Yes?” I said. “Can you please give me directions to (we’ll say it was La Veracruzana)?” I did, and she thanked me, acknowledged my “You’re welcome,” and turned and left. Clearly, she was either open or oblivious to the contrast between whatever it was about my appearance (hair? clothing? something else?) that had caused her to “ma’am” me and my baritone voice. Myself, at this point in my life, I respond naturally to either “ma’am” or “sir,” reasoning that in either case, someone is addressing me respectfully.
Respect is the key word here. It’s what underlies most successful human interactions, and what is most often missing when dysfunction takes over. It’s a firm underlying principle in each of my classes. I expect respect not only for each other (which they almost invariably show anyway) but also for fictional characters, reasoning that if we are generally talking about them as if they were real, we might as well carry it to the logical extreme.
Filed Under: gender, LGBT Support, gender stereotypes, Transgender Day of Remembrance, anti-racism, social justice, gender equity, TDOR, Acceptance, diversity, In the Classroom, The Faculty Perspective, transgender
Transgender Awareness Month comes right on the heels of National Bullying Prevention Month, and in many ways that makes sense, as transgender people are disproportionately affected by bullying (as with street violence). GLSEN reports that fully 82% of LGBT kids have had problems with bullying, 44% specifically due to gender identification (reported on the nobullying.com website). GLSEN’s 2013 National Climate survey is available by download for anyone who might be interested.
In an age where definitions of different genders are becoming as fluid as some people’s sense of gender itself, it can be hard to keep up with the latest terms. For starters, (biological) sex is not the same as (social) gender, and 1-2% of people are born neither female nor male but rather intersex. Additionally, even though “transgender” refers to someone whose gender identity differs from that assigned to them at birth, not everyone who might fit that definition automatically chooses to identify as transgender. Moreover, though some transgender people (such as noted teen activist Jazz Jennings, here in an interview with Katie Couric) feel they were always girls trapped in a boy’s body or boys trapped in a girl’s body, not all transgender people feel that way or even identify within the gender binary. Partially blurring the binary are bigender people and androgynes, and within the Native American tradition, two-spirit people. But other transgender people might identify as polygender, agender, genderqueer, or just plain nonbinary, and still others avoid terminology altogether. Some may have a stable gender identity while others might be more fluid. Facebook, as many people know by now, offers a menu of over 50 gender choices, and even then, it is not 100% comprehensive.
Filed Under: gender, LGBT Support, gender stereotypes, social justice, gender equity, Transgender Awareness Month, community, Acceptance, diversity, Feminism, The Faculty Perspective, Education, transgender
Three years ago, when working on my annual Martin Luther King Day piece, I wanted to connect his dream that children in the U.S. might “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” to similar dreams for social justice for other axes of diversity. As it happened, once we had published the piece and I had spoken in housemeeting, a discussion emerged on Twitter about whether or not these very kinds of connection were appropriate or appropriation. Concerned, I wanted to seek out opinions, and seized on an interchange between two of my friends, John Spencer and José Vilson, to bring up the question. I emerged from that short discussion believing that I needed to focus more specifically on racism in any future Martin Luther King Day speeches, and I believe I have done so for the most part (2012 - 2013 (less so) - 2014). But in the process of reacting to that 2011 post, I added another cringe-worthy moment to a long and ever-growing list.
However much I might have tried to disguise it to myself at the time, what I did was unfair to José and John, and perhaps especially to José as a person of colour. Through my actions, I was making them responsible for teaching me rather than going out and educating myself. In the process, in other words, I was not being an effective ally in the anti-racist fight for social justice, however well-intentioned I may have been. I’ve tried never to do that again - which is not to say there haven’t been other cringe-worthy moments since. Hopefully, though, they are at least becoming fewer and further between.