Cultural Shift

January 13, 2016 by Bill Ivey

Early on in our current Humanities 7 unit on science and human behaviour, the students had asked me if I’d be willing to make up a Jeopardy! game for one of our group activities. I agreed, and one of the students asked if she could help write the questions (I said she could, and she contributed four questions to the “Life Science” category). I found a Creative Commons Google Slides template with six categories, and filled in “Physical Science,” “Social Sciences,” “History of Science,” “Process of Science,” and “Scientists” as well as “Life Science.” I set about writing questions, trying to ensure there was a genuine range of challenge and yet each question was theoretically possible for them to know, keeping an awareness that if I wrote the questions well, they would be learning as they went.

For Final Jeopardy!, I chose the topic "Gender Studies" and the answer "The number of options for gender identity (within three) Facebook offers its users." The three student teams guessed 2, 3, and 6. The answer was 58. One of the kids, the moment she was in choice time, looked it up, and was both fascinated and perplexed by the list. "I don't understand the difference between these," she said, pointing to trans woman, trans* woman, and transgender woman, adding, "and why is the asterisk there?" I told her a given person might choose any of those three and it was a matter of personal opinion, for example, whether they wanted to include the word gender or not, and if not, whether or not they wanted to use the asterisk placeholder designating all the things that can follow the prefix "trans." She nodded, and turned back to her screen, scrolling slowly down.

Earlier this week, Fusion had shared an article on the CDC’s release of results of the 2011-2013 National Survey of Family Growth (Weiner-Bronner). These showed, among other things, that 5.9% of American women now identify as bisexual, up 40% from the previous survey in 2006-2010, and that 75.9% of women said they were only attracted to men. 1.3% of women identified as lesbian, reflecting what other surveys are showing.  (For men, the figures were 2.0% identifying as bisexual, up from 1.2%. 88.6% of men report being attracted only to women, and 1.9% identified as gay - an unexpectedly low finding attributed to the wording of the questions.) Indeed, as awareness and acceptance of bisexuality rises, we’re finding that women are more likely than men to identify as bisexual. The article didn’t mention the role that developing awareness of asexuality, demisexuality, pansexuality, and many others may additionally be playing in these shifts in personal identity.

I shared that article with several of my colleagues, along with complementary information that 1.2% of New Zealand teenagers now identify as transgender. One of those who wrote me back was Dean of Students Kristen Peterson, who said, “I really love learning about cultural shifts like these and think it is amazing that our students are much more comfortable thinking about and identifying with gender in this way.” I agreed.

These cultural shifts mean kids are growing up in an era awhirl with possible identities. We may not have really known about or understood them until quite recently even though, by all logic, they have always existed. Since language can help us define ourselves, as our vocabulary increases, the opportunity to understand ourselves more deeply also increases. This is both opportunity and challenge - opportunity, because it facilitates living as our authentic selves; challenge, both because it can leave the impression we are never standing on stable, solid ground, and because we don’t always know how to navigate this unfamiliar territory. How should the teaching of sex education evolve to fit an era of multiple sexualities? What role might the concept of romantic orientation play in our curriculum, both academic and social? How does a single-gender school evolve as we move gender beyond a binary construct? What roles do race and culture play in examining all these questions?

Our school’s mission is clear and infuses everything we do. We have students who are willing to speak up about the realities they see around them. We have adults who are willing to do the same, and who are ready to observe, listen to, and learn from not just our students but also networks of other professionals, and of family and friends as well. We have a community that is ready and willing to act not just to react to the cultural shifts around us but to actively shape them as well.

The patterns of thinking that have produced our societies and cultures are being subtly rewoven. What new patterns emerge are up to us.

Written by Bill Ivey

A dedicated member of the faculty, Bill Ivey is the Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. He teaches Humanities 7 and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program. Among his many hats, Bill also coordinates social media for Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

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Filed Under: gender, LGBT, LGBT Support, social justice, sexuality, Feminism