4 Toxic Messages I Learned About Gender (and 4 to Teach Instead)
Young people are often denied the opportunity to explore gender for themselves and instead are told about gender by the adults around them. Especially for non-binary students like me (students who don’t identify as either male or female), having the ability to explore our gender – and then having our gender affirmed by the adults in our lives – is so important to our wellbeing and success in school.
Especially in the wake of last week’s election, and given that the progress we’ve made to protect transgender students is at risk, here are four of the toxic messages I learned about gender plus some alternative messages that adults, especially educators, should share instead.
1. Someone else – not you – determines how you should express your gender.
Our first “gift” when we enter this world is a label – our sex assigned at birth – and with that label comes a gender role.
From kindergarten to third grade, I attended a Catholic school with a strict uniform policy: white dress shirt and navy blue pants for the boys, and white dress shirt, black tights, Mary Janes and a navy blue jumper-skirt-monstrosity for the girls. I hated it and was so uncomfortable. I was always ripping my tights, which resulted in a condescending lecture about how “young ladies should always look neat.” But I didn’t have a choice, even though I knew what was most comfortable for me was different than what the dress code dictated all girls must wear.
Instead: YOU are the expert on your own gender. There are so many different ways to present your gender – masculine, feminine or something else entirely – and how you present yourself is up to you.
2. Your hobbies have a gender.
At school, I loved playing sports, and I always came home with a new bruise (and a story to go with it). I especially liked playing football with the boys in my class, much to my teachers’ dismay. But I never saw it as playing “with the boys.” I just thought of it as playing. Meanwhile, the girls would turn their noses up at me and call me a “tomboy” before going back to playing house and hand games. I felt alienated, simply because something I liked didn’t align with expectations for my gender.
Instead: Your gender doesn’t define your interests, and vice versa. People should be able to explore whatever interests them.
3. You can talk to us about gender when you’re an adult.
I can recall an instance where child-me considered that maybe I wasn’t entirely a girl. It was a minute-long conversation during snack time. My friends and I were playing house, and I volunteered to be the older brother. My friends and one of my teachers laughed. When I asked what was so funny, my teacher answered, “You can’t be the brother! Brothers are boys!” I replied, “Maybe I wanna be a boy!” And everyone within a ten-foot radius laughed at me.
A lot of people have a sense of their gender at a young age but just don’t have the language or freedom to express it. I didn’t have the words to explain my gender. I accepted the term “tomboy” for myself because I didn’t have better words to use. If I knew what non-binary was back then, I definitely would’ve used that word instead.
Instead: Everyone can and should talk about gender and gender roles. Young people know more than you think and sometimes just need to find the words. They might even be able to teach you a few things!
4. Okay, fine. You’re not a girly girl. But then you must be a manly man!
With years and years of “you have to be either this or that” ingrained in me, I felt that the only way to do the things I wanted to do was to finally cave in and reject femininity. I feigned a strong hatred for skirts and dresses. I rejected dance, Barbies, princesses and the color pink.
By high school, I was attached to masculinity, but I still enjoyed femininity. I felt like I was back in that childhood conundrum. Am I a boy or a girl? I finally found my answer when I came across the term “non-binary,” an umbrella term for any gender identity that is not exclusively male or female. When I read that definition, I could literally hear angels singing! It was like I found all the answers! Never have I ever had a moment that has provided me with such clarity. As a non-binary person, I’ve realized that my masculinity and femininity can coexist.
Instead: Gender is not black and white. Alternatively, gender is fluid.
These messages have a real impact on young people, especially those who experience gender outside the binary. This Trans Awareness Week, I hope you consider sharing my alternative messages, and teachers can check out GLSEN’s educator webinar on supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students for even more ways to make schools safe and affirming for all.
Alex Phillips is a member of GLSEN’s National Student Council.