It's a typical Wednesday afternoon on the playground, but in the minds of my 5-year-old students it’s a zombie obstacle course, an Olympic monkey bar competition, or a restorative circle of tears and reconciliation. One such 5-year-old, so distracted by my presence, takes a break in their play to ask, "Are you a boy or a girl?" I promptly answer, "Both and sometimes neither." To this they look at me with a delicate grin and animated bob of their head. Responding with “Okay, me too sometimes,” as they zombie walk away. As a non-binary trans educator, this is a daily occurrence, a daily “coming out,” a daily playful teaching moment in between literacy and personal space lessons, and an ongoing conversation.
This child’s response is not exclusive to this school nor to my experiences as a teacher. I have heard it echoed by numerous queer, GNC and trans educators. I have experienced this in public and private schools, with mixed responses from co-workers and administration. The ease of this experience can be attributed to three factors: 1) the openness and comfort with which preschool-age and kindergarten-age children engage in conversations about gender, 2) the trans-affirming public school where I work and 3) the privilege I have to be out in my workplace. The latter factors are not mutually exclusive but the first always stands. Children in preschool and early elementary grades are not limited by commitments to prejudice and bias-- they want to learn the languages of identity, they want to hear queer stories, they want to know all the possibilities.
When I first developed the self-awareness and vocabulary to appreciate my trans identity, I would never have imagined I would feel so at ease teaching 5-year-old children gender-neutral pronouns, let alone be out at work. Early in my career I realized that my professional and personal identities are inseparable. Avoiding the endless questions from students about my gender and expression was not only causing me excessive anxiety, but also giving them a dishonest representation of the world, relationships and who can be a teacher. It wasn’t until five years into my career as an educator that I requested support from my school to be out as nonbinary and transgender. While this wasn’t always greeted with love and understanding from the adults in my workplace, hearing four and five-year-old students respond with “That’s cool!” “Me too!” and “I want to be called ‘she’ now” are well worth the tears and frustration caused by transphobia in the workplace.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” “Why you got hair on your legs?” “You like flowers and pink too?” “You sound like a boy.” “Do you like Elsa?” “You’re both, so do you get to use both bathrooms?” I started seeing these endless questions and comments directed at my gender identity as invitations to teaching moments. These preschoolers weren’t baiting me; they simply wanted the information on gender from the only reliable source they knew. No need for long lectures, hours of workshops, or a shift of categories and biases. In early childhood education all it takes is honesty, relatable language, consistency, hugs, and some stickers for good measure.
Every school year, for the past five years, I have had to come out and explain to a new group of very young children and their parents, how to use they/them pronouns, that clothing and toys have no gender, and that their own unique gender(s) live(s) in their hearts. Every school year of my career I have had gender non-conforming and/or trans children in my classroom. These children are why I continue to work with preschool and kindergarten students and to push for gender-expansive curriculum in early childhood education. So how, exactly, do we discuss gender with children who are often pre-literate, and sometimes pre-verbal? We tap into their sense of imagination, admirable emotional sincerity, and their love of dramatic expression.
More specifically, in my classrooms I have incorporated the following starter mottoes, values and mini-lessons. While these tools are presented with early childhood children in mind, I have also used them in professional development settings with adults:
Openly discuss gender identity and pronouns from the start
Gender lives in your heart and communicates with your brain
- "Someone might feel like a boy in their heart, a girl in their heart, both or neither”
Pronouns help us talk about another person with respect
- Place your hand on your heart and repeat these pronouns (e.g. she has her hand on her heart, they have their hand on their heart…etc.) What feels warm in your heart? Which pronoun(s) feel like respect to you right now?
- When someone sees this symbol they can read it and know how to talk about you (pre-literate: blue=They/Them, Green=She/Her, Yellow= He/Him, Pink=ask the person)
I encourage educators to repurpose these tools, role play gender-based conflicts from your classroom, recognize your students’ hard work and curiosity, and continue to revisit meaningful gender discussions and activities throughout the year. And of course: books, books, books! Try reading the children’s favorite books, this time with different pronouns. Whether you are an administrator, parent, or teacher these small changes in language and approach to gender conversations will mean the world to very young children. Give them a chance to show how inquisitive, accepting, and considerate they are, and give them, and trans teachers, a chance to be.
Syd Shannon, M.A., has been working in Bay Area and NYC schools for over 10 years and is currently the Kindergarten Director at Children’s After school Arts (CASA) (photo credit: @lou.bank)