Category Archives: Gender

A Step Forward

Even at 12 or 13, many of my students are already thinking ahead to the kinds of careers they plan to have – enough, in fact, that I sometimes have to comfort and reassure those who aren’t that they are perfectly normal and have years and years to work it out. Driving back from the Dakin Animal Shelter where we volunteer just before vacation, two of my students began talking about what it would be like to spend their lives working with animals. Along with discussions about which specific aspects of a veterinarian’s job would be more or less difficult and why, they acknowledged that at root, it would be a profession where people who love animals get the chance to help them.

Sometimes, too, some of my students will start talking about what it will be like when they get married and have families. At such moments, in an effort to be inclusive, I’ll try to acknowledge the existence of different genders and sexualities, different ideas of marriage and life partnerships, different perspectives on having children. Those points made, the themes of whether and how to share one’s life with someone else, and what makes for good parents, make for great discussions.

I know that most if not all my students identify with feminist values of equality whether or not they might specifically identify as feminist, and – along with them – I often wonder how they will fare as they move forward from our girl-positive environment into the big, wide, not-quite-so-female-positive world. I know the research matches the experience of our alumnae that they are better positioned for success in a number of ways, and I take comfort in that knowledge. But still, I love my students and want the best for them, and so… I worry.

A recent article by J. Maureen Henderson in Forbes, “Will Millennials Be Trapped By Gender Roles?” illuminates the question through recent research from Harvard Business School. It turns out that millennials are indeed far more aware and inclusive of a wide range of genders than past generations, and value both work and family regardless of gender. However, it turns out that gender-based differences arise when millennials apply their generally progressive views to their own lives. Men were more likely than women to expect their careers would take precedence over their spouse’s (the study appears to have focused on heterosexual men and women), and that is the reality that prevailed. As Ms. Henderson put it, “Young women expect that their progressive values will be reflected in their own lives, while young men are much more likely to anticipate a more traditional pairing.”

I can start including information from this article when my students have those inevitable discussions about work and family. And I can guide them through the discussions that ensue, as inclusively and respectfully as possible. What do they want? What might their partners (those who seek marriage or other lifelong partnerships) want? How might they go about using their voices, listening, and helping craft a compromise if need be? And of course, some of the work we do on friendships and conflict can extend to these situations as well.

But it can’t fall entirely to girls’ schools to deal with this situation. That would just be furthering a patriarchal vision of society. Boys schools, too, need to address this reality, and of course coed schools as well. And schools can’t do it alone.

We in the U.S. like to think that anyone can accomplish anything they set out to. And our culture has done some foundational work to prepare to move in the direction of that ideal (to whatever extent it might in fact ever be achievable). The essential next step is to look honestly at how well we are enabling that ideal and begin systematically removing roadblocks. Patriarchy, and its effects on the diversity of genders and sexualities. Systemic racism. Classism. Ableism. It’s a long road we need to travel. All the more reason to ensure every day represents a step forward.

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Filed under Feminism, Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, The Faculty Perspective

Please and thank you

(Trigger Warning: discussion of suicide)

Although I didn’t grow up watching It’s a Wonderful Life, once I first saw the film as an adult, I could see why it’s become a Christmastime tradition for many people (including some who don’t personally celebrate Christmas). However dark the movie may be in spots, its ultimate affirmation of the notion that each life matters deeply is moving and appealing. As Clarence Oddbody put it, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” (wikiquote)

In the middle of holiday festivities, family gatherings, and time to relax, just as 2015 was fast approaching with the promise of a fresh new year, the untimely death of Leelah Alcorn at only 17 years of age left an awful hole even in the lives of people who never knew her. No angel was able to prevent this tragedy, and so at 2:30 in the morning, she set out from home, walked down the Interstate, and walked in front of a truck. Her grieving parents called for prayers and support, for them and for Leelah’s siblings left behind.

However, that sympathy has not been uniformly forthcoming. In fact, some people are calling for them to be prosecuted. Leelah was transgender and left behind a note indicting her parents for refusing to recognize her true gender and allow her to medically transition, furthermore progressively isolating her from friends and other potential sources of support. Statistics are clear that trans youth who have unsupportive parents are half as likely to be satisfied with their lives as those with supportive parents; only 13% report high self esteem (vs. 65%), while 75% suffer depression (vs. 23%) and 57% have attempted suicide (vs. just 4%). (transstudent.org; link shared by Sophia Banks) Leelah’s parents were conservative Christians, and her mom said in an interview that “We don’t support that, religiously.” (quoted by WCPO)

In no way, of course, do I think that Leelah’s parents represent the entire body of Christianity. Among the families in the Stoneleigh-Burnham community I know to have been most supportive of LGBT people are a good number of Christians. Both of my parents belong to open and accepting Christian churches. One of my friends from high school, a lesbian, is ordained by the United Church of Christ, a denomination that successfully won a suit in North Carolina arguing that same-gender marriage bans were an unconstitutional infringement of freedom of religion.

Neither do I believe Leelah’s parents deserve no sympathy whatsoever. Her mother has stated they loved her unconditionally, and there is no question they are in deep pain. As a parent myself, I can’t help but feel for them. Her father has asked that they be left to grieve in private, and I would never ever think of contacting them directly at such a difficult time in their life, never mind doing so to call them out as some have apparently done.

But the language Leelah’s parents have been using is telling. “We told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. (…) I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.” (Carla Alcorn, quoted by WCPO) “We love our son, Joshua, very much and are devastated by his death.” (Doug Alcorn, quoted by WCPO) They have continued to misgender her, calling her a boy and their son, using male pronouns and her male name. In our society, your name and your gender are among the most fundamental parts of your identity – and Leelah’s parents continually denied and continue to deny her the basic human right to express that identity as she saw herself.

While suicide is clearly a deep concern specifically within the transgender community, it is also the third most frequent cause of death for all teenagers of all genders. It’s important to know the warning signs, and to be aware of resources on which we can draw, including suicide hotlines and trans support hotlines. Moreover, we need to be aware of the intersections between a given person’s gender, sexuality, race, class, age, and abledness, the better to clearly see them as they are and be able to listen to their story and give them the support they need.

Leelah’s note ended: “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. (…) Fix society. Please.”

And thank you.

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, On Education, On Parenting, Uncategorized

“This Very Interesting Article on Buzzfeed”

“I have found this very interesting article on Buzzfeed that I thought you may be interested in.” McKim, one of my former students, now a junior, was writing ten faculty members to share a link to “Austin Thinks It Can Save Poor Kids By Separating Boys And Girls” by Katie J. M. Baker. After summarizing what it was about, she went on to write, “At one point in the article, an organization states that ‘Single-sex schools are illegal.’ Which sounds preposterous. On the other hand, the all boys section of this school district is teaching the boys to always walk behind a lady during formal events because she is wearing heels, and if she falls a boy should be there to catch her. Although, at the same time the all girls school is teaching the girls to use their voice and not be afraid to be leaders.” I finished her email and clicked on the link, quickly glancing through the piece and then writing her back: “Thanks, McKim! I skimmed the article and will come back to it in more detail soon. There are a lot of layers to it, and I want to look deeply at it and see how they handle all the complicated intersections of race and gender and class as they pertain to education. It seems fascinating.”

The schools, Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy and Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy, do indeed appear to include a fascinating mix of best practices that occasionally succumb to unfortunate stereotyping, all underscored with good intentions, exactly as McKim had told us. And there is no question that the learning environment is much improved from the dreadful schools that preceded these. “Dozens of students said they were happy with the switch. (…) ‘Last year, the teachers didn’t care about us,’ said an eighth-grader named Daryl. “They just cared about their paycheck.’” (Baker) And a former district Trustee, Cheryl Bradley, was definitely on the right track when she affirmed: “It’s not about boys learning this way and girls learning this way. What we did is we change the learning environment. Because it just wasn’t working the way it was. We cannot continue to do the same thing and fail at it and not try to do something new to be successful.” (quoted in Baker)

Yet practices such as the advice to boys that McKim cited, or advice given by one of the so-called experts that “teachers should allow girls to take their shoes off to decrease stress.” (Baker), suggest that the schools do not always reach in practice the ideals that they set. This applies to educating children of colour as well, as “Officials at the schools, composed of 97.4% and 94.1% Latino and black schoolchildren, respectively, learned that black boys in particular are more likely to be ‘aggressive’ and ‘not as neat.’” (Baker) And when we read that “Girls read on cozy couches in the library and bounce on green exercise balls during math class,” (Baker) it’s hard not to wonder, “But wouldn’t that work for boys too?”

Of course, single-gender public schools aren’t illegal per se, merely some of the policies they might carry out. According to Ms. Baker, “the Department of Education issued new clarifying guidelines for K–12 schools. Those that choose to offer single-sex classes must be clear about their goals (“improving academic achievement” counts), ensure that enrollment is completely voluntary, and conduct periodic evaluations every two years, among other mandates. Clearest of all: Schools must “avoid relying on gender stereotypes.” The ACLU built on that theme, stating that “generalizations about boys’ and girls’ interests and learning styles cannot be used to justify the use of different teaching methods for male and female students.” (quoted in Baker)

In presenting research, the article mentions, among others, a study undertaken by Dr. Janet Hyde at the University of Wisconsin, a 2011 article in Science magazine, and work by both Dr. Lise Eliot and Dr. Leonard Sax. These were all familiar to me, and I wrote McKim about some of my concerns, asking rhetorically why the landmark 2009 study led by Dr. Linda Sax which affirmed several positive effects of girls education is not more often mentioned. Among my earlier blog entries, “Why [a rigid binary view of] Gender Matters,” and “Sleeves Rolled Up” summarize my feelings well, and “Making History” was my immediate (if indirect) response to the Science article.

“‘What’s happening in the public school system looks nothing like single-sex education at private schools and colleges,’ said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project.” (Baker) While that might be an overgeneralization, I know that what I see going on around me in this school bears little resemblance to descriptions of what is happening in some of the public schools against which the ACLU has brought lawsuits. I might continually examine what we are doing, as we all should – but in the end, that leads to an ever-stronger commitment to our mission. As I once wrote, “So – what does it mean to teach girls today? I told my friend that at this point in time, I no longer “teach girls” but rather teach the unique and individual students I have in front of me. But I do so in a girl-positive environment created within a school whose mission is built on feminist ideals.” (“Why I Support the ACLU’s Suit Against Single-Sex Schools”)

McKim concluded, “As a student at a single-sex school I found this article very interesting because I was able to see how some organizations viewed public single sex schools, what they thought the guidelines on how it should work was, and how this school district in Texas organized their schools.” I would agree, and add that the article reconfirmed for me how important it is to keep an open mind, listen, consider all perspectives, and ultimately recognize that there probably is no one single model of education that’s right for every single student.

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Filed under Feminism, Gender, On Education, The Girls School Advantage, Uncategorized

A Very Good Place to Start: On Teaching for Respect

“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.

Of course, respect for people who are transgender or otherwise gender transgressive is not an automatic given in this world. Indeed, as of 2012, transgender people were 28% more likely than cisgender people to experience physical attacks, and the situation was even more dire for trans women of colour, who make up a wildly disproportionate and depressing 87% of the cases where those attacks escalate to murder. (Bolles) Many white people who are members of or allied with the transgender community recognize and deplore this fact.

International Transgender Day of Remembrance takes place on Nov. 20 and once again, I attended the Northampton service. In welcoming us, Yohah Ralph acknowledged the difficulty and weight of the accumulated tragedy of over 220 transgender people having been killed this year, some of whom were never identified, some of whose families never knew or cared. He asked that, to keep the atmosphere from weighing us down too much, each participant in the service speak about their dream for the future. Most said their dream was for everyone, regardless of gender, to be able to live freely and without fear as their authentic selves.

That shouldn’t be asking too much.

The Stonewall Center of the University of Massachusetts was a co-sponsoring organization of this year’s TDOR, and the Director, Genny Beemyn, said that their own dream was that we wouldn’t be gathering together next year. They acknowledged that was virtually certain not to be, nor was it likely to be for many decades to come.

You may have picked up on the use of the pronoun “they,” and that is indeed Genny’s preferred pronoun. In Humanities 7 class one day, the question of whether “they” could be singular came up. Some students were firmly advocating that it had to be plural, while one other was quietly if hesitantly demurring. Thinking that she might possibly know a trans person (here in the Valley, the odds are definitely higher than in many parts of the country) who preferred the pronoun “they,” I stepped in to support her, stating that while “they” had traditionally been plural (this to acknowledge the good intentions of students arguing that point), people of different genders were in fact increasingly choosing to use it as a singular pronoun. She smiled back at me as several other students paused to give me a curious look. I nodded to affirm my statement, everyone relaxed, and we all moved on.

If we are truly to work toward a world that embraces people of all genders, it will be built through the gradual accumulation of respectful calls for respect, respectfully received. Hopefully, my students will help lead the way as they grow into adulthood and find their place in the world. It would not surprise me for a second if they do.

After all, living life as your authentic self is at the core of our mission, and respect is at the heart of each element of our honor code.

That is a very good place to start.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized

Trans 101.5

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.

Currently, among the most common pronoun choices used by trangender people are he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/theirs, and ze/hir/hirs. As with gender itself, though, there are a wealth of pronoun choices that exist. The only way to know what pronouns a transgender person uses is for them to tell you. It’s certainly okay to politely ask; many colleges routinely do so now during Orientation and in the day-to-day of their offices.

Because of the acronym “LGBT,” people often assume trans people are not heterosexual, but your gender actually has nothing to do with your sexuality. Transgender people can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, asexual (both romantic and aromantic), and any other variety of sexuality of which you can think.

In a recent talk at Mount Holyoke on her life as a trans woman, Jennifer Finney Boylan told listeners, “Let your story be known. It’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know.” Ms. Boylan walks the talk, having published a number of beautifully written and at times painfully honest books on her life including the iconic She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders and the sequels I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted: A Memoir and Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders. For people looking for books for younger readers, Luna by Julie Anne Peters is the fictional story of a transgender teen told from the point of view of her younger sister, and I am Jazz, written by Jazz Jennings along with Jessica Herthel and based on Jazz’s own life, is the story of a transgender girl written for elementary-age children. As transgender people are becoming more visible, so too are choices of good books about transgender people becoming more common.

Though I don’t personally identify as transgender, I do have a vague sense of what it might be like. My own gender expression, as I’ve written before, is essentially a projection of my authentic self, kept as free of gender typing as possible, into a heavily gendered world. In that world, some people see me and greet me with warm and genuine smiles. Others laugh out loud, cringe with discomfort, or look me over with disgust. Still others simply treat me as they would any other person. The result is that I sometimes feel both relaxed and on guard. Relaxed, because I’m comfortable both with the look and with the effect of shaking up gender norms. On guard, because I never know when things might suddenly and without warning turn ugly.

Those emotions should be incompatible.

Patriarchy is why they aren’t.

So in the end, as with so much in this world, it all comes down to respect. Respecting each other’s personal sense of our own gender identity and the associated gender expression we choose. Respecting the terminology we each choose to use. Respecting the possibility of good intentions behind the occasional slip-up. And ultimately, respecting our joint and fundamental humanity.

No matter what gender we might be.

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Why I Came, Why I Stay

The other day at Open House, one of the attendees, a public school teacher, asked each of us present on a faculty panel to talk about how we ended up at Stoneleigh-Burnham, and why we stay. Our stories were as individual as we are. My own begins the summer I was getting married…

It was the summer of 2004, and my fiancée and I had just graduated from the M.A.T. program in the French and Italian Department of the University of Massachusetts. Each of us had completed all the requirements for Massachusetts State certification except for the French proficiency exam. My fiancée called up to find out details, and was told that there was a non-refundable fee of $75 and it would be given on one of three possible Saturdays in August, one of which was to be our wedding day. The exact date, she was told, would not be given out until no more than three weeks ahead of time, “for security reasons.” We were about to spend a year living in France anyway, so we elected not to register for the exam. That meant, when it came time to apply for teaching positions, we had no choice but to apply at independent schools. And that’s how I ended up at Stoneleigh-Burnham.

As for why I stay, I gave two reasons. One is that I identify as a gender activist rooted in feminist ideals, and working in a girls school feeds that part of my life. A second is that we know what research and experience tells us works well for kids, and ironic as it may be given that many of the best teaching models were originally developing in and for public schools, at this point in our nation’s history, independent schools are actually freer to apply those models than many public schools. I may deplore that situation, but that makes it no less true.

The person who asked the question quietly mouthed a “thank you” to me, and we moved on to hear Miriam’s story as she was sitting to my immediate left.

Essentially, of course, I was saying that I stay in teaching and I stay at Stoneleigh-Burnham because I believe deeply that what we do matters. I’m acutely aware that not everyone can say that about their job. Just one more thing for which I am grateful this November.

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Filed under Admissions, Feminism, Gender, On Education, The Faculty Perspective

“Are you in or out?”

(title credit from a song in the Disney movie Aladdin and the King of Thieves)

It’s a question 90% of us or more never have to ask. People who are both heterosexual and cisgender (essentially, being comfortable in a gender identity that matches the sex written down on our original birth certificate) never have to go in the closet in the first place. For the rest of us, though, the question may be somewhat stickier. And on National Coming Out Day every year, while some people come out or reflect on and celebrate their earlier coming out, others contemplate it, and still others hold tight to the door’s handle to ensure it remains firmly closed.

It’s a given, of course, that absolutely no one has the right to force the door open for anyone else. And it’s equally a given that when a person comes out to selected people, they need to respect if that person wants to remain closeted in other places. Family dynamics, workplace atmosphere, local cultural attitudes, and more can all can make it more or less risky to come out, and none of those contexts is absolutely uniform across all members of a given community.

Robert Eichberg and Jean O’Leary founded National Coming Out Day on October 11, 1988, to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. (Wikipedia) On that date in 2013, The Atlantic published an article by Preston Mitchum entitled “On National Coming Out Day, Don’t Disparage the Closet.” He observed, “The coming out experience can be a precarious time in a person’s life, particularly when one belongs to multiple marginalized communities.” He acknowledges that “Ultimately, coming out is important because it makes the LGBT community more visible, particularly for black LGBT individuals…” but adds that “… focusing so intensely on coming out places the burden on the individual to brave society rather than on society to secure the safety of the individual.”

So how do we secure the safety of the individual? In particular, how can that happen when some religious traditions believe homosexuality is a sin and we also want to respect each person’s individual freedom of religion and their personal beliefs? The question takes me back many years ago to when I was teaching elsewhere, and one of the teachers assigned a project in which kids were to make a poster showing their own personal nine circles of Hell. One student placed homosexuals in her fifth circle, and as several of the students had gay or lesbian parents (no student had, to my knowledge, come out at that point in time), the faculty were concerned. One teacher agreed to talk to her, and it turned out that, while she did indeed hold the religious belief that homosexuality was a sin, she also felt (again, for religious reasons) that every single person deserved to be treated with love and respect.

We have seen the benefits over time of gays and lesbians coming out, serving as examples, and clearing the way for others, and we are currently seeing what seems to be the beginning of such a pattern among the gender non-conforming. Yet, not all of us were cut out to play that role, and we each need to make the best possible decision for ourselves in our own personal circumstances. With that in mind, if our entire country can agree to hold the core values that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and everyone is also entitled to be treated respectfully, that can be the starting point as we move forward toward the ultimate goal that all of us act upon those core values to the very best of our ability.

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