Tag Archives: diversity

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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Filed under Feminism, Gender, 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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Filed under Current Events, Gender, Uncategorized

Nuance Matters

(an address to the school on Columbus Day)

“Why do we celebrate Columbus Day anyway? Weren’t there already people here when he arrived?” One of my Humanities 7 students several years ago looked up at me expectantly, but as I took a breath to answer, someone else jumped in and said, “Yes, and he was really cruel to them.” Someone else quickly said, “And he didn’t even come here.” A brief but passionate discussion ensued, following which I said, “I can just add that all the facts you’ve brought up are absolutely true, and they are nothing at all like what I and many thousands of people my age and older were taught when we were in school. And maybe if the full story was more widely known long ago, whenever Columbus Day was declared a national holiday, it wouldn’t have been.”

Which raises the question – how did Columbus Day get to be a national holiday? According to History.com, Tammany Hall, an influential (and, to some, notorious) political organization in New York, organized the first known celebration of Columbus in 1792, to honor the 300th anniversary of his voyage. One hundred years later, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation that said “On that day let the people, so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life.” (History.com) Fifteen years later, Colorado became the first state to make it an official holiday, and in 1937, 445 years after Columbus’s voyage and only 77 years ago, within the lifetimes of many of your grandparents, President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday, “largely as a result of intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus.” (History.com)

Recently, the city of Seattle took an important step in the opposite direction, officially declaring the second Monday in October to be “Indigenous Peoples Day.” David Bean of the Puyallup Tribal Council felt it affirms the city values tribal members’ culture and history, and Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, echoed his sentiments, stating, “This action will allow us to bring into current present day our valuable and rich history, and it’s there for future generations to learn.” (quoted in The Guardian) On the other hand, many Italian-American residents of the city felt that the day should not have been scheduled opposite what they see as a day to celebrate Italian heritage. In the face of the controversy represented by these perspectives, one of the co-sponsors of the resolution, Bruce Harrell, said that that while he understands the concerns of members of the Italian-American community, he feels that the city won’t be successful in its social programs and outreach efforts unless and until it recognizes the past. (The Guardian)

Our past does inform our present and thus influences our future. City Council member Nick Licata, himself Italian-American, captured this sentiment in expressing the hope Indigenous Peoples Day would become a tradition in which “Everyone’s strength is recognized.” (The Guardian)

In that Humanities 7 discussion, one of the students asked, “But wasn’t Columbus still brave to set out on that trip? Couldn’t they all have died?” I responded that of course they could all have died, and that arguably that meant Columbus was in fact brave to set out on that trip. And I pointed out that just as Columbus wasn’t necessarily the paragon of virtue that had been presented to me in school, neither was he all bad. He was, in the end, an imperfect human, sharing that trait with all of us.

Nuance matters. Perspectives matter. Respect matters. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the arc of the moral universe is indeed bending toward justice.

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Filed under Current Events, In the Classroom, The Faculty Perspective

Making Feminism Cool

“Bra-burning. Man-hating. Angry and unattractive. Such stereotypes have shadowed the women’s movement over the past few decades — and a slew of young, fashionable celebs are working to clarify feminism’s true definition.” (Fairchild) Setting aside for another day the question of why such a stereotype may have come to life and remained, in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary, so persistent, Caroline Fairchild raises a good question in her article “Will young celebrities make feminism ‘cool’?” Besides noting Emma Watson’s epic speech at the UN launching the “He for She” campaign, Ms. Fairchild mentions Taylor Swift’s recent realization that she has been a feminist all along and Beyoncé’s performance at the VMAs backed by the word “feminist” in huge block letters.

Feminism, many analysts note, has been waging an uphill battle for years to define itself as being in general far more inclusive than it is typically portrayed. I’ve certainly seen many students over my three decades here echo Ms. Swift’s sentiment when she said, “As a teenager, I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities. What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men. And now, I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means.” (Swift, quoted in Thomas)

Certainly, many of my students admire Emma Watson (both for who she is and for having played feminist icon Hermione Granger in the “Harry Potter” movies), and certainly students in rock groups down through the years have proposed Taylor Swift songs. But more and more every year, my students have also been raised with a healthy skepticism for the media. I wonder to what extent that will limit the effect that these, in effect, celebrity endorsements will have on them – granting, too, that I want them to be individual, critical, free-thinkers in the first place. Time will tell on that point. But if Ms. Watson’s speech, Ms. Swift’s declaration, Beyoncé’s performance, and other such examples of celebrities embracing feminism can lead to further conversations, that’s a great place to start.

Themes of equality, equity, and justice will of necessity run through those conversations. Statistically, equality is of course the easiest to measure: when females and males each make up approximately 49% of any profession where size and physical strength do not matter (intersex people making up the remaining 1-2%), when people of all genders receive the same pay for the same job (assuming the same experience), and so on, we will have statistical equality. Whether that’s achievable without working explicitly for equity (fair not necessarily being equal) is another question. And given historical oppressions, working toward equity must go hand in hand with working for justice (see Rutgers Professor Brittney Cooper’s outstanding article in Salon for a thought-provoking examination of this). Through that lens, it’s easy to see that not just diversity of genders but also diversity of race, sexuality, class, age, abledness, and more come into play, along with the continuums of support and oppression, privilege and marginalization that come with each of those axes of diversity.

In short, as I wrote the other night during a Twitter chat, we have to fight relentless hierarchies (and associated binaries).

All are welcome.


n.b. Thanks to Jane Mellow, Director of our Learning Center, for introducing me to the “Crafty Girls” font, which adds an extra layer of fun to drafting blogs on feminism!

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Filed under Feminism, Gender, Women in media

Sick Day

(written Tuesday, September 23, 2014)

I’m not particularly good at being sick, especially when school’s in session. I really hate missing even a day with my students, and weekends are my chance to catch up, plan ahead, reflect and go deeper. So when I came down with a stomach bug that had me sleeping through Sunday and missing not only Monday but also Tuesday with my students, I was not at all happy. (My cat, on the other hand, was over the moon to have dozens of consecutive hours with captive and immobile company.)

When it became clear Monday evening that I was going to have to miss Tuesday too, I set about converting my Humanities 7 lesson plan so it could be done by subs. The first step was morning reading. I simply refused to completely give up the chance to read to the kids, so I took my iPad and iPhone and made two videos (due to time restrictions per individual video) of myself reading the book Wonder and posted them to YouTube. They were really more like radio at night than actual videos as the screen was entirely dark throughout – which, given this was my third day of illness, was probably for the best!

For a class discussion, I had found two videos on YouTube that related to their question, “Why is ‘like a girl’ considered an insult?,” one from the Always campaign where they showed the difference between young women and young girls doing various activities “like a girl” and one from Mythbusters where they scientifically tested whether there is such a thing as throwing like a girl in an attempt to debunk what they suspected was a culturally imposed stereotype. So the students could still have these discussions, I put all these links on a Google Doc along with space for teachers to sign up to cover each period of Humanities 7 for me, as well as my other commitments. I added some guiding questions, asked for an email report, and called it good. (Side note – on a whim, I posted about all my electronic sub planning to Facebook – and two nationally known consultants asked if they could quote me in their work!)

How did it work out? It appears to have gone better than well, and I credit my subs Meghan and Tim as well as the students themselves. In particular, they seem to have had a great discussion earlier this morning on the videos. Among other things, reading the notes, I learned that they felt “like a girl” was an insult because it’s what we’ve been taught, because when it’s used that way on boys it also affects girls. They believe the popular media plays a huge role in shaping these stereotypes, and extended the idea to ask why it matters whether one dresses “like a girl” or “like a boy.” Asked what could be done moving forward, they suggested publicizing the commercial, working to avoid stereotyping, and avoiding what they called “the Barbie-ization of the world.”

To my mind, these are unquestionably feminist notions, and given our school’s mission and culture, that is as I had expected. Yet, if past experience holds, not all of these girls will identify as feminists. I remember last year’s Humanities 7 class, divided about evenly into feminists and equalists (a term, by the way, they came up with on their own although I know it has been around for a while). Emma Watson recently gave a keynote speech at the UN kicking off the #HeForShe campaign, and in it she referred to “inadvertent feminists” – essentially, people working for the ideals of feminism but explicitly rejecting the negative associations which have, rightly or wrongly, become associated with the term. The speech is about 12 minutes long, so I will think about whether I might play the whole thing or just selected extracts as my students continue to develop and refine their thinking and go deeper on these and other related questions.

No, my students are not treading water on these days I am out sick. They are steadily moving forward. I can’t wait to see them again.

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Filed under In the Classroom, The Girls School Advantage, Uncategorized

Out of the Margins

“So how do your students look this year?” The question was asked not, as many people might expect, by a colleague or even a parent but by three of my former students who are now juniors as we found a chance to talk at the annual Local Family Picnic. “They look great,” I said. “Of course. You know! Given the emails they’ve been writing me about the books they’ve been reading.” One of them laughed and said, “Your favourite Humanities 7 class of 2014-2015?” I laughed in return, responding “Absolutely!” knowing she was secure in the knowledge they were all part of my favourite Humanities 7 class of… 2010-2011. (For the record, I only teach one section of Humanities 7 each year, so the “favourite Humanities 7 class of…” line is something of a running joke.)

As I prepare for the imminent arrival on campus of my brand new students, as the middle school team prepares to bring together and start building this year’s community, I find myself focused not just on what the kids might be thinking and feeling but also on the parents. My son attended boarding school for three years and is about to start his junior year at college, so I know firsthand what parents are going through. The level of trust we parents place in a school when dropping off our children is powerfully and deeply touching, and part of what motivates me to do my absolute best each and every day is working to meet that trust (not that I need any more motivation than looking out at my students looking back at me!).

So it stopped me short when one of my virtual colleagues on Twitter, another teacher who is also a parent, wrote, “My son had nightmares of police killing him….when he walks in your classroom how will you comfort him? #Ferguson” That I would do something is unquestionable. The harder part is the what. I wrote back, “I keep searching for the answer to that. Empathy and a hug only go so far. Think of concrete actions we can take to fight racism?” I believe that kids, perhaps even more so than adults, want to feel they have some degree of control over the world around them. While we will never live in a perfect world, we can certainly work to move society towards greater understanding, inclusiveness, and acceptance. And including my friend’s child in coming up with ways to do so would hopefully help him feel more empowered.

My imminent students may or may not have had such nightmares, but certainly they must have some level of awareness of and concern over what has been going on in Ferguson. And every year I’ve ever taught Humanities 7, whatever might have been going on in the world, stereotypes have always been a hot topic at some point in the year, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, and more or less any other type of ism of which you could think. With 7th graders’ heightened sense of fairness and drive to bring justice about, we always end up brainstorming and discussing what people can actually do. Knowing concrete actions to take can be comforting.

Another of my virtual teacher-parent colleagues is expecting her first child, and she found herself in need of comforting post-Ferguson as well. Among the links and resources we shared in reaching out to her was a video made by Glenn Singleton, “Courageous Conversations About Race.” It offers both some background information not everyone may know and a protocol to frame these conversations. The video, which takes about 22 minutes to watch, is an incredible resource for schools, other organizations, and people in general who want to help undermine the systemic racism that feeds stereotypes both deliberate and unwitting, people who want to move forward.

And really, moving forward is not an option but a necessity. That doesn’t mean it’s easy – besides systemic racism, we all have to deal with the effects of patriarchy on attitudes toward gender and sexuality, of classism on attitudes toward socioeconomic status, and so on. The intersections of all the various axes of privilege and oppression play out differently in different people, making each individual story matter deeply. So listening, learning, affirming, and acting are all important parts of the process. Moreover, as a global community wherein each of us is working to become our own best self, they are quite literally part of our school’s mission.

My friend who asked about her son wrote me, “thank you for the response. I appreciate it greatly. #village” It does indeed take a village. And that village is us.

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

Not a Four-Letter Word

The recent controversy around the Science magazine cover objectifying and dehumanizing trans women highlights not only how trans women may be treated within the scientific community but also how women in general may be treated within the field. The short answer: not well.

In her blog, eastsidekate tells us that when she was 14, she made the decision to go into biology because she read that the percentage of women was much higher in that field than in chemistry or physics. She came out as trans while still in grad school, and found little support and understanding. A long and difficult journey led her to give up her dream of university-level teaching (the full story is well worth reading, though please be warned there is strong language). She’s honest with herself, writing, “I’m not saying that transphobia forced me out of the academia or that I deserved a specific job or any job at all, to be quite blunt.” However, it’s also important to pay attention to how she frames this: “I will say, and I’ll say it until it doesn’t need saying: I don’t regret leaving. I regret feeling the need to make that decision, but I simply don’t think academy is a safe place for people like me.”

Of course, that concept of academia not being safe for transwomen may be extended to women in general. As civil engineer Patricia Valoy points out, when women fail at STEM, it’s “because they’re socialized to believe they don’t belong there and then experience discrimination and lack of mentorship—pushing them into quitting when they do get there.” And as if that wasn’t bad enough, a recent NPR piece by Kara Manke highlighted research by biological anthropologist Kathryn Clancy showing among other things a high incidence of sexual harassment (64%, significantly higher than the 50% found across all professions) among scientists out in the field, the bulk of which is experienced by women. Dr. Clancy observed, “”As horrifying as this data is, I’m really excited to have it out there. Every person who has had this experience will be validated and know there are others out there who have their back. If this keeps just one more woman in science, it is absolutely worth it.”

Science itself, then, can be part of the solution – if we use it correctly. Simple observations can help; as eastsidekate said, “People are watching you, science. They’re not just keeping track of who’s doing the dehumanizing [stuff], but also who (and it’s a lot of you) is sitting on their hands while it goes down. Remember this the next time some administrator wonders aloud about why efforts to summon diversity out of thin air just aren’t working.” And right now, research shows, girls schools and women’s colleges are playing an important part in equipping their graduates to stand firm in the context of this systemic discouragement; Carissa Tudryn Weber ‘96, the recipient of the 2014 Distinguished Alumna Award, is a shining example.

Ultimately, though, “If science (and the academy writ large) is serious about improving the quality and diversity of research, teaching, service, and faculty (and I have no real reason to believe this is the case), folks have got to dismantle the systems that allow this [stuff] to keep happening.” (eastsidekate) As a school whose mission is not only to empower girls and women but also to help shape our culture to welcome their full participation as their authentic selves, Stoneleigh-Burnham is well positioned to be a leader in this fight to ensure that STEM, as Ms. Valoy says, “is not a four-letter word for women.”

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Filed under Gender, Uncategorized