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Beyond school bathrooms: What’s really at stake in the gender-inclusion debates

At issue are bullying, bias and their opposite: a safe environment. “I think it’s really critical that we address gender at an early age,” says Jenifer McGuire, an associate professor of family social science. 

David and Hannah Edwards consider their son gender nonconforming, even though he doesn’t yet use that language to describe himself.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

Nearly five months into an emotionally straining push to secure their kindergartener access to a safer learning environment at Nova Classical Academy — where he was being bullied for wearing pink gym shoes and a sparkly backpack — Hannah and David Edwards feel their efforts may finally pay off.  

Board members of the K-12 St. Paul charter school unanimously approved a Gender Inclusion Policy Development task force Jan. 25, with the expectation that a newly developed policy be adopted by May 23. In the interim, the board passed a resolution that explicitly states a number of ways in which gender nonconforming and transgender students will be afforded equal protections and freedoms of expression at school.

“I think last night was a really big deal. We’d been asking them to take a specific position,” David said the next day. “Last night they very clearly stated that, with regard to pronouns, bathroom facilities.”

Both the school and the Edwardses have been facing resistance from the Minnesota Family Council, a Minneapolis-based Christian organization, and like-minded parents who have rallied behind its conservative ideals. The group held a meeting on school grounds Jan. 12. While the school didn’t endorse the event, the meeting shifted the attention away from the well-being of one particular child to the concerns of parents who feel discussing gender in elementary school is inappropriate. Inevitably, the conversation devolved into a debate over gender-neutral bathrooms — the sensationalized topic schools seem to struggle with most.

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But the incident at Nova was never really about bathrooms. It’s about bullying and one family’s attempts to create a more gender-inclusive learning environment, even at the elementary level.

A preference for dresses

Hannah and David consider their son gender nonconforming, even though he doesn’t yet use that language to describe himself. As a 5-year-old, he’s more preoccupied with having a say in what he wears.

From a very young age, Hannah said, her son always identified with the female characters in stories. This translated into dressing up as the girl character during playtime and requesting princess costumes to wear not just for Halloween, but for everyday attire.

While they’d always supported his choices, Hannah says they finally had a light-bulb moment.

“Instead of wearing costumes all the time, let’s let him choose his own clothing,” she said. “We took that plunge around his fifth birthday, in July, as school was starting.”

At first, they limited his freedom in choosing his school attire to accessories — his pink gym shoes and backpack. But by Thanksgiving, his pleas to wear the girls’ uniform to school could no longer be ignored.

“He said at one point, ‘My dream is just to wear the jumper to school,’” Hannah said.

By this point, the bullying and name-calling had already begun, largely during after-school activities and during recess.

Their son would come home and tell them about his experiences — like when another student had told him he couldn’t be Cleopatra during playtime. And they saw, firsthand, some of the pointing, snickering and name calling that took place when they’d come to pick him up from school.

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“I think we rightly assumed, if we could witness something like that happening it was very likely a larger problem during the [school] day,” David said.

In an attempt to be proactive, they had approached school administration before the start of the school year to flag their concerns. They listed their son’s allergies and academic strengths and weaknesses, along with the fact that he presents himself as a girl at this point, hoping the school would be better equipped to hedge any potential issues.

They say the school was initially willing to work with them on developing a professional development session for teachers, where they shared a photo slideshow documenting the natural progression of their son’s feminine expression. They also had a book picked out about a boy who likes to wear dresses, to be read in classrooms.

“[Students] need the education piece, on a new topic like this,” Hannah said, noting that kids are apt to have questions about things that look different from what they’re used to seeing.

Everything seemed to be moving along smoothly — just as it had when they brought a book on peanut allergies into their son’s classroom with no issue — until reaction from a parent letter sent home before anti-bullying week threw the book, “My Princess Boy,” into question.

The school’s climate committee was charged with reviewing the book and holding community forums. Thus began the saga of debates at committee and board meetings, which left the Edwardses feeling incredibly frustrated and targeted.

“It pushed us out into the spotlight, as the people who are asking for something even though it’s something all children will benefit from,” David said.

In the media coverage that ensued, they felt their son was publicly outed and nonsupporters have misconstrued their request for an intentionally gender-inclusive learning environment as an extreme action.

“We’re a pretty traditional family,” David said, noting they’ve been married almost 10 years and both have experience teaching at public schools. “There’s really nothing that different about our child either. We’ve accepted how he’s describing himself and the person he’s turning into. That shouldn’t be the exception. That should be the standard.”

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The case for being proactive

In media coverage of the situation at Nova, parents opposed to a gender-inclusive policy said they feel uncomfortable having teachers discuss gender with their children at such a young age, before they’ve had these conversations as a family or received any sex-education curriculum.

But those closer to the issue say that the sooner educators begin to confront the gender binary — the socially constructed notion that those assigned female at birth will identify as a woman, express themselves in a feminine way, and partner with a male; and vice versa for men — the better off all students will be.

“I think it’s really critical that we address gender at an early age,” Jenifer McGuire, an associate professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, says, adding that every child will be exposed to gender nonconforming people through their interactions and the media. “The longer we develop with any mindset, the more and more rigid that mindset becomes.”

While studies on gender nonconforming and transgender youth development in the U.S. are fairly limited, she says one thing is very clear: It’s not healthy to victimize any kids, whether by way of bullying or marginalization.

“When a population, a minority member, is omitted, it puts that person at increased risk because they can’t see themselves anywhere,” she says. “It also puts everyone else at risk because they don’t understand who the minority members are.”

Studies show gender-nonconforming youth are at higher risk for mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts and attempts than their peers. In turn, director of the U.S. Department’s Office of Safe and Healthy Schools, David Esquith, identifies feelings of loneliness, fear and hopelessness as the most powerful threats to school safety.

A kid-friendly lesson on gender

Esquith touched on the importance of addressing transgender bullying — which he categorized as an emerging issue — at a professional development conference on bullying hosted at Hamline University mid-January.

In a later session on gender-identity-based bullying, Cheryl Greene dove much deeper into the need for intentional prevention and intervention strategies in elementary classrooms. Greene works as a consultant for Welcoming Schools, a program focused on creating gender-inclusive environments at the elementary level through professional development work with educators. The program is an extension of the Human Rights Campaign.

Greene started out by equipping all attendees with an explanation of the varied nature of gender, which is more fluid than the gender binary box.

“When our kids don’t fit within this box, they are much more likely to be bullied,” she said. “The majority of bullying that happens in elementary school is around kids who don’t fit into the box. Those kids get bullied at a rate that’s higher than any other type of bullying that happens in elementary schools.”

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Boys who like to wear dresses, for instance, aren’t the only ones who many be victimized. This group includes boys who like to play chef with kitchen toys, or who paint their nails because they like bright colors.

In the interest of protecting all students from bullying, Greene goes by the motto: If you’re not addressing gender-based bullying, you’re not addressing bullying in general.

In her experience, the best way to go about broaching the topic of gender at the elementary level is by separating it from orientation.

By leaving the more controversial element of sexual orientation out of the equation, educators are still able to touch on the other two elements of gender. There’s gender expression —  how a person presents gender through things like pronouns, hairstyles, mannerisms and styles of play — and gender identity, which is an internalized deeply felt sense of being male, female, both or neither.

“As soon as a child can talk, they know who they are, as far as their gender,” Greene said.  “If their gender identity doesn’t match their [assigned] sex at birth, they know that as well, right away.”

Creating a gender-inclusive learning environment doesn’t have to involve making the leap straight into designating gender-neutral bathrooms, she says. It’s better to take baby steps toward opening the minds of both parents and students, especially in elementary school.

That starts inside the classroom, where teachers can do relatively benign things like address their class by saying “scholars” or “students” rather than “boys and girls.” Likewise, they can be intentional in grouping students in ways that don’t rely on gender, whether it be lining up at the door or playing a game.

Perhaps the most simple, and arguably most impactful, strategy is to equip students to stand up to gender-based bullying they encounter by responding with phrases like “there’s no such thing as boys’ toys and girls’ toys” or “anybody can wear anything they want.”

McGuire agrees with this approach to getting ahead of bullying early on.

“You shouldn’t constantly be reminding everyone what their gender is,” she said. “It’s no more appropriate to line people up by sex than it is to line them up by religion. An inclusive approach to gender would move away from those things in the first place.”

A growing body of policy

As Nova’s gender inclusion policy continues to take shape, Principal Eric Williams says they’ll be looking at a number of existing models, including St. Paul Public Schools’ gender inclusion policy, which was unanimously adopted last March.

The push to develop a policy in St. Paul Public Schools came from multiple stakeholders — board members, members of student council groups, gender nonconforming students and more — who voiced a need for clarity and consistency, so families could fully understand what they could have access to and staff were clear on the supports available to students as well.

The district’s Out for Equity program staff are tasked with coordinating the implementation of the gender inclusion policy, which began with a professional development training for all educators at the start of the school year. Program Specialist Mary Hoelscher has continued to work with the district’s counseling team to develop a more robust support system for gender nonconforming students.

At the elementary level, students are being exposed to transgender and gender nonconforming people through the AMAZE program, a collection of literature that explores themes like diversity and bullying.

“Many students experience gender-based bullying and harassment, not just transgender and gender nonconforming students,” Hoelscher said, adding this comprehensive approach to exploring diversity speaks to the multiple layers of identity many minority students in the district experience.

St. Paul’s new gender inclusion policy dovetails with its racial equity policy [PDF] and bullying prohibition policy [PDF], which was in the works even before the state’s Safe and Supportive Schools Act was enacted in April 2014.  

While staff say the district has certainly experienced growing pains along the way, they are proud of the fact that they’ve taken a proactive approach to addressing these issues.

“I feel, in St. Paul, we are setting the trends that will be picked up by the majority of the rest of the state,” Jon Peterson, director of the district’s Office of College and Career Readiness, said of the district’s intentional approach to ensuring a safe learning environment.

Hoelscher gets a fair amount of requests for guidance from other districts that are looking to develop their own gender inclusion policies. But there’s no quick fix, Hoelscher says. It takes time and collaboration to build a culture of acceptance and to effectively implement a policy. Hoelscher says the district has been committed to its Out for Equity program for over 20 years, so the foundation for a policy was already in place. And the implementation of the district’s new gender inclusion policy has involved the collaboration of more than 12 departments, including the facilities department, which continues to work with students to make sure they have access to a bathroom that aligns with their gender.

“It’s a very holistic approach that St. Paul Public Schools is taking, and that’s what it takes,” Hoelscher said.

It’s hard to measure the impact of a gender inclusion policy, especially given the dearth of data on transgender and gender nonconforming students. A new question on the Minnesota Student Survey that asks students to note their gender identity, however, may soon shed some light on this student demographic.

Gender inclusivity is something the Minnesota Department of Education has taken a supportive stance on. Not only did the department co-sponsor the anti-bullying conference that Greene spoke at. But the department has also co-authored resource materials with Outfront Minnesota, says Craig Wethington, Director of the department’s School Safety and Technical Assistance Center.

All these efforts fall under statewide expectations outlined in Minnesota’s Safe and Supportive Schools Act and Human Rights Act.

At a federal level, protections for transgender and gender nonconforming students are included under Title IX. The Office for Civil Rights has also issued some policy guidance [PDF] to school districts. The office didn’t start tracking gender identity and transgender discrimination in its complaint database until October 2015. As of Jan. 28, the office had received 22 complaints involving transgender students this year.

As policymakers continue to place a higher priority on tracking and addressing the need for more concrete gender inclusion policies in schools, schools can expect to see more supports coming down the pipeline.

“As with other civil rights issues on which we receive questions, we’re considering issuing a guidance that will help schools comply with Title IX,” Esquith says, speaking on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students. “What’s prompting this is we’re getting questions from the field and that’s when the department issues guidance.”

Given the building momentum around gender inclusive policies for schools, Nova seems to be embracing this opportunity to take a more proactive stance here on out.

“A policy is a school’s law and it’s our obligation to follow the law,” Principal Williams said. “And it’s the right thing to do. We aren’t just complying, we are trying to welcome and affirm all students, regardless of who they are.”