“It’s Okay to Be Neither”

Something I want to keep in mind, when I’m working with kids. When you’re putting on a play with kids, it’s hard to take the time for teachable moments — your time is so limited, and there’s blocking to do and lines to learn, and if a moment like a boy objecting to putting on makeup because it’s girly comes up, it’s so much easier to say something pithy and unthinking that reinforces the norms than to confront the issue. Because it does take time and tact and thought to talk about things like gender or orientation or class or whatever with kids.

But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, and as Melissa Bollow Tempel shows, even tiny changes in our behavior as educators can have big impacts on how our students view the world.

Supporting Gender Variance Every Day

I knew that broadening my students’ ideas of what was acceptable for boys and girls was an important first step, but to make Allie feel comfortable and proud of herself, I was going to have to go further.

For example, as teachers, we often use gender to divide students into groups or teams. It seems easy and obvious. Many of us do this when we line students up to go to the bathroom. In one conversation that I had with Allie’s mother, she told me that Allie did not like using public bathrooms because many times Allie would be accused of being in the wrong bathroom. As soon as she told me I felt bad. By dividing the children into two lines by assigned gender, I had unintentionally made the children whose labels aren’t so clear feel uncomfortable in more ways than one.

When we lined up to go to the bathroom, I kept my students in one line until we reached the bathroom, and then let them separate to enter their bathrooms. Allie usually said she didn’t need to use the bathroom. The few times that she did, I offered the bathroom around the corner, a single-stall bathroom that was usually unoccupied. When the kids came out of the bathroom, they wanted to line up as most classrooms do, in boys’ and girls’ lines. Instead, I thought up a new way for them to line up each day. For example: “If you like popsicles, line up here. If you like ice cream, line up here.” They loved this and it kept them entertained while they waited for their classmates. Here are a few more examples:

Which would you choose?

  • Skateboard/Bike
  • Milk/Juice
  • Dogs/Cats
  • Hot day/Snow day
  • Fiction/Nonfiction
  • Soccer/Basketball
  • Beach/Pool

I also became very aware of using the phrase “boys and girls” to address my students. Instead, I used gender-neutral terms like “students” or “children.” At first, the more I thought about it, the more often I’d say “boys and girls.” I tried not to be too hard on myself when I slipped, and eventually I got out of the habit and used “students” regularly.

(I habitually use “Ladies and gentlemen” when I’m trying to get a group’s attention, in the belief that treating young people like people instead of just kids tends to get better results, but now I’m wondering if there’s a gender-neutral phrase I could use instead. “Gentles,” for the Shakespearean flavor? Maybe “Friends, Romans, countryfolk” would do.)