Gender, Inclusion and Lessons Learned

I admit it – I went to the meeting simply in support of my friend.  But then, as the speaker really got going, I realized not only was I interested in the topic for my own sake, but I was learning a heck of a lot in a really short amount of time.

Joel Baum is the Educational Director of Gender Spectrum, an organization out of the Bay Area of California.  The organization focuses on educating and supporting people with the goal of gender sensitivity and inclusion of all children.  He gave his presentation to the parents at The Montessori School of Tokyo (MST) ahead of the presentation he would be making about gender issues to the children the following morning, having already spent time in workshops with the faculty of the school the day before.

As he promised, Joel came at the problem from an attitude of inclusion.  A former educator himself, he believes that all children, no matter their race, religion, gender or any other variable, should feel safe in school.  It seems like a logical assumption, right?  Well, according to him, it’s not.  According to the data he presented, culled from schools across the United States, 88% of transgender children feel unsafe in school.  Not only that, but what staggered me is the fact that most of these children know that their teachers or other staff members at school will not intervene if sexual or gender-related epithets are thrown around by bullies.

The language Joel used was accessible to all of us – and he used a sort of imagery to help us understand the issues.  He discussed a slot machine.  Normally, with a slot machine, one pulls the lever and the three wheels begin spinning.  They stop, and the goal is to have three matching fruits.

In this case, in lieu of fruit, there are manifestations of gender.  The first wheel is the physical manifestation – what exactly does someone have between his or her legs?  The second wheel is the cultural presentation of gender – does the person look outwardly like the gender society expects?  And the third is identity – how a person feels inside – the “I AM A….” statement that most people could answer definitively.  For most people, the three line up.  For example, take me.  I have female genitalia, I wear skirts, and I know with every fiber of my being that I am a girl.  What’s interesting is the idea of things like female genitalia, only wearing jeans and sneakers with short hair, but feeling definitely like a girl.  We’d label that person as a tomboy and there would be little, if any, stigma associated.  The same in reverse – male genitalia, pink pants and shoes, but feeling like a male – would be labeled as a sissy.  Or worse – much worse.

At this point in the talk, Joel pointed out the difference between gender identity and sexuality.  “There’s a difference,” he said, “between who you know yourself to be and who you think is hot.”

After explaining all of these terms, giving statistics, and treating us to a moving video of testimonials from gender-variant children, Joel came full circle to his point.

He reminded us that he would be speaking with our children the following day.  He told us a bit about how he would approach each of the different age groups at the school and said that generally when he does this type of thing, the kids just accept ideas, turn them over in their heads, and move on.  Adults have more problems with the ideas than kids, he finds.  He was very comforting, however.  He reminded us, that as parents, we don’t have to have all the answers at our fingertips.  It’s okay to say that we don’t know something and we should find it out together with our children.

His goal with the kids would be to give them language and permission to explore the idea of gender, and not to see it as necessarily binary – all male or all female.  He wanted our kids to have open lines of communication – with each other, with their teachers, and most importantly, with us as their parents.

As a reader, you must be wondering why the school even held this seminar or what business is afoot in our community.

The fact is that MST is a small community – there are just under 150 children between the ages of 3 and 12 who attend school.  And there is now a child at school who has gender variant syndrome.  It was her parents, people whom I am proud to call my friends, who arranged the whole opportunity for the school.   These parents are fearless protectors of their child, as we all hope we could be in the face of adversity.  Theirs is a tough journey ahead with this issue.  But I know that they are strong people who stand up to issues and meet them head-on.

My kudos also go to the administration of MST.  They’ve handled the situation with grace and done what they could to facilitate safety and ease for this child.  The headmaster is first to admit – as he did on Tuesday night – that sometimes ignoring a problem is worse than loudly denying it.  Saying nothing can be its own problem.  He says that he wanted to believe that at his school, everyone is accepted for who they are and feels safe therein.  It just was not true.  In this case in particular, the issue had to be faced and discussed, not merely presumed to be accepted.  I know it took the parents a lot of time and tears to get that acknowledgement from the school.  But I also know that the headmaster, Pete, is as good as they come, with only the best interests of “his” kids at heart.

I am so proud to be part of this community.  I am certain that my children are getting a world-class academic education.  They are exposed to cultures, thoughts, and ideas that they might never meet anywhere else.  And now this.  The language that Joel used with the parents and then with the kids is language that we can apply to all sorts of social issues, from race and religion, to sexual preference and beyond.  This school is a place where the entire community takes part in learning.  This is a caring and generous community of families from across the globe.

Boy am I lucky. Boy are we lucky.