We need age-appropriate gender education

I almost hesitate to add to the ongoing culture and social wars over sexual education in the United States, but here goes: We need age-appropriate gender education provided alongside sexual education. While people have a tendency to lump gender and sexuality together in vague, mish-mashy terms, they aren’t the same thing, and even a strong sex ed programme won’t necessarily cover issues of gender, though they are of course heavily related. To address these disparities, we need to be talking about gender and the diversity of the gender spectrum, and we need to start doing it as early as possible.

In regions where people are even allowed to access sexual education, it typically doesn’t start until middle school or high school. With good reason, advocates worry this is too late — while it’s a bit much to have kindergarteners putting condoms on bananas, we should actually be providing age-appropriate sexual education in elementary school. Kids need educational building blocks when it comes to understanding sexuality and autonomy so they’re prepared as they mature — and young kids in particular should be learning that their bodies are their own, that they have the right to determine who touches them and when (and where), and that they can (and should) report inappropriate behaviours to people around them.

Children are often treated like objects rather than human beings and comprehensive sexual education counters that, teaching kids decisively that they have control over their bodies — and not just in a sexual sense, because I fervently wish that no child would ever be in a sexual situation. Children deserve to be able to say ‘no’ to unwanted hugs, to set out clear interaction boundaries with people, and to express themselves when they feel uncomfortable. With comprehensive sex ed, they get the tools to do that — second graders might not necessarily need to go over the specifics of STIs, but it can be extremely empowering to understand what’s normal and what’s not — yes, your body will do this as you grow older, no, it’s not okay for an adult to touch you like this.

But alongside this, we need to be explicitly including gender education. From a very young age, people are very heavy socialised with constant gender messaging about how they’re supposed to behave and who they are supposed to be. For trans kids, and for those who are gender nonconforming, this is, to put it mildly, extremely stressful. In a school environment where people talk openly about gender and variance, kids have opportunity to discuss these issues and take them on. As kids grow older, they can learn more and delve deeper into gender issues — and, when relevant, access mentoring to help them discuss very gender-specific issues. For example, older kids and teens taking hormone blockers and HRT might find it incredibly helpful to be able to take a class with other children in the same situation, rather than feeling isolated and out of step with their peers.

For trans kids, gender education provides a sense of what is normal — them — and also creates an opportunity to realise that they aren’t alone and that there are tools available to help them. Many gender nonconforming kids are just that: Gender nonconforming, without the need to enter transition. Some kids who identify as genderfluid or aren’t sure about their gender later settle out to be cis. Being able to explore gender in a safe environment is important for kids, as inadequate education can make kids feel like they’re failing at gender, or that something is wrong with them.

Gender education also provides opportunities for cis kids to learn more about the trans and gender variant kids around them. The best way to fight transphobia is with outreach and education, turning transness from something scary by nature of being unknown to something normalised. If open discussion of transness is presented without judgement or comment, it changes the landscape for trans kids in school, and for future generations. Imagine a generation of adults who all grew up with gender education and cannot comprehend a world in which it didn’t exist. Think about what happens when these people start creating art, developing policy, running for office, managing workplaces.

In my experience as a gender variant child, one of the most terrifying things for me was the sense that I was failing as a girl, even as I tried to mimic what I saw the other girls doing in the hopes that I’d eventually find the silver bullet of gender. I never did, and I struggled even in the embrace of a fairly progressive school district — but not as progressive as some might think, because I absolutely was abused by other classmates, but also by administrators and parents. I didn’t know what transness was or have an opportunity to explore my own relationship to my gender through a trans lens until college, and I’m always left wondering what life would have been like if gender discussions in high school and younger hadn’t been so rigid, if my (limited) sexual education had included gender, if the faculty and staff of my schools had known about gender variance and considered it normal. If we hadn’t been divided into oppressive ‘gender groups’ in high school and subjected to highly cissexist lessons of biological determinism.

I’ll never know, but I don’t want other people to go through the same experience. As we develop and expand upon sexual education curricula across the United States, and as we fight to protect access to sex ed, we also need to be discussing the integration of gender education.

Image: Advisory Council on Gender and Development, World Bank, Flickr