Washington teachers take on gender education

Last year, I wrote that we need comprehensive gender and sex education in schools. Now, Washington State is offering just that, and while I don’t think it’s in reaction to anything I said, it’s encouraging that I’m not the only one thinking about the subject. Over complaints from conservatives convinced that this will bring about the end of the world as we know it, Washington is starting to roll out age-appropriate gender education in its classrooms alongside sexual education, which is huge.

Recent years has seen an explosion in gender diversity and a growing understanding that gender is huge and complicated. At the same time, children at younger and younger ages are being outspoken about their conflicted relationship with gender and their search for meaning. Kids and parents alike really aren’t prepared to deal with this, because historically, there’s been no framework for managing these cases. Educational approaches like this one aim to change that, and that’s going to be good for people of all stripes.

Kids who are struggling with gender will have a chance to learn early on that they aren’t alone. There’s nothing wrong with them. They aren’t weird. They may be different, but that’s not a bad thing. Gender education can provide information about people like them, and how people deal with their relationships to gender. For cis kids, this kind of education offers a chance to learn more compassion and empathy, and to comprehend the experiences of kids who aren’t like them. That’s a good thing too, because the best way to break down barriers and put a halt to discrimination and hatred is to demystify the unknown, to make it ubiquitous rather than weird and scary.

Kids learn bigotry. It’s not something innate to humanity. When cis people grow up surrounded by messaging that they’re normal and there’s only one way to do gender, they internalise the message that people who aren’t like them are bad. That message turns into hatred, which turns into abuse, discrimination, and harassment. If kids learn instead that there are all kinds of people with all kinds of genders, they find transness unremarkable, normal. It doesn’t occur to them to act with bigotry and hatred because they have no basis for doing so, so long as society doesn’t tell them to be jerks.

The gender education curriculum in Washington is hardly radical or wild. In kindergarten and first grade, kids will learn that there are “many ways to express gender,” which is true not just of trans people, but also cis people — a cis lady who likes to wear fifties dresses and makeup and heels is expressing gender just as much as a cis lady who wears pants and tees or a cis lady who wears jeans and leather and keeps her hair cropped short. All of them are ladies. They all look different, but they’re all still ladies, expressing their gender in a way that’s comfortable for them.

In second grade, kids start to learn about gender roles and expression, and the fact that they should be respectful to people, no matter how they present their gender. Those lessons are expanded for third graders as teachers get into more complex concepts. In fourth grade, kids start talking about how family and friends influence perception, presentation, and experience of sexuality and gender, while lessons continue to stress the need for respect. Sixth graders start thinking about society and culture, and they also get information about where to go if they’re questioning their sexuality and gender.

This is all pretty simple stuff. It acknowledges that kids sometimes start questioning their gender very early, and it creates a stepping stone framework for educational development. By starting early, schools normalise conversations about sex and gender and sexuality, and they make it a lot easier to have more complicated questions later in life. This should be required for all schools across the country, honestly.

But even in Washington, it’s not. That’s right: This is optional curricular material that teachers and schools can choose to use if they want to, with no obligation. Which is pretty much a guarantee that in conservative districts, kids won’t be getting any of this (or, for that matter, much of any sexual education to speak of). It also means that individual teachers who want to use this material might not be able to if they want to keep their jobs in conservative areas — the very regions where kids really need to experience gender education, because they’re surrounded by such negative messaging.

Even though it’s optional, of course, the right is having kittens over it. Because obviously this is liberal propaganda designed to poison wholesome American minds that will never be the same after being exposed to shattering coursework like conversations about why girls wear pink. It’s a sure bet that we will see challenges to this curriculum, likely in multiple districts. It won’t be enough for parents to yank their kids out of class, taking advantage of opt-out privileges. They’re also going to gun for these programmes as a whole on the grounds that they’re bad for the children or something. And that makes me really sad, because the very fact that people are so opposed to work like this is exactly why it needs to happen. Teachers shouldn’t have to fight for the right to teach the subjects they want to teach, and kids shouldn’t be reminded that they’re freaks and outsiders if they don’t perform and relate to gender ‘appropriately.’

Image: Paul Hart, Flickr