Why Gender Matters — It’s About Every Student plus LGBQT Glossary
As one of the most fundamental aspects of self, gender impacts everybody. All of us can point to a time in our lives when we were burdened by unfair limitations or expectations because of others’ beliefs about our gender. Where this crucial aspect of self is narrowly defined and rigidly enforced, individuals who exist outside of its norms face innumerable challenges. Even those who vary only slightly from the norm can become targets of disapproval.
Although gender diversity has existed throughout history and all over the world, most societies view sex as a binary concept, with two rigidly fixed options: male or female, both based on a person’s reproductive functions (genitals, sex chromosomes, gonads, hormones, reproductive structures). This idea that there are only two genders is called the “gender binary.” If a child has a binary gender identity, that means they identify as either a boy or a girl, regardless of the sex they were assigned at birth.
But a sex binary fails to capture even the biological aspect of gender. While most bodies have one of two forms of genitalia, which are classified as “female” or “male,” there are naturally occurring Intersex conditions that demonstrate that sex exists across a continuum of possibilities. This biological spectrum by itself should be enough to dispel the simplistic notion of the “gender binary” — there are not just two sexes. Gender is a spectrum and the relationship between a person’s gender and their body goes beyond one’s reproductive functions. Research in neurology, endocrinology, and cellular biology points to a broader biological basis for an individual’s experience of gender. In fact, research increasingly points to our brains as playing a key role in how we each experience our gender.
Bodies themselves are also gendered in the context of cultural expectations. Masculinity and femininity are equated with certain physical attributes, labeling us as more or less a man/woman based on the degree to which those attributes are present. This gendering of our bodies affects how we feel about ourselves and how others perceive and interact with us.
Understanding of our gender comes to most of us fairly early in life. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “By age four, most children have a stable sense of their gender identity.” This core aspect of one’s identity comes from within each of us; it is an inherent aspect of a person’s make-up. Individuals do not choose their gender, nor can they be made to change it, though the words someone uses to communicate their gender identity may change over time. Naming our gender can be a complex and evolving matter. Because we are provided with limited language for gender, it may take a person quite some time to discover, or create, the language that best communicates their gender.
A New Gender Vocabulary
Gender identity is our internal experience and naming of our gender. A cisgender person has a gender identity consistent with the sex they were assigned at birth. For example, a child whose sex was assigned male on their birth certificate and who identifies as a boy is cisgender (or “cis”). A transgender person has a gender identity that does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. So, a child who was assigned male on their birth certificate and who identifies as a girl is transgender (sometimes shortened to “trans”).
Descriptors for gender identities are rapidly expanding; youth and young adults today no longer feel bound to identify strictly with one of two genders, but are instead establishing a growing vocabulary for gender. More than just a series of new words, however, this shift in language represents a far more nuanced understanding of the experience of gender itself. The 2015 Fusion “Millennial Poll” (“millennial” defined as individuals aged 18-34) revealed that more see gender as a spectrum than as a binary. Other research indicates that today’s teens are even likelier to see identity as a spectrum. There is a generational divide in our fundamental understandings of gender and how we think about this aspect of who we are.
Regardless of a student’s age, gender impacts a child’s experience at school across the grades. There is abundant research about the relationship between students’ sense of safety and their ability to succeed in school, and gender is one of the factors that greatly impacts perceptions of safety.
As a primary socializing agent, schools have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to be inclusive of all students, regardless of their gender identity or expression. In this role, educational institutions and the professionals associated with them can significantly impact the degree to which gender diversity in children and teens is viewed — either positively or negatively.
Beyond supporting our young people as individuals, we cannot afford to have any of our students cut off from interests, talents, or intellectual pursuits that may ultimately contribute to our society. School is the place where our children should be exploring ideas and discovering new skills. It is inexcusable that any child might be prevented from pursuing their passions simply based on others’ perceptions of their gender. By sending a message that certain pursuits are off limits simply because of a person’s gender, we lose access to an incredible source of human potential. How many great discoveries, new inventions, cures for disease, or works of art have we lost simply because people believed they couldn’t, or shouldn’t, do something because of their gender?
Gender and the Law
The right for every student to attend school in a safe and supportive setting regardless of gender is supported by a vast number of legal protections at the federal, state and local level. In April 2014, the US Department of Education made an historic announcement reaffirming a 2010 declaration that “Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity,” and emphasized that the department’s Office of Civil Rights readily accepts such complaints for investigation.
This guidance builds on court decisions and a 2012 opinion by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that gender identity discrimination falls under sex discrimination, which is barred by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Equal protection language in the US Constitution and special education laws (under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) are also increasingly being used to guarantee the rights of gender-expansive students to access educational services. Across the country a growing number of states (Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) have enumerated gender identity and expression protections in schools.
At least 160 cities and counties have passed their own laws prohibiting gender identity discrimination including Atlanta, Boise, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Dallas, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Louisville, Madison, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh. Additionally, state and local educational institutions are issuing clear guidelines and expectations about best practices for ensuring that all gender-expansive youth are supported at school.
Gender and Bullying
There is a reason the legal protections described above exist. Our society’s limited understanding of, and appreciation for, gender diversity has a very important consequence: bullying. Individuals who are seen as different are frequently targets for mistreatment. But unlike many forms of diversity, when individuals perceived as different with regards to gender are the targets, there is frequently an indifference, if not overt approval, for the mistreatment they face.
Of late, a great deal of attention has been paid to the bullying of LGBT students, particularly at the secondary level. Teen suicides have been all too familiar in the nation’s headlines. However, what is critical to recognize is that much of the mistreatment leading to these tragedies is in fact grounded in issues of gender that are present almost as soon as our children enter school. Not being masculine or feminine can be cause for real cruelty among kids beginning as early as pre-school. Long before sexual attraction or orientation are even being considered, elementary school students are targeted based on their perceived lack of conformity to their peers’ gender norms. Even more frightening, in addition to bullying by peers, students sometimes find the teachers, coaches and other school staff charged with protecting them indifferent to the cruelty they face; in some cases they are the perpetrators of bullying themselves.
Data related to gender-based bullying paints a frightening picture. Moreover, beyond the daily challenges gender-expansive young people face, there exists a far more dangerous and longer-term impact. When bullied in school based on perceived gender differences, young adults face many challenges including health disparities, depression and reduced life satisfaction. Once again, our society’s biases around gender hurt individuals, and exact a price for all of us as we deal with the consequences of our misguided and narrow perspectives.
Thinking Critically About Difference
Schools that explicitly recognize gender diversity establish conditions in which conversations and activities exploring other forms of difference become possible. In embarking on a path to expand students’ understanding about gender diversity, schools set a tone in which the examination of differences across multiple domains is accepted and encouraged. Exploring gender becomes an on-ramp for students to consider complex issues in other aspects of their lives. Racial, cultural, religious, linguistic, socioeconomic and many other forms of difference can now be examined from the perspective of critical analysis grounded in this initial study and understanding of gender.
Coming to recognize gender in all of its complexity allows students to see concepts in more realistic terms. Helping them understand the idea of a spectrum — a range of possibilities and not simply the “opposite ends” of a binary — builds their capacity to critically examine concepts in other areas of learning as well as building their appreciation for gender and other forms of diversity. In building students’ perspectives about gender and gender diversity, schools are able to introduce notions of ambiguity and degree that will serve them as they explore other complex topics for the rest of their lives.
Through a thoughtful consideration of the uniqueness and validity of every person’s experiences of self, we can develop greater acceptance for all. Not only will this create greater inclusion for individuals who challenge the norms of gender, it will create space for all individuals to more fully explore and celebrate who they are.
Reprinted with permission from GenderSpectrum.org, helping to create gender sensitive and inclusive environments for all children and teens.
AFAB and AMAB: Acronyms meaning “assigned female/male at birth.” No one, whether cis or trans, gets to choose what sex they’re assigned at birth. This term is preferred to “biological male,” “female bodied,” “natal male,” and “born female,” which are defamatory and inaccurate.
Ally: Someone who advocates and supports a community other than their own. Allies are not part of the communities they help. A person should not self-identify as an ally but show that they are one through action.
Bisexuality: An umbrella term for people who experience sexual and/or emotional attraction to more than one gender (pansexual, fluid, omnisexual, queer, etc.).
Cisgender/cis: Term for someone who exclusively identifies as their sex assigned at birth derived from the Latin word meaning “on the same side.” Cisgender does not indicate biology, gender expression, or sexuality/sexual orientation. Note that cisgender does not have an “ed” at the end.
Dyadic: Not intersex.
FTM: Abbreviation for female-to-male transgender person. This person most likely prefers masculine pronouns.
Gender Affirming Surgery; Genital Reassignment / Reconstruction Surgery; Vaginoplasty; Phalloplasty; Metoidioplasty: Refers to surgical alteration, and is only one part of some trans people’s transition. Only the minority of transgender people choose to and can afford to have genital surgery. The following terms are inaccurate, offensive, or outdated: sex change operation, gender reassignment/realignment surgery (gender is not changed due to surgery), gender confirmation/confirming surgery (genitalia do not confirm gender).
Gender Binary: A system of viewing gender as consisting solely of two, opposite categories, termed “male and female”, in which no other possibilities for gender or anatomy are believed to exist. This system is oppressive to anyone who defies their sex assigned at birth, but particularly those who are gender-variant or do not fit neatly into one of the two standard categories.
Gender Expression/Presentation: The physical manifestation of one’s gender identity through clothing, hairstyle, voice, body shape, etc. Someone with a gender nonconforming gender expression may or may not be transgender.
Gender Fluid: A changing or “fluid” gender identity.
Gender Identity: One’s internal sense of being male, female, neither of these, both, or other gender(s).
Genderqueer: An identity commonly used by people who do not identify or express their gender within the gender binary.
Gender Role: Norms of expected behavior for men and women, which varies from culture to culture, assigned primarily on the basis of biological sex.
Heteronormativity: Processes through which social institutions and policies reinforce the notion that there are only two possibilities for sex, gender and sexual attraction: males attracted to females, and females attracted to males.
Intersex: Term used for a variety of medical conditions in which a person is born with chromosomes, genitalia, and/or secondary sexual characteristics that are inconsistent with the typical definition of a male or female body. Replaces the inaccurate term “hermaphrodite.” Parents and medical professionals usually coercively assign intersex infants a sex and have, in the past, been medically permitted to perform surgical operations to conform the infant’s genitalia to that assignment. This practice has become increasingly controversial as intersex adults speak out against the practice. Note that intersex does not have an “ed” at the end.
LGBTQQIAPP+: A collection of identities short for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, aromantic, pansexual, polysexual (sometimes abbreviated to LGBT or LGBTQ+). Sometimes this acronym is replaced with “queer.”
MTF: An abbreviation for a male-to-female transgender person. This person most likely prefers female pronouns.
Queer: Term describing people who have a non-normative gender identity, sexual orientation or sexual anatomy. Can include lesbians, gay men, bisexual people, transgender people, and a host of other identities. This term has a complicated history as a reclaimed slur.
Questioning: The process of examining one’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Sex Assigned At Birth: The assignment and classification of people as male, female, intersex, or another sex assigned at birth often based on physical anatomy at birth and/or karyotyping.
Sexual Orientation: A person’s physical, romantic, emotional, aesthetic, and/or other form of attraction to others.
Transgender/Trans: An umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term transgender is not indicative of gender expression, sexual orientation, hormonal makeup, physical anatomy, or how one is perceived in daily life. Note that transgender does not have an “ed” at the end.
Transition: A person’s process of developing and assuming a gender expression to match their gender identity. Transition can include: coming out to one’s family, friends, and/or co-workers; changing one’s name and/or sex on legal documents; hormone therapy; and possibly (though not always) some form of surgery.
Transphobia: Systemic violence against trans people, associated with attitudes such as fear, discomfort, distrust, or disdain. This word is used similarly to homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, etc.
Transsexual: A deprecated term that is often considered pejorative, transsexual often — though not always — implicates hormonal/surgical transition from one binary gender (male or female) to the other. Unlike transgender/trans, transsexual is not an umbrella term, as many transgender people do not identify as transsexual. When speaking/writing about trans people, please avoid the word transsexual unless asked to use it by a transsexual person.
Definitions courtesy Trans Student Educational Resources, a youth-led organization dedicated to transforming the educational environment for trans and gender-nonconforming students through advocacy and empowerment. www.transstudent.org.