What does “gender variance” mean?
When a young girl wants to wear pants, play in the dirt and push construction vehicles, these days she is often referred to as a “tom boy”. When a little boy wants to wear a dress, play with Barbies, or grow his hair, he is called “gay”, a “fairy” or any number of truly unsavory terms. Both of these children, however, are displaying gender non-conforming tendencies. According to that society’s gender expectations, the child is non-conforming.
When a child feels that their biological sex does not match the gender that they know they should be, the child is transgender.
There are several things to note when discussing the meaning of gender non-conforming and transgender:
Gender roles and expectations differ by culture. When we were bringing our son home from Korea, we had a very difficult time finding him a traditional outfit that was NOT pink. Pink means light red, which is a boy’s color in that culture. Check out this article about the change of pink to be a “girl’s color” over time.
Gender roles and expectations change over time. Women in the workplace was a completely gender non-conforming action less than a hundred years ago in this culture. Even female teachers were expected to only work if they were unmarried (that would put me out of job!).
Being gender non-conforming is NOT about sexuality. To assume that a five year old boy who loves to make believe princesses is “gay” is unfair, since he most likely has no sexual preference at that early age in his life. He may later realize that he has a sexual preference for males. Do not assume that a gender non-conforming or transgender child is (or will be) homosexual.
What is my personal connection to this topic?
Three of my favorite students of all times have been boys who are gender non-conforming. I have created countless social stories and token boards about fairies, Disney princesses, and Barbies. One of my favorite social stories was about when it is appropriate for one of my boys to dance to the Nutcracker and meditate in class.
In addition, I come from a long line of gender non-conforming women:
- My great-grandmother attended UC Berkeley at a time when very few women attended college (she did not, however, graduate)
- My grandmother received a bachelor’s degree at a time when that was very rare.
- My mother graduated from UC Berkeley with a science degree, in spite of getting married at age 19. She was also one of only a few women in her dental school. She gave birth to me half way through school, but continued without a break.
- And I… I would certainly be considered gender non-conforming in another generation. Although married, I am the only income source for our family. I do all the yard work for the family (although this isn’t a very fair statement since I also do all the housework!). I even know how to use a hammer and screwdriver.
My husband also considers himself to be gender non-conforming. He has embraced being a stay-at-home dad, even before he became disabled. When we decided that we wanted to adopt a second child, he even felt that he wanted a daughter so badly that his “ovaries hurt”.
How does gender variance relate to special education?
Did you know that gender variance is over seven times more likely in children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders? And children with Attention Deficit Disorder are over six times more likely to display gender variance. These two sub-groups make up a significant portion of the students on my caseload (over 30%). I am curious to know if there is actually an increased likelihood in these populations OR if these populations are less inhibited by societal expectations and therefore feel free to “do what they feel”.
From personal experience, 5/5 boys that I have known with obvious gender variance were all also receiving speech/language services. This population effects me every day. And whether you realize it or not, it most likely affects you too!
I have also found that my students who display non-gender conforming and transgender tendencies also often have difficulties with pronouns. I have come to believe that he/she terms are just not very meaningful to them and that is why they are more difficult to learn.
In spite of the fact that we encounter gender non-conforming and transgender youth in our schools and communities, there are many parts of education and teaching language that are negative towards this population. For example:
- Our language (and many others) uses gender specific pronouns that can be confusing and frustrating for those who do not identify with this pronoun.
- Our language/society categorizes clothing by boy and girl clothing.
- Our language/society labels colors and boy and girl colors.
- Our language/society tries to determine boy and girl toys.
How can we support gender non-conforming and transgender youth in the schools?
Most of these ideas come from the Silvia Rivera Law Project:
- Educate staff and students about gender issues.
- Promote tolerance and diversity. The students at my school have not only been “tolerated” but are sometimes actually celebrated by their peers for their interests in Barbies, Nutcracker dances, and fairies. This amazing culture has been the result of several amazing teachers embracing these students and helping others to embrace them as well.
- Avoid gender stereotypes. Don’t assume that certain clothes should go to the girls/boys and never choose a color based on gender.
- Create gender neutral spaces. These should certainly include restrooms that do not force children to choose a biological gender versus a identify gender. These also include not lining up or grouping students according to their biological gender.
- Respect the pronoun choice that the student feels best reflects them. If a anatomically male student wants to be referred to as “she”, do not argue or question it. It may require stopping to think closely before speaking, but honor their identify.
- Do not assign roles for role plays or other activities based on a child’s biological sex.
- Create social stories that the student can identify with, regardless of gender.
- Use incentives that motivate the student, regardless of whether they seem like a “girl” or “boy” item.
- And MOST importantly, enjoy and educated all students as individuals with different likes, dislikes, and identities!
This post was inspired by the book “Raising My Rainbow“, which my husband had insisted that I read, as well as my amazing students. The post is dedicated to my husband, who is very passionate about this topic and encouraging me to write this post for months.