Tag Archive: education

boy in blue and girl in pink standing back to backI firmly believe that we do not give kids enough credit for their ability to navigate, question and deconstruct concepts that adults find incredibly confusing.  No, I’m not saying that it’s time to start teaching your four year old theoretical physics (although my dad loved to do that—unfortunately, I never really appreciated it…), but it does mean that we should question some of the basic assumptions about how we teach and interact with young children.

Case in point: gender.

I’ve been sitting on this article for several months, and every time I re-read it, I get giggly and smiley all over again.

“Hi I’m Alec are you the babysitter mommy said that we can go to the park if you want to and feed the ducks do you like legos?”

“Yep, hi, my name is Andy.” I said, kneeling down, “Let me talk to one of your parents first, ok?”

While I was saying this Alec was looking me up and down.

“Yeah ok, hey, Andy, do you use boy words or girl words, or the other words but I can’t really ‘amember them?”

I looked curiously at his mom, Amelia, who was busy tiding up the table.

“Oh,” she said, “he can’t remember the word pronouns.”

“Ah,” it clicked, “I use boy words. What about you?”

“I use boy words, too. Do you like legos?”

“Of course I do!”symbols for male and female

Alec, the star of this adorable article was raised not to equate gender presentation with gender identity.  Granted he probably doesn’t have the vocabulary to express these ideas, but at the heart of it, his behavior towards others reflects a nuanced and tolerant, thoughtful way of looking at gender.

At one point he asked his mom and she said, “Honey, do you remember what Aunt Sarah said to do if you can’t tell if somebody’s a boy or a girl?” he didn’t respond. “You ask.”

You. Ask.

You don’t guess or dance around the subject or hope somebody else clues you in or wait for another person to use a pronoun so you can use the same one. You ASK.


There’s an element of common courtesy to living your life this way—no frills, no guesswork, no assumptions or hurt feelings.  You just ask.  I can only imagine that Alec will grow up feeling much less constrained by the idea of gender himself, and feel free to experiment and explore his own identity, his likes and dislikes, and to define himself as a person, not as a boy or a girl.

pregnant woman holding blocks that say "boy"Unfortunately, most kids aren’t brought up this way.  Gender policing and gender messaging starts from birth and becomes so engrained into our psyches that it’s sometimes hard to disentangle our own feelings about gender from the messages we’ve been fed since we were born.  In this sense, it’s both easier and way harder for young kids to have meaningful conversations about gender.

On one hand, they are not authorities on the matter.  To a large extent, children rely on the structure and conditioning of their parents, teachers, family members, and other authority figures in their lives.  If those people are saying “Boys do this; girls wear that,” then it is incredibly hard for them to separate their own feelings from the opinions and conditioning of the important people in their lives.

On the other hand, children have had decades less of gender policing than their adult counterparts.  They may have experienced discrimination, but rarely do they fear for their lives or their livelihoods based on the way they perceive and present gender.  They are still malleable with their opinions, and open to the idea of contradiction.

So while it can be difficult to combat the harmful way gender is explained in our society, I think the work of Melissa Bollow Temple, of Jackson County, Wisconsin shows how important, and sometimes how simple breaking down those messages can be.

I taped up two large pieces of paper and wrote “Boys” on one and “Girls” on the other. …When we had two extensive lists, I read both lists out loud to the class and then studied them carefully.

“Hmm,” I said. “Here it says that Legos are for boys. Can girls play with Legos?”unisex bathroom sign

“Yes!” most of them replied without hesitation.

“I wonder if any of the girls in our class like to play with Hot Wheels?”

“I do! I do!” blurted out some of the girls. We continued with the rest of the items on our “Boys” list, making a check mark next to each one as it was declared acceptable for girls.

Then we went on to the “Girls” list. We started with baby dolls. Because we had just read and discussed William’s Doll, the children were OK with boys playing with dolls. “It’s great practice for boys who want to be daddies when they grow up,” I mentioned.

But when we got to nail polish and makeup the children were unsure. “There are some very famous rock ’n’ roll bands,” I said, “and the men in those bands wear a lot of makeup.” Some of the children gasped.

Then Isabela raised her hand: “Sometimes my uncle wears black nail polish.” The students took a moment to think about this.

“My cousin wears nail polish, too!” said another student. Soon many students were eager to share examples of how people pushed the limits on gender. Our school engineer, Ms. Joan, drove a motorcycle. Jeremy liked to dance. I could see the gears turning in their brains as the gender lines started to blur.

Conversations like these might be the most crucial to ensure that the children we raise grow up to be caring, compassionate, and empathetic men and women (and those who identify otherwise).  Working to blur the lines of gender early gives students critical thinking skills to challenge the messaging of media, consumerism, peers, and authority figures.  This generation can grow up to understand gender so much better than most of us do now.   And that will benefit more than just gender non-conforming and trans* people.  Because acceptance and critical thinking lends itself to a deeper understanding of people with all types of differences: disability, ethnicity, race, sexuality, and yes, of course, gender.

Stay cool, queer kids, and keep pushing for acceptance and dialogue in all areas of your life.


Questions from Kenya

Eastlands in Nairobi, Kenya

Bianca is back from Kenya!

One of the things we were told about study abroad semesters is that the hardest part is often re-integration into your old society, your “normal” life, and the habits, obligations, and tedium that comes with it. Personally, I’ve found it tricky to adjust to certain elements of simplicity: the store is open when I need it to be, the phone number on the website is correct, the person I am meeting shows up on time and has the information I need.

But there’s a significantly scarier aspect of returning: the future. In Nairobi, I rarely had to worry beyond the next two weeks. If I could get through these small hurdles, make it back to the US where I was on familiar ground, everything would work itself out. But now that I’m here, I have to deal with the fact that I don’t have a plan.

My semester abroad has, in short, nearly shattered my belief that international development groups can do any good, and it has certainly destroyed the illusion that such work can dramatically change the world we live in. I’ve been mourning this loss of optimism for a while, and I know I still have a long way to go towards understanding it.

The larger question relative to this problem is where I go from here. I still feel very strongly that, in whatever small way, I want to be changing the status quo in our society; I want to be improving the lives of others. My primary medium for this has fallen through. I have contemplated many times the possibilities for going into some line of work with sex-positive advocacy, which falls in line with this blog, my interests, and my desire to see healthier, less shame-filled world. But at the same time, I question: Is that enough? Which is why Midori’s article, “Teaching Blowjobs and Bondage in Disastrous Times” hit home for me. Midori is a blogger, activist, and community sex-educator (as well as published author and bondage expert) who’s home country of Japan was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami that hit during my time in Kenya. Her conflict between doing the work that she loves in the sex-positive community contrasts sharply with a feeling of helplessness, loss of direction in the face of such overwhelming tragedies.

“The world is falling apart and I’m teaching fine cock sucking. Am I just playing in the band as the Titanic sinks? My birth nation is having a nuclear meltdown, and I’m carrying on teaching blowjobs and bondage, while fundraising for HIV.”

And yet her conclusion is positive and affirming of the life she lives:
“I cannot do anything to undo the disaster personally. I convince myself that moving forward is the only productive things I can do right now. I persuade myself that even the smallest act of ethical citizenship is better than blind panic. “

I like Midori, and I’m happy for the pride she had in her work, for the sureness with which she faces uncertainty, and for the way she can keep perspective on the micro-successes in a world of macro-failures.

But it is from that frame that I draw questions. Can I, who have always dreamed big, reconcile my desire for “regime shift” in a world of small changes? If so, can I still do development work, in some way, in the US? I know for certain that I am unable to affect the change I desire internationally, but do I have the strength and focus to do so here at home? If not, how would sex-positive work be different? Moreover, when disaster strikes and the world seems to fall in upon itself—when catastrophe makes my own individual contributions look foolishly small—how do I proceed? What, at the end of the day, will allow me to rest, knowing that I have done all I could for the world?

If these seem like lofty questions, then you understand some of what I’ve been dealing with the past 4 months, and, to an extent, for years previous.

The small correlation I’ve found, which gives me some comfort as I contemplate all of this, is a short article by The Sexademic, a great new blog I’ve started following. The article, “No Pleasure in the Ghetto” gives the short and dirty of how sex-positive messages are stifled from reaching lower-income and ethnic minority populations:

“There is a sharp contrast between sex education for the socially privileged and sex education for the socially disadvantaged. In my time as a sex educator, I’ve worked with a broad range of populations and anytime I work with minorities, youth or poor people, the only things the organizations want me to talk about are STIs and condoms.”

This is a legitimate concern, and one that is especially relevant in the oreo city that is Washington, DC. Our population is over 50% African-American, with strong presents of Hispanics, and other minority populations. These groups are not getting the information they need to live healthier sex-positive lives.

[But the choice to wear a condom] “is informed by far more than having a condom or not having a condom. That choice is informed by social messages, by power dynamics, by understanding risk, by a personal sense of agency. If you don’t address these issues, you can’t expect someone to practice safer sex.”

Potentially, I see a place for myself here, filling an educational gap, getting out much-needed information to people who are neglected by the system. But the question I will probably never be able to answer, at least until I start working is this: is it ENOUGH?


Now that the first of my group of friends have officially settled down and started having kids, I’ve begun thinking more about the obstacles faced not only by younger LGBT people, but by their parents as they try to navigate an intolerant and often resource-deprived world for their LGBT kids.

A couple of months ago, I stumbled upon Gender Spectrum, a support, counseling, and education community for parents ofgenderqueer/trans/questioning kids.  They host a conference every year on the subject, as well as offering online resources for parents to peruse.  This is a very good start, but it’s shortcoming lies in the same place that most LGBT services fail- they only offer information to parents who ACTIVELY seek it out.  In today’s world, 99% of the time, a parent-to-be is more concerned about a myriad of other issues- prenatal vitamins, getting a bedroom prepared for the baby, regular sonograms and checkups, the pain of delivery, etc- that gender identity issues are not something they plan to self-educate about.    Reasonable?  Yes.  Problematic when the doctor tells you that your baby has ambiguous genitalia and will operate to “repair” your baby’s equiptment and you haven’t read a thing about the subject.  MAJORLY.

There are so many aspects of maternal health and preparation that have become rote in today’s society; mothers read “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” take lamaze classes, and learn about how to feed and care for their child.  Wouldn’t it make sense to start gender counseling at this critical stage?  Perhaps it’s a sensitive issue to broach- no one wants to believe their child will turn out “abnormal,” but with widespread educational programs aimed at eradicating stereotypes and educating parents, the ideas of normal/abnormal should slowly dissolve, right?

I’d love to hear some other takes on this idea, but also please use this space if you have other resources to share with LGBT people and their parents about these tough issues.

(In other news, I’m off to Kenya in T- 3 days!  Hopefully I’ll get one more post in before then, but otherwise, I’ll see you in 4 months!)

Once upon a time, there was a country named Thailand.

And in the 80’s, Thailand found out it had a problem…

In 1984, the first case of AIDS was reported in Thailand, and with the abundance of sex trafficking across the Thai border and a lack of information about the disease, the country was rife for an epidemic.

BUT INSTEAD, the Thais got creative.

Condoms became an advertising campaign.  You could get them with your coffee, at the grocery store, at school, from traveling health groups, and pretty much anywhere else you turned.  There were condom balloon-blowing competitions held as school fundraisers, a Harvard MBA turned superhero-icon spokesperson known as “Condom Boy,” and even t-shirts with condoms in the shape of the olympic logo with the slogan, “Weapons of Mass Protection.”

And from this, something really awesome happened.  Not only was a serious epidemic averted, but a new idea for sex education was born- one that didn’t shy away from touchy subjects or try to gloss over serious issues.  Which is why I think this exhibit at the National Science Museum of Thailand is freakin’ fantastic.

“Teenage boys gape at a coloured photograph of a vagina, while girls give embarrassed smiles as they watch a cartoon that showed penises ‘talking’ about masturbation. Young girls crowd around a display panel about love and relationships, as a boy embraces a female mannequin with all his might in order to measure the strength of his hug. “

By embracing the various conceptions of sex, rather than avoiding it or censoring specific kinds of sex (see Rubin’s “The Charmed Circle” ), kids can better understand sexuality and make healthier decisions about their own practices.

And it hasn’t stopped with just this exhibit.  Thai sex ed in general is getting more and more progressive.  Anothergreat article about engaging students in honest dialogue about sex is available here:  http://ipsnews.net/interna.asp?idnews=13448

So my question is, why is it so impossible to get this kind of forthright and legitimate education here in the supposedly more developed and socially responsible United States?

Ever heard of the Harvey Milk School in New York City?  Probably not.  It is a relatively new public school of only 200 students, still managed under the NY Board of Education, designed specifically to meet the needs of at-risk LGBT students.  Check it out: http://www.hmi.org/Page.aspx?pid=230

The Hetrick-Martin Foundation sponsors the school and runs after-school programs for the student body which relate to their needs as LGBT teens, but the school’s primary purpose is to serve as a haven for students who had experienced serious harassment in their previous schools and were at a significant risk for dropping out (which is the only thing one needs to prove in order to gain admittance to the school- whereas you do not need to be LGBT-identified).  “A survey on the school’s web site claimed that 22 percent of gay respondents had skipped school in the past month because they felt unsafe there. The same survey stated that 28 percent of self-identified gay students will drop out of school; that’s more than three times the national average.”-Boston Phoenix.  What’s most remarkable, of course, is the school’s nearly 95% graduation rate!  And compared to NYC public schools average 59%, that is truly amazing,

But of course, there is controversy astir.  The Boston Phoenix ran an article back when the school opened in 2003, which talks primarily about the idea of “segregating” (for lack of a better term) LGBT students.  And there’s some legitimacy to that argument.

“Can you imagine such a city-sponsored solution flying if it were African-American kids having their heads slammed into lockers and harassed so persistently they were afraid to go to school? Of course not. White-racist violence is punished severely, and homophobic violence should be as well. We don’t need to create “safe” high schools for queer kids, we need to do the equivalent of sending in the National Guard to ensure their safety.”

And this is precisely the problem that the Harvey Milk School recognizes.  I don’t think that anyone sees separating LGBT kids into other schools as the end goal- it is simply a compromise based on a terrible problem.  Because the fact is, too many teachers, administrators, and faculty members know next to NOTHING about LGBT issues and how to deal with bullying and harassment of their gay students.  When teachers are incapable of protecting their students, some alternative measure must be found.

“… on a profound level, segregating GLBT kids in their own “full” high school represents an open admission that the public-school system is unable to perform one of its most basic tasks — securing the safety of its students. And underneath that admission lies a deeper problem. It’s true that attacks on queer kids — as well as on kids who are perceived to be queer because of their gender affect, cultural interests, or social attitudes — are epidemic in public schools. But the larger culture hasn’t yet decided how to deal with such assaults, and that plays into the hands of those who are openly hostile to at-risk minorities. The media response ranges from shrugging off homophobic ridicule as standard schoolyard bullying, to sharing an attitude common among school administrators that “someone is always getting picked on,” to praising the more modern, if ineffectual, approach of instituting sensitivity training.”

So while yes, the Harvey Milk School is not the optimal solution to the problem of LGBT bullying, it is playing a good role in helping at least 50 students a year graduate and have the possibility for a better future that regular NYC schools may have denied them.  Your thoughts?

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