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Gender Identity is Not So Simple, Speaker Tells Educators

Workshop Aims to Foster Gender-Inclusive Schools

Many opinions, beliefs and confusion swirl around the topic of gender identity and how schools should address it. In the eye of that swirling cultural storm, educators are looking for guidance on how to better understand and support students across the gender spectrum.

They now have direction from the Michigan State Board of Education through its recent approval of controversial, voluntary guidelines for schools: the Statement and Guidance on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Students. The board adopted the document in recognizing the school experience can be significantly more difficult for LGBTQ students because of increased challenges to their health, safety, and learning opportunities. (See sidebar on increased risks.)

LGBTQ Students Face Increased Risks

  • Research indicates that LGBTQ students, nationally and in Michigan, are targeted with physical violence and experience a hostile school environment more frequently than their non-LGBTQ peers.
  • Data from the 2015 Michigan Youth Risk Behavior Survey show that students who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual — 8.4 percent of all high school students — are 2.3 times more likely to be threatened or injured with a weapon on school property than their non-LGB peers, and 2.3 times more likely to skip school because they feel unsafe.
  • Forty-one percent of LGB students report being bullied on school property, and they are 4.5 times more likely to attempt suicide.
  • According to a national report, 26 percent of transgender students were physically assaulted in school in the past year because of their gender expression.
  • Overall, LGBTQ students who are bullied and harassed are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, feel excluded from the school community, and experience lower academic achievement and stunted educational aspirations.
  • LGBT students are overrepresented in the unaccompanied homeless youth population, creating significant barriers to health, safety, and school success.
  • Not all LGBTQ students are equally affected by these risk factors. LGBTQ students with intersecting, marginalized identities are at greater risk of negative outcomes, including school failure and dropout.
  • The adverse health and educational consequences for transgender students are even greater than those for LGB students. Supportive environments that acknowledge and affirm a student’s identity are protective factors that improve health and educational outcomes.

Source: State Board of Education Statement and Guidance on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Students

State’s Guidance Aims To Create Inclusive Schools

The State Board of Education Sept. 14 approved new voluntary guidelines to assist schools in creating school environments where LGBTQ students can live, learn and thrive. The 6-2 vote in favor of the revised guidelines followed a thorough public comment period. The SBE created draft guidelines in response to requests from educators across the state.

A work group of educators, health and mental health professionals, social workers, parents and education stakeholders worked together to develop the school guidance. The draft guidelines were presented by the SBE for public comment in March and subsequently revised to reflect public feedback.

But the guidance is just a start. Discussion around gender needs to broaden, a national consultant on gender issues recently told area educators.

“We are trying to really help schools have a different conversation when it comes to gender,” said Joel Baum, senior director for the California-based Gender Spectrum, which works nationally to create gender-inclusive environments through education and training.

Baum presented “Gender Identity: From Perspectives to Practice” to teachers, administrators, counselors, social workers and other school professionals at Kent ISD. About about 15 Kent ISD teachers and administrators attended from districts including Forest Hills, Kentwood, Grand Rapids Public Schools and Godwin Heights.

Related: A Father’s Story: ‘It’s OK to Be the Way You Are’
When it comes to talking about gender identity in schools, Peter Tchoryk has seen how it can work firsthand. He and his wife, Sarah, visited his son’s second-grade classroom last year to help students understand that Jacq Kai, 8, is transgender.

The training took place just days after the State Board of Education approved the LGBTQ statement and guidance. During the process of drafting the documents, nearly 13,000 comments were received and analyzed by the Michigan Department of Education, and two public meetings were held by the SBE to gather feedback concerning the statement and guidance.

Debate has been charged around transgender student restroom use in particular, with the new guidance recommending students should be allowed to use the restroom in accordance with their gender identity. It also recommends unisex or or single-user restrooms be made available to all students who request them regardless of the reason, but not as the only option.

The Obama administration has said restricting bathroom access for transgender students is a form of sex discrimination that could result in the loss of federal funding. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced in July that he was joining several other states in a lawsuit challenging the federal guidance.

‘Gender is Just One Part of A Person’

To many educators, this is all new territory to navigate.

“When it comes to gender there are a lot of things we have never had to think about as individuals,” said Baum, a former middle school science teacher.

Educators attended the Kent ISD training to gather more information. One local counselor, who did not want to be identified, said she attended because she works with a transgender student.

“Our students, all of them need to be understood for who they are,” the counselor said. “We, for the variety of needs our students have, try to learn as much as we can about them and ways to do what’s best for them in a school setting.”

It’s important for educators to remember beliefs about gender are all over the place. Many are deep-rooted, influenced by culture and religion, Baum said. Context matters in working with families, students and schools. He said it’s best to meet people where they are in their beliefs, start conversations and share different perspectives.

“We are all a constellation of identities: race and religions, ethnicity, culture, language, region, family structure, socioeconomic status, immigration status,” he told the group. “There are a lot of things that influence who we are and really impact a child’s gender, and their gender often impacts those things.”

But the end goal is to create safer environments where all students are respected. “Kids learn best when they are seen, when they are supported, and when they are safe. Part of that work is what’s related to gender,” Baum said.

Biologically speaking…

In creating gender-inclusive schools, vocabulary matters, as well as implementing new approaches.  All students should be given the opportunity to think about gender within conditions where gender is treated as just one aspect of being a person, he said.

Baum said the traditional binary gender model — meaning humans are either male or female — has never been accurate. One in 2,000 people is born intersex, with some biological characteristics of both males and females, he said. These are naturally occurring variations.

Joel Baum
Joel Baum

“The point is, there aren’t just two sexes,” Baum said. “I don’t want to confuse you with facts, but the fact is, there aren’t just two kinds of bodies. Yet a model that is based on that is what we use. That’s a bad model.”

Truth be told, he said, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to gender, and bodies are only just one aspect. There’s also the presentation and expression of gender and expectations society attaches to gender. Expectations morph and change over the years.

Baum urged the group to imagine schools supporting students to think about who they are in many different ways, and asking: “What are your identities? How do you identify? Let’s help you figure out what that means. We might not have kids walking around with this sense of nowhere to go.”

Steps to Creating Gender-Inclusive Schools

  • Have policies and rules emphasizing gender as an area of diversity protected and supported by the school
  • Provide staff training on gender diversity
  • Allow families to specify a child’s preferred name and pronouns
  • Identify staff members as leaders around gender diversity work and issues
  • Provide gender-neutral restrooms and facilities that provide options for privacy without stigmatizing any students
  • Provide easily available materials and information about gender diversity
  • Add signage and imagery celebrating gender diversity
  • Use procedures and forms that demonstrate a non-binary (not limited to just male and female) understanding of gender

Source: Gender Spectrum

Toys are toys, hair is hair, colors are colors

Marketing, social expectations and what’s considered the norm influence expression around “girl” and “boy” toys, colors, clothes, hair and expected behavior. But instead of seeing these norms as rules, educators can acknowledge them as patterns, Baum said, and patterns aren’t always consistent.

“We forget that we need to help kids understand you get to do and be and like and play with what you like to play with. There aren’t boy toys and girl colors and boy activities — they are all kid activities or human activities.”

Educators can help students look at patterns differently.

“When we think about gender-expression norms as rules and that if anyone breaks them they are doing something wrong … (we’ve) made the mistake,” he said.  “When we have young people step outside those patterns, rather than castigating them, maybe we need to do a little more celebrating of them and help them realize, ‘You are expanding all of our understandings of what this is all about.’”


Gender Spectrum

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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