Gender In The Classroom; A Two Part Blog Series.
As The Day Of Learning approaches, we offer you two perspectives on gender expression in the classroom. Part One is from a Teaching Artist, Kelindah, who identifies as non-binary. Part Two, written by Anju, a Teaching Artist who is cisgendered, will be released early next week.
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In Trans I Trust, Kids Adjust
Every 10 weeks I enter a new classroom, teal hair preceding me, “Out for Safe Schools” and “Black Trans Lives Matter” badges on display, pronoun necklace facing out, with a polka-dotted suitcase full of art supplies. These are my armor, supplies for my They Agenda.
Mx. Kelindah, I write on the board.
“Is that an X?”
“Are you a boy or a girl?”
“Why is your hair blue? Why are your eyebrows blue?”
I draw a venn diagram, one circle holds Ms, the other Mr. I write Mx. in between, or outside of, or on another page entirely.
“Oh! Mx. like mix! I’m a mix of boy and girl too!”
Assessing the room quickly, judging by the facial expressions of the grown-ups present, I decide how much of my gender to bring into the room. What bargains and boundaries will I set this time?
I don’t always use the word trans to describe myself in the classroom because to most cis people it still implies a medical procedure to transition from one binary to another– a dichotomy in need of disruption. Perhaps I’m just not ready yet. For now, Mx. it is.
Tranifest truth, Mx.
Can’t teach if you’re pretending–
My experience of gender asks for more options and unsettles the principles that construct our sordid system: that there are only two genders, that people of those genders must display certain behaviors, that those genders are based on genitals, and that those assigned male at birth are superior.
These violent principles pave the pathway for colonization and fuel white supremacy₁. A capitalist, heterosexist project, the cis-tem relies on the nuclear family as a unit of labor.
Meanwhile, nonbinary trans people, in all their nuance, have always been here existing and resisting₂. What if we could appreciate this nuance as if there are as many genders as there are beings on Earth?
I should wear a sign
Make the subway cis cringe, squirm
“Gender is a hoax”
Some days, I wear my Mx. with nonchalance. Others, I just want to find the rare, mythical, single-stall gender neutral bathroom in the school and hide.
The need to come out
Over, over, and over
And when’s it over?
My whiteness, my able body, my US citizenship and other privileges allow for my relative safety within my transness; I feel a responsibility to be out in whatever ways I have the capacity for that day. Some wonder why my transness is even relevant to an art classroom.
Because pretending to be a gender that I’m not makes me a less present teacher.
Because I’ve been the kid who felt like the options were lackluster, forced myself to wear “girl” until is falseness carved a cave of my chest. And I know the kid who cringes at every aggressive “listen up, boys and girls!” I’ve met the teacher who doesn’t have the language but is burdened by the dysphoria at every reflection.
And the rest of you who have to adjust? I know, it’s hard to shift your syntax. But you know what’s probably harder? Being trans in a structure built by binaries that tells you your magic is burden.
Dysphorix the Clown:
Sing love songs into
A mirror that deceives you
I have to hope that if I’m truthful about who I am, I might offer those gender creative young people₃ an alternative to dysphoria, an artful expression of otherwise.
To smash the cistem
Requires a team effort, To
Break the binary
I wonder how we educators might do it differently…
- Make your language more inclusive: “boys and girls!” Try, “artists, scientists, readers:” words that honor what they can be over what they have been assigned.
- Resist assigning pronouns before asking and the urge to rely on gendered compliments. Try using student’s names more often and neutralize observations: “This is Henry’s piece. I notice that Henry explored the element of texture in this collage.”
- Share examples of gender variant role models₄ and artists who express gender in a range of ways beyond the binary. Representation enables reflection and expands what “normal” is!
- Challenge gendered assumptions: when you hear, “only girls wear nail polish,” ask questions to dig deeper: “what makes you say that?” “does anyone else feel differently?”
- Slow down your speech and be accountable to what you say. Did you mess up a student’s pronouns? Apologize, correct yourself, move on. Dwelling on it to assuage your own guilt puts the trans person in an uncomfortable position. Practice on your own time so it doesn’t happen again.
- Introduce pronouns early and often, through a game or by identifying the pronouns of role models you introduce students to. (I know a handful of 3-year-olds who ask their stuffed animals for their pronouns.) It can be as easy as asking someone’s name or their wellbeing.
Trust, children adjust. And perhaps if we grant them opportunities to take agency over their own identities, exposure to an array of gender expressions, and affirmation when they offer us ever more gender-expansive language, they won’t have to.
Kelindah Schuster is a teaching and performance artist based in Brooklyn. They grew up in Indonesia and Singapore and received their BA in theater and gender studies from Vassar College. Kelindah teaches drama and visual art with Marquis Studios and BAX and believes in collaborative art-making as radical community care. They perform as Theydy bedbug, a nonbinary drag creature who explodes gendered stereotypes and reminds us #NoMeansNo.
₁: Morales, Ezra. “I’m a Trans Student of Color. Supporting Me Means Fighting White Supremacy.” GLSEN, www.glsen.org/blog/im-trans-student-color-supporting-me-means-fighting-white-supremacy.
₂: Diavolo, Lucy. “People Have Had Non-Binary Genders for THOUSANDS of Years.” Teen Vogue, TeenVogue.com, 20 June 2017, www.teenvogue.com/story/gender-variance-around-the-world.
₃: “SO YOUR CHILD IS NONBINARY: A Guide For Parents.” Life Outside The Binary, 30 Aug. 2014, www.lifeoutsidethebinary.com/post/96149381358/so-your-child-is-nonbinary-a-guide-for-parents
₄: Preston, Ashlee Marie. “Meet 10 black transgender figures from history who are models for resilience.” Mic, Mic Network Inc., 28 Feb. 2018, www.mic.com/articles/188146/meet-10-black-transgender-figures-from-history-who-are-models-for-resilience#.zM0eSix9p.