Gender and sexual orientation in the classroom

In honor of Women’s History Month and gay marriage being almost legalized in Nebraska (so close!), I’ve been kicking around this post in my head for a while.

Wording and phrasing about gender and sexual orientation is something I struggle a lot with in my classes. On the one side, I am someone who believes that a person should be able to express their identity however they please. Truly, it makes no difference to me if a student is GLBT. (Not that I don’t care – I very much do, but I only get to make decisions about my life, not anyone else’s.) I try very hard to make it clear through my statements and actions that I am welcoming to people of all sexual orientations and gender expressions – probably even more than my students even realize exist. I know that some of my students have to be GLBT; that’s just statistics. But I also don’t want to out them before they’re ready, and I want them to know that I am 212% an ally. I freely discuss my friendships with lesbians (mostly through roller derby) and gay men (mostly through college), and I also have some transpeople and a few gender free friends in my life. In other words: I try not to assume that everyone is straight and their gender matches their biological appearance.

However, my sticking point is that regardless of my personal beliefs on gender identity, expression, and sexual orientation, many of my students’ life experiences are based on their gender. Society is really, really good at enforcing gender roles, even if those roles have expanded slightly over the years. When I was a little girl (elementary age), I truly thought that I was weird because I was a girl and good at math. Everyone knew that boys were good at math and science and sports, and girls were good at reading and doing house stuff and taking care of babies. Duh.

Obviously, as I got older I reconciled my incorrect assumptions about who is naturally good at what. What I still struggle with is that boys appear to be naturally better at some things than girls, and vice versa. One of my favorite Mythbusters episodes looked at who was better at throwing a baseball, males or females. It turns out that males are dominant… until they have to throw with their non-dominant arm, in which case the results are very similar between the two sexes. Rather, it appears that males are better at throwing because they are more likely to practice throwing a ball from a young age, as ‘playing catch’ is a stereotypical male activity. When Jamie and Adam compare world-class pitchers, their form is the same.

As a teacher of teenagers, the differences between genders become more pronounced. My female students do not have the same life experiences as my male students, and vice versa. Socially, there are different images being pounded into their brains of what is socially acceptable as beautiful and what’s not. There are different expectations of behavior. Different expectations of career choice. Different expectations of everything, really. And then there are the unpleasant statistics about male behaviors towards females.

Another major issue is that I teach Spanish. Spanish in itself is a gendered language; you can’t get away from it. Even if you can avoid using pronouns thanks to Spanish’s subject-verb ambiguity, you get stuck on the adjectives. Do you just pick the default masculine? I have no idea.

So at the end of the day, I always try to figure out, how can I best meet the needs of all my students? How do I acknowledge that there are major differences in the perceptions of men and women, and that most people ascribe to the gender binary, without feeling like I might be excluding that one kid who says ‘no, this doesn’t describe me’? How do I show, not just tell, my students that my room is a safe space for freedom of gender expression and sexual orientation? How do I reliably keep my room a safe space for those students?

I don’t have the answers, but at least I’m thinking about them.

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