Introduction to Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality

Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality

By Jody Sokolower

What if schools were places where children could explore their identities and passions without worrying about gender roles—without worrying about gender at all?

What if all groups marginalized by our history books—including women and LGBTQ people—were central to the content we teach and learn?

What if age-appropriate, supportive discussions of sexuality were welcome across grade levels and subject areas?

What if LGBTQ teachers and family members were embraced by schools as essential to the diversity that makes a community strong?

Questions like these inspired this book. We began work in the midst of increasing discussion about LGBTQ issues, fueled by campaigns to legalize gay marriage; recognition by school districts—in the face of a series of murders and suicides—that they had to do something about harassment of LGBTQ students; and the end of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

We are encouraged by the momentum, but concerned that “gay rights” is too narrow a focus and separated from an overall understanding of social justice. For example, we’re sure the “It Gets Better” project, with half a million videos by everyone from Ellen DeGeneres to President Obama telling LGBTQ students to hang on, has helped many youth who felt isolated and alone. But it relies on a very individualized way of looking at the problem—everyone should be nice to each other, and your life will be better once you’re out of school. That’s a pretty low bar, and it doesn’t say much about the ways that schools need to change.

We’re also concerned about the ironic reality of marriage equality surging forward as patriarchy—the systemic control of women by men—reasserts its grip: Abortion and even birth control are less and less available to the women who need them most; the growing economic disparities have plunged single mothers into crisis (one-third of households headed by women are below the poverty line); violence against women continues unabated.

Finally, as I write this introduction, the Black Lives Matter movement is erupting in city after city. Protests against the police murders of African Americans have brought to center stage the systemic racism that continues to plague our country—and our schools. The urgency of that movement reinforces our conviction that LGBTQ struggles cannot be separated from the fabric of all struggles for social justice. Making schools safe for LGBTQ students, staff, and families is inextricably interwoven with the fight against racism.

Feminism—A Broad View

We needed a frame for this book that encompassed all those concerns. And one more, too: We wanted to be sex positive. Age appropriate, but sex positive. We wanted to model an approach to gender, sexuality, and sex that is fluid and respectful of feelings and questions at all levels of development. One that presumes that knowledge, respect, and communication are the basis of healthy and fulfilling relationships—to oneself and to others.

As we reviewed the many articles that were submitted, we had far-ranging discussions about how to frame the vision for this book. The five of us on the editorial committee for Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality are spread across the country and the generations. We all brought something different to the table. In Rethinking Schools style, we wanted to avoid abstract and academic language. But we needed a way to talk about what we were fighting for, where we hope all this work is going.

The term feminism has had a conflicted history; in the 1970s, in particular, it was identified with a movement centered on the perspective and needs of white, middle-class, Western women. In the years since, radical scholar bell hooks and others have reclaimed the word and recast it in a broader, more progressive worldview.

In Feminist Theory, From Margin to Center, hooks defines feminism this way:

Feminism is not simply a struggle to end male chauvinism or a movement to ensure that women will have equal rights with men; it is a commitment to eradicating the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels—sex, race, and class, to name a few—and a commitment to reorganizing society … so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, expansion, and material desires.

Margaret Randall, who spent many years participating in, documenting, and analyzing revolutionary movements in Latin America, adds this:

Feminism is about … confronting and making useful the painful memories that surface in our lives. It is about the conception and uses of power, about relationships in the human, animal, and nature worlds—who holds power and over whom. It requires rethinking and reorganizing both our notions of society and society itself, so that we all may make our unique contributions and participate to our fullest potential.

Hooks and Randall are pointing to a better world for all of us. Our job, in part, is to figure out what that means for education and schools. Children need to be learning about sexism, gender, and sexuality within a framework that includes an understanding of racism and other forms of oppression, and looks honestly at history and current events. For example, we can’t talk about gay rights in the military—or violence against women in the military—without asking what the U.S. military is doing in the Middle East these days.

We want students to feel supported and empowered at school; we also want them to see themselves as part of a world that needs fixing and that they can help fix. We want boys to feel comfortable wearing necklaces and girls to believe they can become physicists. But we are also trying to move the conversation toward something bigger—toward the vision that hooks and Randall articulate.

Teaching the Unspeakable

Most of the articles in this book concern topics often seen as taboo at school—including gay people, transgender people, and sex. Responding to questions from students or planning a unit can raise a lot of anxiety; all of us have been there. It’s easy to worry that once the conversation starts, all hell will break loose. But it’s a mistake to think that silence is neutral. Or that kids, even preschool kids, aren’t already exposed to and thinking about these topics.

The key, as with so much of good teaching, lies in building community in the classroom from the beginning. In constantly teaching and modeling thoughtful, honest, and empathic conversation. So much of teaching young children, for example, is translating content into what is developmentally appropriate. This book is filled with master teachers describing concretely how they do that at every grade level and what rich discussions emerge as a result.

For the sake of all our children, it’s critical to break the silences, but please do it in a way that works for you, given your own history, experience, and school situation. There is an enormous variation in school climates. A unit that will be welcomed and supported at one school could get you fired at another. We hope you will collaborate whenever possible, and think about and prepare yourself ahead of time for possible problems. You know your own situation best. This is not a test; we hope it feels like an invitation.

The articles are as explicit about content and teaching as we could make them. We wanted it to be easy to see what the author-teacher said and did, so it would be easy to see how to apply or adapt their work. Many of these articles pushed us to be more self-reflective. When an article made us nervous, we tried to ask ourselves why: How did it relate to our own history or the school where we teach? What would it take to move beyond our fear? We were lucky to have each other as sounding boards. It’s hard to do this work alone; we hope you find others in your school community for discussion, collaboration, and support.

In Praise of Fluidity

In general, the articles in this collection reject binary thinking. “Are you pregnant?” is a fairly yes/no question, but almost everything else is more complicated. We lean toward fluidity, and use the terminology current in queer and gender studies.

Take, for example, our perspective on sex, gender, and sexuality. Sex refers to the biological differences between male and female, which scientists now see as more of a continuum than a binary. Far more people have complex combinations of sex characteristics than society recognizes.

Gender is socially constructed, in the same way that race is. In other words, society has created definitions for “masculinity” and “femininity.” Although they are made up, they have an enormous impact on all our lives. Some people feel comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth; some people feel deeply that they are the other gender than the one assigned to them based on external sex characteristics. Some people have a fluid approach to gender—they feel differently at different stages of their lives. Others reject being gendered entirely.

Sexuality refers both to sexual feelings in general and with whom you feel drawn toward intimacy. Sex, gender, and sexuality are different for everyone—some people feel very strongly at one end of a continuum or another, others experience themselves as in the middle or not on a line at all. When working with children and young people, we need to allow them to be who they are and to support their safe exploration. What’s harmful is being critical, silencing, or making assumptions. Some children who explore identifying as the other sex grow up to be trans men or women, while others do not. Being comfortable with ambiguity is key.

The teachers writing about sex education in RSGS are focused on being age appropriate and sex positive. It’s important for students to learn about the risks associated with unequal, un-negotiated, and unprotected sex, but we oppose sex education that is based in fear and blanket prohibition. “Just Say No” is as ineffective and reactionary in relationship to sex as it is to drugs. And, although comprehensive sex education is far better than abstinence-only models, we are also critical of approaches based on the harm-reduction models of drug education—“It’s best not to have sex until you’re married, but if you must… .”

Positive sexual intimacy requires self-respect, equality, maturity, communication, affection, and protection from communicable diseases, but it is one of the great joys of life. We should not be teaching children that it is only fraught with peril. In Chapter 3, Lena Solow, Ericka Hart, Valdine Ciwko, and Jody Sokolower offer ways to provide students with age-appropriate, accurate information and lots of opportunity to discuss it.

Before We Get Started …

If you glance at the table of contents, you’ll see how we decided (after a few false starts) to organize Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality. There is a short introductory chapter that sets the tone. Chapter 2 focuses on what it takes at different grade levels to create a nurturing classroom for all children in terms of these issues. Chapter 3 centers on curriculum.

Then we have Chapter 4, “When Teachers Come Out.” RSGS is essentially a book of curriculum, but we couldn’t ignore the dozens of coming out at school stories we received as submissions. That topic deserves a book of its own; we’ve narrowed it to a short chapter here. But we don’t mean to minimize the significance of out teachers. At too many schools, there’s a Gay-Straight Alliance and some effort to support LGBTQ students, but it’s not safe for teachers to come out. If a school is not safe for LGBTQ teachers, staff, and parents, it’s not safe for students, either.

In Chapter 5, parents, teachers, activists, and administrators share their stories about advocating and organizing beyond classroom walls. Finally, Chapter 6 focuses on integrating LGBTQ content into teacher education programs and ongoing teacher education.

This book is just a beginning. There are many critical teaching pieces and perspectives that are missing. We hope you will discover new ideas and approaches, and that they will inspire you to develop and teach new curriculum, to organize and collaborate in creative new ways. Then, please, write about your work and contribute to this exciting, ongoing effort.

A final note: Student names have been changed throughout.