For my regular visitors, if you find that this blog hasn't been updating much lately, chances are pretty good I've been spending my writing energy on my companion blog. Feel free to pop over to Home is Where the Central Cardio-pulmonary Organ Is, and see what else has been going on.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What people see

An atheist friend shared a graphic recently.  It portrayed what people see when they first get to know someone (nice words like kind, friendly, etc surround a line drawing of a person), then what they see when they find out that person is atheist (nice words replaced with nasty ones, as well as words like depressed, lost, confused, etc.).

I don't doubt her experience.  It's unfortunate that it happens, though when I showed it to my daughter, her response was "people don't necessarily think that *because* they are athiests."  She has a point, too.  There are atheists like my friend, and then there are ... the other kind.

I get what she's saying, though.  I get it, too, though obviously not because I'm atheist.

Then, my wonderfully talented daughter drew this for me to illustrate.


Extra snerk when we were adjusting the image on the computer and she added a potential caption of, "I'll bet those kids are home schooled!"

Oh, and in case you have trouble reading the text, the book reads "Sky Faerie Handbook," the big sign read "G*D HATES FAGS and foreigners are taking our jobs" with "Science is SIN" taped to one side and "1%" taped to the other.  Taped to the older daughter is a sign that reads "Future Mom."

The pistol dangling out of her pocket was a nice touch, as are the melon boobies on the little girl's doll. 

LOL!  Thanks, Sweetie.

update:  Wow!  Thanks, Blazing Cat Fur, for the plug and the traffic. :-)  I hope you all have enjoyed your visit.

If anyone would like to see more of my talented daugther's work, you can see some of it here, including her new online comic.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Non-judgemental Judging

In the last while, I've seen an interesting article being passed around.  Those who pass it on often include comments about how great it is, and if only everyone did this, or how glad they are that they've raised their own children this way, etc.

When I read the piece myself, I wanted to like it.  I really, really did.  It dealt with things that I see as major issues when it comes to how messed up our culture is when it comes to gender stereotyping.  In the end, however, I couldn't.  The article bothered me.  I read it again to try and pinpoint exactly what it was that bothered me about it.  Here is the link for you to read.  See if you can spot it yourself.

It's Ok to Be Neither; One Teacher's Approach to preventing gender bullying in a classroom

It's an interesting situation, but can you spot the problem?  I mean, besides the fact that Will Smith's son isn't named Trey, but Jaden (perhaps she meant the character's name, Dre).

Keep in mind, through all this, that we are talking about a child in first grade, which means she's about 6 years old.

For me, the problem is encapsulated in the following statement.

I have just begun to empathize with the challenges that gender-variant children deal with. For some it may seem inappropriate to address these issues in the classroom. My job is not to answer the questions “Why?” or “How?” Allie is the way she is (although asking those questions and doing some research in order to better understand was definitely part of my process). My job is not to judge, but to teach...

This teacher says it isn't her job to judge, yet that is exactly what she had done.  Little Allie, you see, is "gender variant" because she likes "boy" things.  The very concept of gender variance can only exist through gender stereotyping.  Though she devotes such effort to make Allie feel comfortable, she continues to make gender based assumptions and project them onto Allie. 

Let me explain.

The article beings by talking about Allie refusing to take off her hood in class.  It turns out to be because of her hair being in a ponytail instead of braids.  The teacher braids her hair for her.  Problem solved, right?

Nope.  Apparently, her wanting braids instead of a ponytail is part of what makes Allie "different" from other girls. 

The article is filled with all sorts of weird, inadvertently judgemental statements.  Let's start with this one.

Allison was biologically a girl but felt more comfortable wearing Tony Hawk long-sleeved T-shirts, baggy jeans, and black tennis shoes.

Excuse me, but what the hell is the connection between being "biologically a girl" and being more comfortable in t-shirts, baggy jeans or tennis shoes?  Right here, the teacher is the one being judgemental, as though her clothing choices were somehow a contradiction to her being "biologically a girl."

Her parents were accepting and supportive.
Of what?  The fact that she likes to wear practical clothing?  Good for them!  That's what 6 year olds SHOULD be wearing.  What the heck is she supposed to be wearing?  Little kids need to be wearing clothes that allow them to run and play and move around in comfortably.  Granted, it can be hard to find such clothes in the girls clothing section.  That's why we bought our daughters' clothes from the boys section.  It makes me wonder what the other girls in the class are wearing that makes little Allie's clothes so unusual.
Her mother braided her hair in cornrows because Allie thought it made her look like Will Smith’s son, Trey, in the remake of The Karate Kid.

Image source
This is what Jaden Smith looked like, at the time Karate Kid was made.  If this girl looks like that, I'd say she's very pretty!  As a prepubescent boy, Jaden (note the gender neutral name; does that make him gender variant, too?) could easily have been mistaken for a girl.  That's the thing with little kids.  Until puberty, there's very little difference in overall body shape between girls and boys.  With Allie being only in first grade, the differences would be even less obvious.

The main point, however, is that Allie liked her braids in cornrows because she thought it made her look like Jaden Smith.  Awesome!  She has good taste.

Oh, wait...  Jaden Smith is a boy.  Allie wanting to look like him is part of her problem. 

Back to the article.

She preferred to be called Allie.


Wait.  Is Allie supposed to be a boy's name?  Because this is apparently another sign of little Allie's deviance "gender variance."  Does this mean that every Samantha the likes to be called Sam, or Nicole that likes to be called Nic, etc. is, in this teacher's eyes, "gender variant?"  I've met women named Gay.  I've met one who used the name Sissy.  If using Allie instead of Allison makes this child gender variant, what do these people's names make them?

The first day of school, children who hadn’t been in Allie’s class in kindergarten referred to her as “he.”

Okay.  Kids who didn't already know Allie mistakenly thought she was a boy.  Since there's so little physical difference between boys and girls in first grade, we'll have to assume it's because of Allie's clothing and preferring to be called Allie instead of Allison.  To me, the solution is simple.  Correct them.  If they have a problem with that, then deal with their rudeness.

I didn’t want to assume I knew how Allie wanted me to respond to the continual gender mistakes, 
 Wait.  What?  She's 6 years old.  How many 6 year olds can even articulate the sorts of gender concepts this teacher is talking about? 

so I made a phone call home and Allie’s mom put me on speakerphone.


Oh, that poor child. She must have felt so horrible.  Bad enough the teacher calling her at home with something like this, but to have to answer her on the speakerphone in front of her mother?  How humiliating!  Does this teacher not remember what it's like to be 6 years old?

“Allie,” she said, “Ms. Melissa is on the phone. She would like to know if you want her to correct your classmates when they say you are a boy, or if you would rather that she just doesn’t say anything.”
Allie was shy on the phone. “Um . . .
tell them that I am a girl,” she whispered.

Here we have a major part of the problem.  At 6 years old, Allie probably isn't thinking very much about gender issues, but she is very clear about one thing.  She's a girl.  She knows she's a girl.  Now, for possibly the first time in her life, she's encountering the idea that there might be something wrong with that, or that there's something wrong with her.  It's bad enough that she's got kids in school mistaking her for a boy.  Now she's got a teacher calling her at home with the suggestion that hey, maybe they're right.  Gee, Allie.  You look so much like a boy, the other 6 yr olds in class that don't know you think you are one, therefore you might actually want to be called a boy.  

How does that even make sense?
The next day when I corrected classmates and told them that Allie was a girl, they asked her a lot of questions that she wasn’t prepared for: “Why do you look like a boy?” “If you’re a girl, why do you always wear boys’ clothes?” Some even told her that she wasn’t supposed to wear boys’ clothes if she was a girl.

Holy Smokes!  This woman has got some rude kids in her classroom.   Where these kids born in a barn, or what?  Sheesh!  Teach them some manners!
It became evident that I would have to address gender directly in order to make the classroom environment more comfortable for Allie and to squash the gender stereotypes that my 1st graders had absorbed in their short lives.

Wait.  What?

You know, it seems to me that the only person here who *doesn't* have a problem with gender issues is Allie.  Her teacher sure seems to want to project all sorts of gender problems rather then deal with the general rudeness of her other students.

For the next while, the teacher writes about the different things she did to challenge these gender stereotypes.  As I read them, I find myself reeling from agreeing with her to wanting to scream at her for making the problem worse.  She spends so much time making a big deal about gender.  In her efforts to say it's okay for boys to like pink or girls to like Hot Wheels, she has highlighted, rather then neutralized, the gendering of things, then projecting the gender of those things onto the children who prefer them over other things.

She does bring out an interesting issue, which is just how strongly our culture genders things. The most ridiculous things are being marketed in gendered ways.  It may make sense from a monetary point of view for a company to market a "boys" toy tool kit in realistic colours, while a "girls" tool kit will be in pinks, but at least the girls are getting a tool kit marketed to them. You'd think, after all this time, we wouldn't have blue "doctor" kits for boys and pink "nurse" kits for girls.  It's no better when items marketed for adults are also gendered.

As the mother of two daughters, one of my biggest peeves was overtly gendered toys, but even that didn't bother me as much as the differences in clothing between boys and girls.  Girls clothes weren't just brightly coloured and flowery.  They were pretty much useless.  They were made with fabrics that weren't at all sturdy, had frills and flounces that caught on things, and were more about fashion and style then comfort or practicality.  And the shoes!  The most insane thing I ever saw was high heeled sandals FOR BABIES!!  Girls shoes - even those that were supposed to be runners - were little more then decorations.  They were designed to mince around in and show off.  Running in them would be dangerous.

The solution was simple.  By buying my girls their clothes in the boys department, I could get them comfortable, practical clothing they didn't have to worry about tripping, tearing or getting dirty.  I got them shoes they could run in.  They could climb trees, hang upside down, run and jump to their hearts content.  This allowed them to be active, healthy children.  As for the pretty, frilly stuff?  Yeah, they had some of those, too (mostly hand-me-downs or gifts), and they wore them when the occasion warranted.

This did not make them "gender variant."

Then this teacher takes the whole thing one step further.

It's not about gender after all, you see.  It's about sexuality.  Because they're one and the same.  Or something.

Then I guided the direction of the conversation toward gender. As a class, we brainstormed a list of things that students thought were “OK” even though they might challenge society’s gender norms. Monica told us very matter-of-factly, “It’s OK for a girl to marry a girl,” and Jordan said, “My dad carries a purse and that’s OK!” At that point I explained that my father and my friend Wayne both call their man purse a “murse.” The children were fascinated.

Afterward, I had the students do a simple write-and-respond exercise. I asked them to pick one activity that they associated with girls and one associated with boys to write about and illustrate. Monica drew two brides in beautiful wedding gowns. Miguel drew a man with a purse slung over his shoulder.
 Bolding is mine.

We'll ignore for a moment that purses started off as something men carried.  According to this, there's no difference between girls marrying each other, and men carrying purses. While dealing with gender stereotypes, this teacher has made the leap to sexuality.  The students haven't.  These are six year olds.  They probably don't have much notion about the sexual nature of marriage.  To the teacher, by using these as examples (and clearly she saw no need to clarify this with her students), challenging the gendering of things is on the same playing field as same sex marriage.  A girl's bride is equal to a man's purse.  A gendered accessory.

Although things were getting better for Allie, she still faced many challenges. At the end of the school year, Allie’s mother told me a heartbreaking story. She said that for Allie’s recent birthday party, her grandmother had bought her colorful, formfitting clothes and then demanded them back when Allie did not like them. “Does she know she is a girl?” she yelled, and announced she would never buy her clothes again.
In this quote, Allie's grandmother is the bad guy for being upset Allie doesn't like the clothes Grandma bought for her, and yelling "does she know she is a girl?"  As we saw above, clearly Allie knows she's a girl.  She's just a girl who happens to like comfortable clothes.  We are to view the grandmother in a negative light because of this; fair enough.  But is this teacher any better for not accepting Allie's own assertion that she is, indeed, a girl, and not "gender variant?"

In her effort to battle gender stereotyping, this teacher is teaching her students that "it's okay to be different."  And she's right.  She's teaching her students that it's okay for boys to like dolls and girls to like cars.  And she's right.  Where she fails is in her insistence that any of this has to do with her students' gender or sexuality.  The very title of the piece, "It's Ok to Be Neither" exemplifies this.  It's okay to be a boy.  It's okay to be a girl.  But because Allie is a girl who likes "boy" things, this teacher has judged her to be neither.  "My job is not to answer the questions “Why?” or “How?” Allie is the way she is..." writes the teacher, and in saying this, she demonstrates that for all her efforts to be make Allie feel comfortable, it is clear that in this teacher's mind, there is something "different" with Allie.  "The way she is" is somehow not normal, different, gender variant.  Little 6 yr old Allie isn't free to be a girl who likes boys things.  She has been labelled and denied her own gender.

This bothers me.  A lot.  It also makes me very glad I am not a child growing up today.

Allie, you see, is a lot like me.  As a child, I hated "girl" things.  I hated dolls, but loved playing with bricks and cars.  My mother and I fought for years as she tried to stuff me into skirts and dresses.  I did keep my hair long, but it was more to spite my mother who, for some reason I never quite understood, insisted I should keep it short.  I wore boyish clothes and loved to slog in ditches and climb trees.  Yes, I even got mistaken for a boy as a child.  Though I knew the things I liked there "boy" things, and I revelled in being a "tomboy," the idea that I might actually be a boy because I liked them was unheard of.  In today's world, however, my enjoyment of such things would have people questioning my sexuality.  Not only that but, in our current culture, liking boy things means being "gender variant" and that I might not actually be a girl.

Which would be a real surprise to my husband.

Still, these children are learning that it's okay to be different.  They're learning that it's okay for boys to like dolls and girls to like trucks.  How can this be a bad thing?

If that's all it was, it wouldn't be a problem.  But that's not what's happening.  Allie, you see, is not a girl who likes boy things, and that's okay.  Allie is a girl who has been judged "gender variant" because she likes boy things.  The gender stereotypes are still in play, but what has changed is that now, Allie is no longer a girl.  She is "biologically a girl."  She is "gender variant."  She is "neither." Allie is not "okay" for who she is.  She is "okay" for what her teacher has labelled her as.

There is a difference, and it can have significant consequences.  Allie is just 6 years old.  What will this mean for her when she gets older?

Let me give some examples.

Eldest's best friend, Raider King, is a pretty awesome young man.  Thankfully, he's also a fairly level headed and self assured young man.  He is also a young man who dyed his hair bright pink.  He uses a lacy, fuzzy pink scarf Youngest made for him.  He sometimes wears nail polish.

Based on gender stereotyping, Raider King should be gay.  His own mother thinks he's gay.  He gets hit on by other men regularly.  With our current culture, as we insist that it's okay for men to like girly things, instead of just saying "he's a man who likes pink and wears nail polish," he is more likely to be told he MUST be gay, or at least bi, because he likes girly things.  His sexuality is constantly called to question based on our culture's gendering of such things as colour, make up and accessories.  He has no problem laughing it off and just carries on.  Good for him!

His girlfriend is not so lucky.  I'll call her Southern Belle here.

Though she is older then him, she is not as self assured.  In fact, she's downright confused.  She went through a school system much like Allie is going through right now.  The result?  Southern Belle has no idea what she is.  She is mostly convinced that she is a gay male trapped in a female body.  Why?  Because she likes boy things.  You see, things have binary genders.  Liking trucks and wearing pants is boy stuff, while liking dolls and dresses is girl stuff.  People, however, are not considered binary gendered anymore.  The word "gender" no longer refers to our sex, but how we think of ourselves in relation to sexuality.  Gender is now viewed as a sliding scale, and since gender is now associated with sexuality and behaviour rather then our physical bodies, girls who like boy things aren't really girls.  They're something else.  They're more boy than girl.  Or maybe boy AND girl.  Southern Belle, however, is not sexually attracted to other women.  She's sexually attracted to men.  Since, on the sliding scale, she isn't really a woman because she likes "boy" things, that must mean she's actually a man inside, and since she is sexually attracted to men and not women, that means she's actually a gay man.  In a woman's body.  So how does she deal with it?  She blogs a lot about her issues, refers to herself in both male and female pronouns, and writes a lot of gay porn fan fiction.  She is obsessed and tormented by her sexuality, and trying to figure out what it is.

No one told Southern Belle as she was growing up that it was okay to be a girl who likes boy things.  She grew up being told that being a girl and liking boy things made her different; made her not quite a girl, but not quite a boy, either.  She is in absolute psychological torment because of it.  This gender confusion of hers has been inflicted on her by the same culture little Allie is growing up in, along with all her classmates. 

To Allie's teacher, I would say this.  Stop labelling Allie.  Stop projecting your gender issues onto her.  Let her be a girl who likes to wear pants and hoodies.  Let her be a girl who likes to wear tennis shoes.  Stop inferring the sexuality of your students because of gender stereotypes associated with their clothes or toys.  They are boys and girls, and they can like whatever toys or clothes or colours they want.  If you really want to fight gender stereotypes, disassociate gender from these things, not from your students.  Your students are boys and girls.  They know they are boys and girls.  That is not a stereotype and does not need to be challenged.  If they have problems recognising their classmates as boys and girls, correct them.  If they are rude, deal with the rudeness.  Stop assigning gender to their behaviour.  You've skirted the edges of the solution, but you don't seem to realize that by labelling them things like "gender variant," you are in fact highlighting that there is something odd about a girl liking to wear pants or a boy liking a doll. 

If you really want to challenge gender stereotypes, touchy feely storybooks about how boys do girl things and girls do boy things, and that's okay! is not the way to do it.  The way to do it is to challenge the gender stereotype.  Purses are a girl thing?  Tell them about how men used to carry purses all the time, but women didn't.  Pink is a girl colour while blue is a boy colour?   Tell them about how pink started off as a boy colour while blue was considered a girl colour.  If they think of clothing styles as being boy or girl things, show them some historical fashions, such as the tunics, togas, robes, kilts, powdered wigs, lace cuffs, ruffs, and high heeled shoes.  Do they think extreme sports are boy things?  Show them some ancient pottery depicting women jumping bulls.  Or find examples of how things in North America might be gendered one way, but in other cultures they are gendered differently. 

By dealing directly with the stereotype, not only will you challenge their assumptions, but you will be teaching them how these stereotypes are the result of cultures, fads and trends.  Toys or clothes are not gendered because they have a gender of their own, like our bodies, but because cultures have somehow evolved to view them that way.  In the process of challenging their gender stereotypes, you'll also be teaching them history, sociology and so much more.  A 6 year old may not be able to understand the sexual connotations behind gender issues, but they can understand that clothing styles can change, or that what is understood one way in their culture might be understood differently in another.

Most importantly, the gendering of toys and cloths and other things has nothing to do with their own gender.  Their physical bodies are what they are, and their gender is not determined by things like toys or clothes.