I read recently about a Dunedin intermediate that listened to its students when they said everyone should have the option to wear pants. The Principal decided why not ditch all gender rules and just have uniform options for everyone. It’s a great idea to have choice but do students really have ‘free choice’? I get that it gives girls the option to wear pants, that’s great but do guys feel just as excited to wear kilts or culottes? (does anyone get excited about culottes?) It is an important step and great that a school leader listened to students.
My experience of gender norms in schools goes way beyond uniform. I think body hair is the gender marker for most children, especially for girls. If girls have short hair at primary or intermediate they are constantly asked ‘are you a boy or a girl’ – the correct answer is ‘yes’ in case you ever get asked this question. I did all the time when I was at primary school, it never bothered me but it got a bit annoying at times, so I would just tackle harder in bull-rush or soccer and let my actions do the talking.
High schools are a bit tougher on the gender thing. I’m not sure why young adults need to be clothed in gender coded clothes for their education. I still don’t understand why pants are so scary for girls schools or why boys schools panic over guys with long hair. Because a gender ‘neutral’ option is a boys option. This is my point. Society is still basically scared of males being feminine or expressing femininity. Guys have such limited gender expression beyond masculinity in our school cultures and uniforms (including hair regulations) don’t help.
So I hope high schools start following the lead of primary and intermediates but I secretly hope we move away from uniforms completely. There are other ways to express school pride, identity and unity beyond making everyone look the same. That is not valuing diversity, it is fear of difference.
I’ve noticed a bit of a pattern throughout my life with how people react to me. People often assume that body image just relates to size and shape, but my experience has to do with my hair.
Being the child of a hairdresser it seemed natural I would at some point do some experimenting. My first radical change came at university and my brother did a similar experiment. I got dreadlocks and my bro shaved all his hair off. Both of us noticed the immediate effect on how people reacted to us. I had the better deal I think. I had complete random strangers – with dreadlocks, smile, say hi, want to talk about music and life and just generally I seemed to gain entry into groups without needing to do much. My brother however found female shop owners avoiding eye contact, refusing to serve him and generally perceived as a threat. Needless to say, going out for coffee together was interesting.
I then grew my hair long for many years and just blended into the generic background. That was until the start of this year when I got over it and went for the full chop. People were surprised but positive. So then I decided why not go really short and messy, to the edge of respectable margins of femininity.
That was my cucumber moment. People just freaked out like in Cats vrs Cucumbers on youtube. People who weeks before would say hi, talk to me stepped aside and looked at me suspiciously, they stopped short of hissing but I might have detected the odd growl. I could tell I had crossed the line and fallen out of the respectable image others held of my gender – people, like those cats saw me differently and I was a little perplexed for a while. But now I’m ok with my new cucumber status. Because I actually tried the cucumber thing with my own cat, I was all primed with a camera to catch out but he didn’t freak. In fact he was rather disinterested and looked at me like what is this thing doing here that looks like it could be food but isn’t. I suspect my cat has never encountered a snake unlike some of the other cats in the USA. So being a cucumber itself isn’t the problem, it’s the association with threat and fear.
So I’m embracing my cucumberness, I might even become as cool as one.
Today I talked with four different young people about some pretty big stuff. Three guys in a row were trying to figure out how to talk to family about what there were going through. One had already tried and had been told they were ‘wrong about themselves’. Another had shared parts and the third was wondering about how to ease Mum and Dad into the bigger picture.
Seeing a counsellor at school can be pretty daunting, so it was really great when one guy said ‘wassup bro’ as he left in a friendly acknowledgement to the other guy waiting to see me. It was a simple transaction of recognition that left me feeling at peace and sad that others might be out there without a support network.
The thing is I’m working at an ‘all girls’ school and these guys are all on their own unique journeys of gender identity but all of them see themselves as male. It is interesting listening to what their main needs and concerns are about school, compared to what I hear teachers and parents sometimes naming as the ‘big issues’. Sometimes they overlap but I’d like to share just a couple of simple things that have come through generally from school students. This is by no means a checklist but might help as a starting point:
- Understand that how someone identifies in terms of gender/sex does not determine their sexuality. Who people are into might change, it might not. There is no ‘formula’ for balancing it all out into some kind of common expression.
- Asking personal questions about people’s bodies and ‘parts’ and whether they are going to have (or have had) surgery is not cool – neither is trying to ‘feel’ what’s down there! Looking up horror stories online and sharing can be traumatic and upsetting. Asking what pronouns or names people prefer is a more respectful and easy way to show acceptance and support. You can also look at supporting someone to talk to a GP about options, for example, getting onto hormones that help the body change gears and become more like the preferred sex/gender.
- Recognise they are the same person so, if they come out as trans*, they do not get some other downloaded identity and show up the next day a completely different person. Keep calm and carry on what you talked about the day before – also respect their privacy – do not tell people unless they have said it’s ok – but I’d still be careful.
- Get some GOOD information – go to the RainbowYOUTH website or check out whatever local LGBT+ support services you have. Remember, if you go to overseas sites for information, it might not apply to New Zealand.
- Finally – for parents: Young people want to protect parents from hurt and upset, but they also want your support and it’s ok to be confused, not understand or not know how to respond. Something I encourage any parent to do is to notice the clues young people give about the sexuality or gender and not to dismiss them. ASK: ‘Are you questioning your sexuality?’ ‘Are you questioning your gender?’ Hugs are a good response and so are tears – hugs also allow you to talk while not looking at the person, a handy and often overlooked benefit. Get support, again RainbowYOUTH has excellent resources. Maintaining privacy is really important. In my role as a counsellor, one of the biggest differences to the well-being of young trans people is parent support, and there IS support for parents.
While big changes like bathrooms and uniform options are important, it is in the daily trans-actions we have with each other that respect and support are generated.
Language is interesting. Humour is something we all might recognise in the modern world as describing something amusing, that might make us laugh. But understanding where the word humour comes from gives insight to how language is connected to the ways knowledge is constructed.
Humour comes from Latin and means ‘moisture’ which then passed into English to mean bodily fluids – humours, of which there were 4 and were connected to moods and functions of different organ systems.
For a long time, there was no distinction between the sexes, there was one human template. There were variations on humours and degrees of temperature that defined the spectrum of difference. Male was at the hot end and female at the colder end of the spectrum.
The science and medical profession of the time found ‘evidence’ of the inferiority of women and other cultures and used it to maintain social order. What I find interesting, I suppose, is while modern anatomy and physiology have moved on since the 17th and 18th century, some of the assumptions and ideas live on. I mean, just look at how hard women had to fight just to be able to compete at the Olympics –they weren’t able to run in the marathon until 1984, nearly 100 years after the start of the modern games. You can’t tell me that it was a misprint in the programme.
Scientific knowledge has a level of power to it, to define the truth about something and this is what is interesting to think about and notice. That is, how various branches of science over time have categorised people and other species, given them particular qualities, limits and justified practices of exclusion, exploitation and mistreatment.
I wonder what science will look like in 300 years. What truths and facts will be as laughable to that generation as the idea of blood being turned into semen by body heat. Now that is humorous.
I remember my Mum telling me how they used to make the girls at school kneel down to check the length of their skirts. That was in the 1950’s and times have changed – or have they?
When I read about Henderson High School enforcing the knee length uniform rule I was transported back in time for a moment. If skirts are such a problem and knees are such a distraction then why not just get rid of skirts all together?
I suspect schools want to put their fingers in their ears and go ‘nanananana I can’t hear you’ if someone tries to point out the teenagers are sexual beings. So I make a plea to young people in schools of all genders, if your school does not have choice available ask why not? Start a conversation with your health teacher about how guys and girls are similar rather than different. Challenge statements from teachers that say ‘all guys or all girls’ are like that.
Why are schools so determined to keep boys and girls so clearly defined through uniforms? What might happen if students all wore the same thing? What if ALL schools had the same uniform?! Now that is a question schools probably want to skirt around.
If you are at student at a secondary school in New Zealand there is a good chance you’ve been taught health. I really like the idea of Hauora – total well-being, our being is more than just our bodies. I remember health when I was at school but sex education will be forever etched in my mind as nothing but awkward and I’m pretty sure I came away with the impression that sex would result in some terrible disease or pregnancy or both. But what I also remember is not much was said about sexuality or gender. I think the words lesbian and gay were mentioned but that was it. But I think I was lucky to even hear that.
So there was nothing for anyone questioning gender, sexuality or even the idea that you might not be entirely sure. But there is now a great resource, it’s called Inside Out and it is free to download and use. It explains and sheds light on all those places some teachers never go, like intersex, transgender, bisexual and does it with simple straight up real people. If your school hasn’t found their way to this fantastic resource send the link to your teacher and ask them to take a look. Or ask rainbow youth to pass it on. Knowledge helps to reduce fear and ignorance and sometimes that is all some people need, a chance to ask questions and get a bit more understanding.
I know many young people who find who they are is never acknowledged or represented. My experience is that while sexuality (lesbian gay and to some extent bisexuality) is talked about transgender and intersex is not and we need to open up the conversations, let’s get this rainbow full spectrum.
Finally if you really want to test your teachers knowledge ask them what a gubernaculum is. It’s also a really great scrabble word.
In 1989 Marty McFly travelled to the future. The mysterious date was 21st October 2015. That date has arrived. No hoverboards and no self lacing shoes, but plenty of other tech was spot on. Some of the fashion looks suspiciously 1980’s but with sheen and shine added. I was also a bit excited yesterday about the new Star Wars movie – The Force Awakens trailer being released. I think I freaked a few people out at work with the intensity of my enthusiasm.
When thinking future I imagine technology. I imagine what humans might be wearing and sorry Star Trek fans – it isn’t a lycra onesie. But I hope gender kind of breaks down in the future that clothing is about what works, does the job.
So how is functionality defined in clothing? Movement? Comfort? I’m not really sure anymore after talking to some insightful young people at school. They came to me about wanting the uniform reviewed. It seems we kind of got stuck back in time with dresses and skirts and this strange third option called culottes. Think skirt but with a parting in the middle, so it looks like a skirt but is supposed to ‘function’ like shorts…yeah right.
My point is no-where in any future movie do you see culottes. I don’t think Daisy Ridley will be taking down storm troopers in culottes in The Force Awakens. Culottes are a bad compromise sometimes you have to pick a side – the middle is not comfortable. To offer truly functional options there needs to be shorts and pants as well as skirts, dresses, tunics and multiple shirt options – short and long sleeve.
But maybe the really radical future idea is no uniform. At the very least not prescribing uniform based on someones hormones, chromosomes and those bits only health teachers get to talk about.
When you go to the supermarket to buy stuff, you expect to read labels. I mean if you want shampoo it makes good sense to have shampoo bottles labelled so you don’t accidentally put toilet cleaner or dish washing liquid in your lovely locks.
There has been both a move toward creating more labels for people and resisting labels and trying to ‘unstick’ some that have become old, worn and perhaps not so helpful in understanding what is behind the packaging. In particular the language around sexual diversity has exploded, (I’ve already done something on ice-cream but this is slightly different). The supermarket equivalent could be breakfast cereal or chips. Back in the day there were only 3 flavours of chip – plain, chicken and salt n vinegar…don’t ask me how chicken got in there, still a mystery. Gender and sexuality for years were pretty simple packets. Two flavours of gender and two of sexuality – three if you were in a sophisticated supermarket, I mean environment. Someone who might best represent a label free upbringing is iO Tillett Wright. Functional diversity has followed a bit of the same journey with disabled and ‘normal’ being the limits of language in the past. I like more options to define ourselves but I’m not convinced that infinite labels are the way to go.
People are not consumer products, although maybe some might want to stick warning labels on at times. But whether we like it or not labels for people exist. Pretending we don’t notice people based on certain characteristics is sort of like saying all cats are the same…try bringing home a full grown tiger and pretend you got it from the SPCA! Anyway, my point is noticing difference is fine, it’s absolutely normal and natural to observe things that ‘stand out’. Our eyes or other senses are drawn to this so if we are in an environment where everything is the same then the slightest difference will stand out.
For example, if you are at a ‘single sex’ school, with all girls wearing skirts or boys wearing shorts then people might naturally start to notice alternative forms of diversity. Probably the most common thing we notice is ethnicity but what then? Well I suggest our ideas about what that could mean might start filtering assumptions, beliefs or ideas about whether this person is someone ‘like me’. Sometimes it might be hard to know but at some level we’ve probably already put some knowledge into motion to assess if this other human being could be someone I can relate to, communicate with, have a laugh with, feel safe with?
What I wonder about is the role of communication in all of this. If someone looks ‘foreign’ either because of their ethnicity OR because they function differently (e.g. in a wheelchair with a different kind of communication device) our first instinct is probably related to ‘how will we communicate?’ So I think enough of the labelling, or trying to label more things about people – I’m already confused but talk to me about bikes, lego, sport and science fiction and I don’t care what planet you are from you are one of my kind!