Hello, I’m sorry if this is only vaguely related to the use of non-gendered pronouns but I’m in a spot of bother with regards to my general gender-based bewilderment. I am trying to train as a primary school teacher and have recently been increasing my preparatory teaching experience. I am somewhat androgynous and use the title Dr so children are intrigued to know if I am m/f. When they ask what I am, I can’t tell them, but know non-binary should be explained. How do I address this?
Hello Dr. Anonymous! (hehe)
First, congratulations on the Dr. situation! I often joke that getting my doctorate was primarily motivated by the gender-neutral title, which I sprinkle with gay abandon on all airline tickets, phone bills and the like.
I work in the field of teacher education, so your question is of great interest to me. In my life, it’s true to say that being a non-binary transgender person has diverted me away from K-12 classroom teaching and into higher education for equity and mental health reasons. There may have been pockets of acceptance around the time when I was thinking of entering a B.Ed. program but by and large K-12 schools have been and continue to be some of the most gender-normalizing places. This was my impetus for getting involved in teacher education practice and research on gender and sexual diversity: to open the doors for people like me to make choices other than the one I made out of concern for my own safety and well-being.
Of course, there are many queer and/or transgender teachers out there (including non-binary ones), and many are rocking it out as best as they can and having all kinds of wonderful impact in the lives of children and youth. However, to my knowledge, the greatest success and longevity in the career still come to those who benefit the most from homonormativity or gender normativity (e.g., a cis-gender woman monogamously married to another cis-gender woman, or a heterosexual transgender man, or people with children they can talk about). This doesn’t mean being a teacher isn’t hard for these folks (it is), just that it’s differently hard given that their life stories are often more intelligible to the wider world. (Intelligibility can, however, be its own curse and mental health risk if what you ‘pass’ as doesn’t match your identity.)
All this is to say that I hear you loud and clear. And I completely agree: non-binary should be explained to children. Full stop. Moreover, what should be explained to – and modelled for – children is that gender is an all-you-can-eat buffet. You shouldn’t have to be a boy or become a boy to do the things that you’d like to do, unless being a boy is something that you really, really want. Kids in a school with a lot of support for transitioning students (but that only recognize kids who desire a binary transition) and schools where the wonderful, life-giving possibility of binary transition is completely unthinkable – both may be at risk of shutting down many kids’ gender-diverse desires. Let us as teachers throw open the gender gates for every child by, for example, not setting up free-time as a choice between soccer and art, but between clay and painting. Let’s put out different kinds of toys on the carpet depending on the day so that sometimes everyone plays with trucks, and everyone with dolls. Let’s point out how gender is at work in a story about a two-parent, heterosexually-headed family and not just read the Sissy Duckling. And let’s do these things before and regardless of whether any transgender kid ever appears in our particular school or classroom.
Dr. Anonymous, when you say “I can’t tell them” I’d like to know more. I’m lucky to live in Ontario, Canada where we have protection from discrimination on the basis of gender expression and gender identity aka the professional and age-appropriate disclosure of one’s gender identity to a child who asks about it would likely be protected under the law. Someone telling you not to do this would be running afoul of that law. However, it sounds like you might not have any such protection to fall back on.
Even before these laws were passed, however, kids would consistently ask me the question “are you a boy or a girl?” and I would reply ‘neither,’ or ‘I haven’t decided yet today. Will you ask me again later?’ or something else that wasn’t necessarily true (I generally wake up feeling like a non-binary transgender person). The point wasn’t that it was true or false, but that it opened the gates and caused a lot of productive thinking/face-scrunching. It also meant that I didn’t always have to launch into a giant explanation of what ‘non-binary transgender person’ means. This is one route. Or, you could deflect with a question: “why do you need to know about this? What else would you like to know about me? What would it mean if I said I was a girl or a boy? How would that change how you think about me as a teacher? Why do people have to be one or the other?” In other words, this can become a teachable moment, to whatever extent you are comfortable.
Pronouns are another matter, and teaching remains a fairly conservative profession. If you feel comfortable and supported by your program, you could work with your practicum coordinator to find a school with a queer- and trans-positive culture where you could be out and have your preferred gender pronoun respected. Regardless of the law, there could be internal diversity and equity policies in your university that you could cite when arranging a meeting about this, and even a diversity officer whose support you could draw on. If you don’t feel supported in your program, your practice teaching placement could be difficult and require some tough choices. If you bond with your supervising teacher and want to enlist their support, you could access some of my other resources on coming out, particularly this one on explaining preferred pronouns to someone with little knowledge of gender diversity issues.
To close, I’ll say that the problem you are facing is real and that there is a whole constellation of lovely folks working on this, who I’m proud to call my colleagues and friends. The hope driving my academic teaching and research is that questions like yours will become unnecessary, and that the teaching profession can be a gender buffet some day.
Warmly, and write back anytime,