Gender Justice – Beyond the gender binary

This blog post was written by Anna Mullany. She worked for 6 years at the Women’s Freedom Center, an organization working to end domestic and sexual violence in Windham County, Vermont. As the youth educator at the WFC she designed and facilitated workshops and classes with students of all ages around healthy relationships, gender, consent, bystander intervention, media literacy, and rape culture. In 2017, she left the WFC to pursue a PhD in Public Health and continue her work around gender violence. She was a faculty member at the Community College of Vermont in Bennington teaching Race, Ethnicity, Class, and Gender in the United States. Anna also continues to create curriculum and lead adult workshops around issues of gender justice and pushing back against oppression.

To work towards gender justice we need to move beyond the gender binary. It starts with our very own thinking. This post provides materials and reflection questions that will help us examine the way we think.

What story are we telling our kids about gender?

The story of gender starts before our child is even born. The question, “are you having a boy or a girl?” flows out of people’s mouths with excitement to expecting mothers. Although seemingly benign, the question serves as an example of what we understand as the gender binary which is the classification of gender and sex into two distinct and disconnected forms of masculine and feminine. A piece of this binary is the rigid gender boxes that our kids will no doubt will be placed in whether that be by ourselves, relatives, friends, peers, coaches, schools systems, church, etc.

As parents we most likely have, and do also experience being regulated to gender boxes in various ways throughout our lives. These boxes illustrate how society thinks we should act based on the sex we were born with or the sex people perceive we were born with. There are really only two options for gender expression that are commonly accepted – you are either a boy or a girl. This comes loaded with harmful prescribed roles. When people step out of these roles they may experience name calling, shaming, bullying, or even violence.

Many people experience the gender binary and boxes as problematic. Maybe we don’t personally identify within the binary and/or we have been forced to socially conform in ways that are oppressive. The boxes limit the potential our children have to fully express themselves. For example, boys and men are forced to conform to social expectations that don’t allow them to express a full range of emotions and if they do are often called a “faggot” or “pussy.” Girls and women are not allowed to engage in certain activities because it wouldn’t be “ladylike.”

It is pertinent that as parents, we seek to understand the harmful impacts of coded gender roles and the difference between sex and gender. We need to learn from our own experience as well as those in our lives that are gender non-conforming and identify in diverse ways. That learning will equip us to teach the children in our lives about the diversity of gender and support them as they navigate their own.

Watch: The Representation Project:  “Rewrite the Story” (2014) 2.27 min clip

Read:The Problem with ‘Boys will be Boysby Soraya Chemaly (2013)

Reflection:

  • The short clip from the Representation project depicts some of the “limiting narratives” that kids get.  What are some of the “limiting narratives” and rigid messages you got around gender?  How do you feel that impacted and/or influenced you?
  • What are the narratives that your kids are getting around gender?  Where and who is influencing these narratives?  What concerns do you have around these narratives?
  • How can we “rewrite” these narratives for ourselves and our kids?
  • In Chemaly’s article she talks about the importance of consent – Are you talking with your kids about consent?
  • Do you think the phrase “Boys will be Boys” is problematic?

Key Resources for further Learning:

Check out the resources page for further resources

My youngest in his favorite pink sparkly dress.

My youngest in his favorite pink sparkly dress.

Talking with our kids about sex, gender, and sexism

Our own work around dismantling the messages we received about gender and sex is essential for talking with our kids about these issues. We too have been steeped in harmful messages concerning gender. Regardless of the work we may have done around rejecting the gender codes, the childhood messages we received may have impacted who we are and what we may pass on to our kids. For example, we may unintentionally say things to our boys such as “ don’t cry” or “ man up!”  We may worry about what our girls wear, that they should be more “ladylike”. We might feel concerned that our young boys want to play with dolls and dress up. Some of us may lovingly tease our girls about a playground “boyfriend” or our sons about “breaking all the girls hearts.” In the process we unfairly (and mostly unintentionally) box our kids into preconceived categories of what’s normal.

Stay open with your kids. Encourage them that all gender expression and identity is normal, even when it is different from the dominant social expectation of what it means to be a boy or girl. Support your kids in their own journey to understanding and navigating gender. Teach that gender expression is separate from one’s biological sex. Encourage your kids to be whoever they want to be without any investment and/or expectations imposed from you. Help them to create gender views that go beyond traditional gender stereotyping they are receiving thru media, advertising, at school, and what others may say to them.

You also don’t have to have all the answers! It’s OK if you don’t know how to respond to something or don’t have all the answers to questions that come up. There are so many resources to help you.

  1. “Sex? Sexual Orientation? Gender Identity?  Gender Expression?” by Joel Baum and Kim Westheimer
  2. The Gender Unicorn graph
  3. The website Gender Spectrum has a lot of great resources for parents working and talking with their children around gender.
  4. Here are some examples of language, tips, and conversation starters to use: Talking with Young Kids about Gender

Reflection:

  • How do the school systems you interact with reinforce the gender binary and how can we as parents push against that to ensure that all our children are recognized and respected?
  • What was your learning like around gender, sex, sexual orientation, and gender expression? What are the messages you would like your kids to have around the gender spectrum?
  • Think of a time that your child has said something about gender or sex. How did you respond? How would you like to respond if you had the opportunity again?

Reading Together

coloring-bookThere are so many great books out there around gender justice that divert from the dominant gender binary narrative. These books create a whole different message around gender that is fluid, accepting, expansive and encouraging for young people to be exactly who they want to be. These books can both validate your own child’s experience and also illustrate to them all the ways that they can be in this world. All of it is “normal.”

Socially conscious books reflect reality in creative and engaging ways. So many of the dominant books out there are heteronormative – they don’t illustrate the spectrum of sexual orientation, thus reinforcing that heterosexuality is the norm. Furthermore, many books reinforce subtle messages that keep kids in those gender boxes. These books give kids a script about what it means to be a boy or girl – from how they should act, what clothes they should wear, and how they should treat each other. The messages are harmful and confining to the full human experience.

It is also important to bring in history. Read to them about the life of Helen Keller and the true story of her social justice background and her fight for equality. Check out Helen Keller, Rebellious Spirit by Laurie Lawlor. This story introduces readers to a side of Helen Keller that we rarely are taught about – the socialist that fought for women’s and worker’s rights and an end to war. Bringing in stories of those that fought against injustice and for women’s voices is essential in also connecting it to the other ­–isms that you are exploring with your child.

For parents of younger kids there are also some fabulous coloring books that look at gender and other issues. Check out Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away with the Other Spoon Coloring Book. This radical activity book “takes anecdotes from the lives of real kids and mixes them with classic tales to create true-to-life characters, situations, and resolutions. Featuring massive beasts who enjoy dainty, pretty jewelry and princesses who build rocket ships, this fun-for-all-ages coloring book celebrates those who do not fit into disempowering gender categorizations, from sensitive boys to tough girls.” What a great way to have fun with your kid and do some social justice learning on gender!

For other great social justice books see awesome social justice books for kids.

Taking Action

Learning Is action. You have already started! By reading the articles and engaging in the material in this module you are already taking action toward gender justice. A big part of it is examining the things we ourselves learned about gender and sex and how it has impacted us. The world still puts us in boxes and it is an ongoing push not only for our kids but also in our own lives. Check the resources list for more good articles, films, and books.

Increase the gender justice speak. Your kids will get ideas outside of the home about gender and sex – often times messages that are in opposition to what you want them to learn. Coaches may tell boys to “Man Up,”  teachers may tell your girls to change clothes, your kids may be called a slut or fag on social media, they may get ideas about the objectification of women thru video games, TV, and advertising. We are up against a lot! When and where you can, speak out! If your kid comes home saying that their coach told them they were “throwing like a girl” talk to both the coach and your kid about it. If your child doesn’t want to identify as a boy and wants her classmates and school to respect that, talk to your school. When you hear your child possibly making fun of another child because of what they are wearing or how they are acting that is related to gender bullying, talk to your child and ask where they are getting these ideas. There are so many ways and times to speak out and continue the conversation with both your kids and others that impact their lives.

Get involved locally.  Wherever you are there are always organizations doing great work around gender justice and combating violence. Here are examples of local organizations in the Southern VT area.

Women’s Freedom Center – The WFC is the local organization working to end domestic and sexual violence in Southern Windsor and Windham counties.  The youth advocates work within the schools leading workshops with students and teachers. Topics include: gender, sexism, teen dating violence, social media, consent, rape culture, and bystander action and awareness. Contact advocates@womensfreedomcenter.net for more info.

Green Mountain Crossroads – GMC is based out of Brattleboro, VT and connects rural LGBTQ people to build community, visibility, knowledge, and power. They run a monthly youth night for self-identified LGBTQ youth ages 13-22 and a parent support group for parents and caregivers of LGBTQ youth in the Windham County region. Email info@greenmountaincrossroads.org for more info.

Connect to national action and research.  A few good places to start:

The Representation Project – The Representation Project have put out the award-winning documentaries Miss Representation and The Mask You Live in – both dealing with the issues of gender in the United States.  This project uses film to work toward ending harmful gender stereotyping and to raise issues of sexism, power, and privilege.

Gender Spectrum – Gender Spectrum has a large range of materials, resources, and trainings on gender inclusivity and creating safe environments for youth.

A Call to Men – A Call to Men is a leading national violence prevention organization providing training and education for men, boys and communities. Their aim is to shift social norms that negatively impact our culture and promote a more healthy and respectful definition of manhood.

Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER) –  a youth-led organization dedicated to transforming the educational environment for trans and gender nonconforming students through advocacy and empowerment.

Queerly Elementary – provides services and resources to help school communities embrace lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer diversity.

Now you have some ideas and resources for the kinds of actions happening and education available.

Here’s a summary of what you can do to take action.

  1.          Learn more and examine your own experience with gender and sex.
  2.          Speak out!
  3.          Read and have conversations with your kids
  4.          Get involved and reach out to local organizations working on these issues.
  5.          Support national movements and research.

Reflection:

  • What are ways that you are working for gender justice in your community?  How do you involve your kids?
  • What else would you like to be doing?  Make a SMART goal – one that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and with a time-limit.

Examples:

“My SMART goal is to talk to my daughter about the school’s dress code.  Rather than shaming her for choices she is making around her clothes or telling her to cover up, I am going to engage her in a conversation around fashion choices, objectification, why we wear what we wear, and what we like about our bodies.”

“My SMART goal is to attend the parent support group for parents and caregivers of LGBTQ youth in this community so that I can learn more, ask questions, share my experience, meet parents, and ultimately support my queer child.”

Share your goals in a comment – or share them with a friend. When we speak things outloud it helps hold us accountable to taking action.

**Note from Parenting 4 Social Justice – Stay tuned for our personal accounts of how we are bringing this into our families.

About Angela

Hey y'all! I'm the mother of two young kids. Our family lives in rural Vermont. As a mama with a lot of unearned privilege I am compelled to live in solidarity with the oppressed in my community and in the world. I'm doing my best to equip my kids with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to do the same. I've dedicated the last decade of my life to social justice work, and in the last couple of years started ACT For Social Justice and The Root Social Justice Center. Find out more about my work at www.act4socialjustice.com and www.therootsjc.org

4 comments on “Gender Justice – Beyond the gender binary

  1. The gender messages I received as a child often made me feel like as a girl I was “too much.” I learned to shrink myself emotionally and minimize my gifts.

    As a mother of two boys, teaching consent is very important to me. Our now five year old learned early on that he must respect people’s bodies, and that he could tell us when we were not respecting his (such as tickling.)

  2. Hi friends, lots of good stuff in here. One comment: people of many different genders can be pregnant! Instead of “expecting mothers,” you could say “pregnant person” or “expecting parent”.

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