When my son was no more than three, he toddled up to a salesperson in the toy aisle of a department store and asked for a Polly Pocket. “Oh, but that’s a girl’s toy,” she replied. My partner intervened promptly, assuring our son there was no such thing as a girl’s or boy’s toy, and asking to be directed to the right shelf. She recounted the story to me later with a mixture of rage and despair.
This was gender policing—when we learn to coerce one another to conform to gender norms. It begins at birth—or even before, if you throw a gender-reveal party. When I was born, a doctor held me upside-down by my feet, gave a gentle pat on the tush, inspected my genitalia, and told my mother, “Congratulations, you have a healthy baby boy. What’s his name?” Shortly thereafter, an infant ID bracelet was prepared—strung with blue beads to denote my gender, and lettered beads with my surname. Before my first diaper change, I had a pronoun and a colour associated with me.
These are just examples of how little kids are confronting gender identity—and gender assumptions—long before a school curriculum might address it.
I’ve been an elementary school teacher and librarian for the last 18 years. Believe me: curriculum guidelines mandated by the government aren’t introducing these topics to students—even the littlest kids are exploring this part of their identity already.
A little backstory: from 2015 until 2018, we taught gender identity and gender expression, as well as sexual orientation, to students in grades one to three. When Premier Doug Ford promised to repeal elements of the Ontario 2015 health and physical education curriculum, bringing us closer to the curriculum we had back in 1998, I knew it would be a terrible disservice to our kids, and worried about what his government was going to cook up.
I'm glad to see that the curriculum revisions released this week for the upcoming school year still include gender identity and gender expression, but the timing is dismaying: it won’t come up (officially) in the classroom until Grade 8. (In the 2015 curriculum, it was a Grade 6 topic.) Sexual orientation won’t be covered until Grade 5. And Ford's government says parents will now have a more formal way to exempt their kids from sex ed lessons, if they choose.
Fae Johnstone, an Ottawa-based consultant, educator and community organizer, explains that this whole debate over what to teach, and when, has been detrimental to students.
“What does that say to trans kids in those schools right now? I think the ripple effect that has on young folks, and young trans people in the classroom, is really significant,” says Johnstone.
Johnstone, who is transfeminine, non-binary, and uses the pronouns “she” and “they,” imagines what it would have meant if they had had access to this curriculum as a child, growing up in small communities.
"These were not discussions that were had. I didn't know that trans people even existed until I was almost out of high school,” Johnstone explains. “If I had had the knowledge to explain myself and understand myself better, it would have spared me a lot of internal turmoil. And I would have had an environment where my peers were more likely to be accepting and affirming of who I was.”
Carly Basian, a sexual health educator in Toronto, agrees that these topics are important for all children.
“It’s not just transgender people for whom gender identity and gender expression is important—it impacts all of us. We all have gender, and it’s important to have an understanding of that from a young age,” says Basian.
It’s also a health issue, says Nadine Thornhill, a Toronto-based sexual health educator. “Research indicates that there’s a strong correlation between trans’ kids mental and physical health, and the degree of acceptance they receive from their family, peers and community,” she says.
For the past six years I’ve advised gay straight alliances in two different elementary schools, including kids in grades four through eight. I’ve worked with gender non-conforming children, and children who self-identify as transgender, as well as many kids whose sexuality is other than heterosexual. I’ll never forget the little Junior Kindergarten boy who liked to wear dresses at home, and one spring day decided to wear a beautiful summer dress to school. During the period of time that I knew him, this child never said he was a girl, or voiced a desire to be a girl. He never asked us to use the pronouns she or her. Nor did he ask to be called by a different name. He led the way in his gender journey. There wasn’t really any great intervention we needed to undertake as a staff—other than to respect his choices and encourage others to do the same. Clearly, his summer dress did not interfere with his, or anyone else’s, ability to learn.
A few years ago, a colleague of mine overheard a Kindergartener saying, “Even though I'm a girl, I like playing with boys' toys.” This prompted the teacher to undertake an inquiry with her class. She drew a Venn diagram to delineate which toys students thought were for girls, which were for boys, and which were for both.
I’ve tried similar activities with my students and, typically, as these exercises unfold, children tend to move more items into the both portion of the diagram. For instance, children might initially put dolls on the girls’ side and trucks on the boys’ side. After a period of discussion, individual kids tend to pipe up, and we find a number of boys who like dolls and girls who like trucks.
This teacher took it further. Her students then studied magazine ads and toy catalogues. They looked critically at the photos and asked some questions: Why were girls only seen with kitchen toys and taking care of babies? Why were boys shown performing a variety of other activities? The inquiry also revealed a needless gendering of toys—students found a picture in a catalogue, of boys with blue shopping carts and girls with pink. The children shrewdly observed that shopping carts are not gendered in stores in real life—they look the same.
The point is that kids are already questioning these norms. What this teacher did was create a space in which kids could voice their frustration over the ways in which their lives are gendered.
Around the corner from the library I tend to each day is the Kindergarten classroom of my co-worker John Paul Kane. A towering presence in a room full of very small children, JP is also a drag performer and one-half of Fay and Fluffy’s Storytime. JP and his performance partner tour libraries, children’s events and Pride festivals sharing stories with kids and their caregivers.
One heartbreaking recollection JP shares with me underscores the importance of a school environment that is open to a range of gender identity and expression. He tells me of a distraught Kindergarten student who eventually opened up to him about what was bothering him:
"I know you know me,” the youngster said. “You know I look like a girl, but I know you know I am a boy in my heart." Thoughtfully, Kane asked what name and pronouns the child would like him to use. "You can call me by my name and you can also call me ‘he’ or ‘she,’ ‘cause that is still who I am right now,” he said.
“I was deeply touched that the child trusted me to share such a significant piece of themselves with me,” says Kane. “The parents felt relieved that their child was beginning to share their true selves with others they cared about.”
Some teachers are finding inventive ways to cover gender identity and gender policing, regardless of the timeline suggested by the government.
JP Kane engages his Kindergarten students early in the year in discussion about the learning centres they would like to have. “Last year we had a hair salon, a jewelry store, a flower shop and a bakery. We have discussions about their vision of how we can go about creating spaces that are safe and inclusive. We name the new shops, we including pricing and services available, and we ensure that we celebrate the opening day. We have talked at length about how all space in the classroom is for all students, regardless of gender.”
Since 2009, Velvet LaCasse and fellow-teacher Shannon Greene have spearheaded Gender Splendour Week at The Grove Community School, a public alternative school in Toronto. Each April, the teachers plan a special week of programming that infuses activism into learning activities, including discussion of the links between gender stereotypes and homophobia.
One year, grade two and three students explored differences between t-shirts marketed to girls and boys. They then designed their own gender-neutral clothing. Later, the children wrote to a clothing company to suggest more inclusive alternatives for sorting and organizing their stores.
There are also some simple ways that teachers can avoid unnecessarily gendered language. When talking to high schoolers, Basian recommends the word “folks” over “guys.” Rather than constantly addressing a group of students as “boys and girls,” address them based upon the task or lesson: “OK, scientists,” or “Listen up, mathematicians,” or “Artists, it’s time to tidy up.”
I hope that parents, educators, and district school boards continue to push back on political efforts to defer—or allow families to opt out of—these discussions. Talking about gender and sexuality at school doesn’t confuse our kids, it helps them ask and answer questions they already have.
Ultimately, it isn’t about telling children what their gender is. It’s about creating learning spaces that encompass all children, however they come to identify themselves.