“Mr. E, when are you going to cut your hair?”

A student of mine in seventh grade looked at me, half laughing, half not, not meaning to make a joke but just asking an honest question.

“What?” I said, returning his half laugh and pushing my bangs back. “I like my hair.”

In an attempt to have long hair (because, well, why not?) I haven’t cut my hair since August. The light brown mop on my head has finally grown past what I’ve dubbed the Awkward Middle-Length Period to the Okay-Looking Middle-Length Period. But even though my hair isn’t yet long enough to be pulled back, it’s still too long to fit into my student’s image of what a male teacher should look like.

“When I first met you, I wasn’t sure if you were a girl or a boy because of your voice,” he said a different day during a reading lesson, maybe a bit too comfortable with me and a bit too unfamiliar with social boundaries. I was amused rather than offended—as if being perceived without gender is offensive—and understood why he might have been confused. I am a student teacher in a resource room for students with visual impairments, and my ambiguous-sounding voice coming from an ambiguous-looking blur from the other side of the room on my first day probably would have told him little to nothing about my gender.

I was reading The Bridge to Terabithia with that group of students, three boys in seventh and eighth grade. We had read about when the protagonist, Jesse, meets the other main character, Leslie. “He couldn’t honestly tell whether it was a girl or a boy,” the book says. We were making connections, and this student came up with my initially mysterious gender identity.

“There’s a student at this school who looks like a girl,” another student said, “but it has short hair and uses the boy’s bathroom. Is it a boy or a girl?” I knew of the student in question because all of the staff had been required to attend a professional development session put on by the Illinois Safe School Alliance to ensure that we would be able to support this student, who had recently come out as transgender.

After a conversation on pronouns and clarifying that we never call a person “it” and that “they” is an appropriate pronoun when we are unsure of someone’s gender, I said, “Well, if a person uses a boy’s bathroom, they probably want to be called ‘he.’ He would know what his gender is better than anyone else, right?”

This was the first of many conversations in which we used The Bridge to Terabithia to problematize gender. Jesse’s father is distant because of Jesse’s love for drawing, which he claims will turn his son into a “faggot” (the word isn’t directly stated, but strongly implied). Leslie is the first and only girl to run in the races at school and wins every time. Jesse feels unfit to be the “king of Terabithia” because he fears the rising creek and Leslie doesn’t. Leslie is forced to wear a dress for the only time in the book when she goes to church with Jesse’s family. The two are best friends and more, but their partnership isn’t romantic or sexual. For 1977, this widely-read novel queers gender more than it’s given credit for.

When Leslie joins Jesse’s family for church on Easter Sunday, she gets into an argument with Jesse and his sister about the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. Leslie, who had never been to church or read the Bible, thinks it’s beautiful. Jesse and his sister, who are required to go and believe what they are told, think it’s disgusting. Leslie sums up the situation this way: “It’s crazy, isn’t it? You have to believe it, but you hate it. I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.”

“When you have to do something, like Jesse and his sister had to believe the Bible, does that make it better or worse?” I posed this question to my students, who all agreed that doing something because you have to makes that thing worse. We went on to discuss Leslie and Jesse’s differing experiences with their families’ relationships to their gender: Leslie felt free to wear pants and run with her family while Jesse felt suffocated by his because his passions were too girly. While my students didn’t come to understand or even explicitly learn about transgender and non-conforming gender identities, they engaged with this idea that they are told what that they can and cannot do certain things because they are boys, which means they are not totally free.

This imposition of gender norms is called gender policing, a societal practice that has been fought by feminist movements, queer movements, and countless other movements and groups that have gone by other names throughout history. And it is having an effect on our students. Research by Maria do Mar Pereira, among others (discussed here by Tara Culp-Ressler) shows that gender policing among students in a school setting causes them to restrict and modify their behaviors in harmful ways. This study also found that a slow breakdown of this process leads to more positive behaviors in the school and in the home. Further research shows that heightened gender policing in childhood increases the risk of mental health concerns in adulthood. This is true for straight and cisgender students—those whose gender identity consistently aligns with the gender they were assigned at birth—but even more so for LGBT students and particularly transgender students. The 2013 National School Climate Survey conducted by the Gay, Straight, and Lesbian Education Network (GLSEN) reported that transgender students:

  • Were more than three times as likely to have missed school in the past month (58.6% vs. 18.2%)
  • Had lower GPAs than students who were less often harassed (2.9 vs. 3.3)
  • Were twice as likely to report that they did not plan to pursue any post-secondary education (e.g., college or trade school; 8.2% vs. 4.2%)
  • Had higher levels of depression and lower levels of self-esteem.

The most horrifying statistic comes from the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, which has found that more than 50% of transgender individuals will attempt suicide before they turn 20 years old.

The students I predominantly work with—students of color with disabilities—are subjected to stricter gender policing than white and/or able-bodied students. Whiteness places tighter gender roles on people of color than are imposed on whites while ableist paternalism robs people with disabilities of their self-determination, including (but not limited to) their self-determination in regards to gender. These students are constantly used by those in power as tools for political gain. Because they are already politicized against their will, they must be enabled to take control of their own politics. But how can they control their politics if they are not able to control their gender, or even their hair?

My goal in these conversations is not to “make transgender students” as a friend of mine joked when we discussed them. My goal is to create a space for my students where they feel safe to question what they have been told about their genders and to express their genders as authentically as possible, whether or not their gender identities and expressions align with societal expectations. In other conversations they question what they have been told about their abilities, about their bodies, about their skin, their hair, all of these characteristics that society uses to label them as less.

This is much of the power we have as teachers: we can continue to label and box our students in or we can let them choose their own labels and draw their own borders. The outlines they draw for themselves may be as boxy or boyish or girly as they had been told before, or they may take a different shape, changing shapes, blurry shapes with ambiguous voices and flippy hair that they didn’t know could fit together before. We can aid our students in this process by explicitly teaching about transgender identities, gently queering classic pieces of literature, or taking gendered practices out of our classroom. But maybe the first step for us as teachers is to let ourselves draw our own boundaries, have our own voices, our own hair. When we embrace these aspects of ourselves as equal, our students will feel more and more comfortable doing the same. And as more and more youth embrace all aspects of themselves as equal, the world will be more and more free.

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