Graciela Slesaransky-Poe, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at Arcadia University. Her work is centered on supporting educators and families in transforming schools into places where children and adults feel welcomed, valued, and included. Her teaching, writing, and advocacy is grounded in the recognition that the differences and gifts that each student, family, and educator offers enriches their school fabric, and that mindful, purposeful, and that intentional opportunities for celebration, reflection, and action could greatly strengthen the school culture and climate. Dr. Slesaransky-Poe is the mom of two children, one of whom is a gender non-conforming boy. Informed by her extensive national and international professional expertise in inclusive practices coupled with her personal experiences raising a culturally and linguistically diverse family, Dr. Slesaransky-Poe is becoming a prominent local, regional, and national expert on creating welcoming, inclusive, and safe schools, for gender non-conforming, transgender, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning/queer students, families, and educators.
Dr. Slesaransky-Poe is the recipient of several awards and recognitions including the 2011 Patricia C. Creegan award on Excellence on Inclusive Practices.
For more than two decades, I have been building partnerships with families and schools creating successful inclusion environments for students with a variety of disabilities and diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. In the past eight years, I have expanded the circle of inclusion to create welcoming schools for students who are gender nonconforming or transgender.
This area of inquiry and service felt like a natural extension of my work, and grew out of my experiences parenting my children. When my now 11 year-old son was three, he displayed a strong interest in toys, clothes, and activities typically associated with girls. He used a “blankie” pretending to have long hair and enjoyed playing with the many princess costumes his sister had, though rarely played with. His sister was interested in building things and playing sports, and not so much in princess dress-up and Barbie dolls. She was what we call a “tomboy.” I was a tomboy as a child, and so were my mother and my mother-in-law. My daughter’s interests and behaviors felt very familiar, comfortable, and natural to all of us.
That is why I was surprised to find myself confused and conflicted about the ways in which my son expressed his gender, and wondered and worried about the best approach to support him. He seemed so happy pretending to be a princess, and danced so beautifully listening to music while improvising ballet moves. And yet, allowing him to freely express himself did not feel as familiar, as comfortable, nor as natural as it did with my daughter. Experiencing my son’s gender fluidity was puzzling to many, and even more to our families of origin. I am Latina and my husband is Black. Our own cultural backgrounds do not offer a lot of latitude for boys and men with regards to gender expression. Yet, we know that gender nonconformity knows no limits. It can be found in individuals of all race and ethnicities, class, abilities, religion, age, or country of origin.
As a mom, I struggled to follow my heart, embracing my son’s interests and expressions, while trying not to be influenced by the advice pouring from relatives, friends, and others on how to “teach him to be a boy!” I was aware that none of them knew our son the way we did, and no one questioned our daughter’s gender expression and interests, perhaps because “girls gain status by moving into “boy” space, while boys are tainted by the slightest whiff of femininity” (Padawer, 2012). As part of a stratified society, gender ranks boys/men above girls/ women of the same race and class. The dominant categories are the hegemonic ideals, taken for granted as the way they should be; so much so that “boys” or “men” are not ordinary thought as gender; the same way white is not thought as race, or middle class as class (Lorber, 1994). So, when a boy wants to act like a girl, it subconsciously shakes our foundation, because why would someone want to be the lesser gender (Ehrensaft, cited in Padawer, 2012).
Fortunately for us, we found an online group of parents raising boys just like our child, who were also creating ways to support their children, embracing, and loving them for who they truly were. We joined them, and together we continue to support and encourage each other in our quest to challenge society’s assumptions of what it means to be a boy; to defy the narrowly defined socially constructed gender binary that constrains our children and ourselves; and to provide opportunities for our children to feel comfortable, well adjusted, and confident just the way they are, finding their fluid places along the gender continuum. Now we understand that gender nonconformity may be unusual but it is not unnatural. We now challenge the very binary categories that we use to think about gender. We understand gendered subjectivity as a fluid identity and contend that the individual subject is never exclusively “male” or “female,” but rather is always in a state of contextually dependent flux (Butler, 1990/1999). As such, we have learned to become “facilitative parents” (Ehrensaft, 2007), that is parents who strive to allow their children to express themselves in their own unique gender ways, while helping them to adapt to a world that will not necessarily embrace that way of being, as shown in the following data.
According to a recent survey of elementary school students 42% of gender nonconforming students are less likely to feel safe at school compared to 62% of their gender conforming counterparts; over a third (35%) indicate not wanting to attend school because they feel afraid and unsafe (GLSEN 2012a). At the high school level, during the past year, 56.9% of students reported hearing negative remarks about gender expression from teachers or other school staff; 43.9% felt unsafe in school because of their gender expression; 27.1% were verbally harassed (e.g., called names or threatened); and 12.4% were physically assaulted (e.g., punched, kicked, injured with a weapon) because of their gender expression. Also, students who experienced higher levels of victimization because of their gender identity were more than twice as likely to have missed school than those who experienced lower levels (53.2% vs. 20.4%), and they were more than twice as likely to report that they did not plan to pursue any post‑secondary education (e.g., college or trade school) than those who experienced lower levels (10.7% vs. 5.1%) (GLSEN 2012b).
Additionally, the high incidence of harassment and assault was exacerbated by school staff who rarely, if ever, intervened on behalf of students. Sixty percent of students who were harassed or assaulted in school did not report the incident to school staff, most often believing little to no action would be taken or the situation could become worse if reported. Thirty seven percent of the students who did report an incident said that school staff did nothing in response (GLSEN, 2012b).
But not all is bad news. We know that Gay‑Straight Alliances (GSAs) and similar student clubs can provide safe, affirming spaces and critical support for LGBTQ students and that GSAs also contribute to creating a more welcoming school environment. That a curriculum that includes positive representations of LGBTQ people, history, and events (i.e., an inclusive curriculum) can promote respect for all and improve LGBTQ students’ school experiences. That the presence of educators who are supportive of LGBTQ students can have a positive impact on the school experiences of these students, as well as their psychological well‑being. And that comprehensive policies and laws — those that specifically enumerate personal characteristics including sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, among others — are most effective at combating anti‑LGBTQ bullying and harassment (GLSEN, 2012b).
My own experience collaborating with my children’s schools laid the foundation for my work with other schools. My son is now starting middle school, and even though it feels scary at times, I am most confident on his ability to continue to be the smart, happy, healthy, respected, self-confident, well-adjusted child he was at his elementary school. Just like I did with his elementary school, I have been meeting with his middle school for over a year now. I know that this work not only is benefiting him, but is having a positive impact on all the other children in the school and educators alike.
I believe that the differences and gifts that each student, family, and educator offers enriches their school fabric; and that mindful, purposeful, and intentional opportunities for celebration, reflection, and action, greatly strengthen the school culture and climate benefiting all learners, families, and educators. These values keep me grounded not only as a mom, but in my teaching, research, and service. I have learned that when educators are provided with the opportunity to create safe spaces to learn and reflect about gender identity and sexual orientation, within a climate of respect, compassion, and truth, supported by their administrators and leaders, change happens. I had the privilege of leading several opportunities for families, students, and educators in many schools, and engage in honest and courageous conversations guided by a spirit of collaboration and generosity. I have learned that the best antidote to rejection, fear, and violence is knowledge, education, kindness, and respect.
When my son was very young, confused about what to do, there was a short time when we limited the ways in which he could express his gender fluidity. In front of our own eyes, our son was becoming a child we could not recognize, unable to control himself. Unhappy. Depressed. Aggressive. Violent. Highly defiant and oppositional. That was a wake-up call for us, since then our home became a safe haven for him to be who he is.
However, I know that my son was privileged to be born to parents of a certain educational level and professional status, who, even though struggled to understand him at first, had the emotional resources, advocacy skills, and strength, to address and support his needs. When I am out in schools supervising my students teaching in Behavior or Emotional Support classrooms, or in alternative schools, I see the kid my son could have become. There are so many children in those settings, struggling to find balance between what their minds and hearts are telling them, and what the world outside dictates how they should look, dress, and behave. I can’t help but wonder whether if, given the opportunity to express themselves in free and fluid gender ways, they would still be in those settings. I imagine that so many of those children and youths may be raised by adults who may not have access to the resources we had to educate ourselves and advocate for our child.
These children need at least one adult to believe in them and who is willing to support them. I would urge you to become that adult. Go to Welcoming Schools, or GLSEN. Look what their organizations and webs sites have to offer. Become familiar with Day of Silence, Safe Space Toolkit, No Name Calling Week, Ally Week. Contact me. Together we can make a difference one student, one school, one community at the time.
Butler, J. (1999/1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of reality. New York, NY: Routledge
Ehrensaft, D. (2007). Raising Girlyboys: A parent’s perspective. Studies in Gender and Sexuality 8: 269-302.
GLSEN (2012a). “Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States” First National Study to Look at Homophobia, Gender Nonconformity in Elementary Schools. Retrieved from http://www.glsen.org/playgroundsandprejudice.html
GLSEN (2012b). The 2011 National School Climate Survey. Executive Summary. Retrieved from http://www.glsen.org/binary-data/GLSEN_ATTACHMENTS/file/000/002/2106-1.pdf
Lorber, J. (1994). Paradoxes of Gender. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Padawer, R. (2012). What’s so bad about a boy who wants to wear a dress? New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/12/magazine/whats-so-bad-about-a-boy-who-wants-to-wear-a-dress.html?
Additional resources provided by Dr. Slesaransky-Poe are available HERE.
*The opinions of our guest bloggers don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Equity Alliance at ASU, but they do raise important questions about issues of power, privilege, education, opportunity. We invite participation and the exchange of ideas with these blogs.