When I finally reached my classroom I was beyond relieved. I already knew my teacher, one of many perks of going to the same school where your mom teaches, and I was excited about her class, Identity and Ethnic Studies.
Our first activity was a game called Stand and Declare: The teacher reads a statement and students who feel the statement is true about themselves are instructed to stand silently. The idea is that the statements get deeper and more personal as the game progresses, but you have to start out easy. And what could be easier than the most basic aspect of human identity, the first question asked about a newborn baby? As my teacher read the first statement aloud, “Stand if you’re a girl,” my heart dropped.
What was supposed to be an easy question, a throw-away, a way to break the ice before delving into more personal issues, was for me a question I had been grappling with since elementary school. With what ease that teacher, herself a lesbian feminist, asked me to completely define my identity, something much more complex than standing for five seconds could ever express, something that I had been struggling with for years and continue to struggle with to this day. The simplicity of the question in her mind was apparent to me.
Although I was unsurprised, having lived my entire life in a world defined by a gender binary system, I was still angry.
That an otherwise excellent and caring teacher could so quickly alienate some of her students is a reflection of the way gender identity is taught and viewed in schools: the first and ever-present question on any school form, the gendered bathroom system, boys vs. girls locker rooms and sports teams. Even without looking beyond high school, it is clear how sharply gender divides and defines student life. For many this division is simple and their place on one side of the gender line is clear, but not for me—and I’m not the only one in this situation.
Looking for Language, Looking for Community
For years I have struggled with finding my place in the gender binary. In elementary school I was constantly mistaken for a boy. I didn’t feel comfortable in the girls bathroom, so I would wait until after school, even if I was in agony. I always played on sports teams that were predominantly boys and, up until 4th grade, most of my friends were boys. By the time I reached middle school, I was pretty good at flying under the radar. Except for when I had to change for gym, I could manage to never be in a situation where I had to outwardly define my gender.