Thursday, June 9, 2011

Diversity is Not A Threatening Word, But Conformity May Harm You

This week I attended the best faculty meeting ever. I know this is not something that is typically shared or effusively emoted. And yet, if I could have jumped up in the air, chest-bumped or fist pumped Arsenio-style I would have. Ok, I could have, I have the physical ability, sort of, but I couldn’t have, it’s not my nature, it would have come off like a seizure, or a restraining order might have appeared to be in need.

Why? What was so special at a faculty meeting in June? Test Score results? Earlier summer dismissal to match the collective disengagement and out of body dismissal that has already occurred by most? Summer bonus pay? No, No, and No. GSD. Oh yes, G S D- Gender/Sexuality Diversity. A presentation, a speaker, a welcoming and much needed conversation about an unwelcome still needed discussion. Dr. Jennifer Bryan, Ph.D., Psychologist and Educational Consultant, presented information about a topic that many of us still can’t seem to discuss, identify with or come to terms with, in our own private and personal lives. Asking us to discuss Gender and Sexuality in our professional setting is simply abhorrent to many. We are teacher’s after all and we must remain neutral or at least appear somewhat neutered. In some states this topic is probably illegal, if done on a Sunday, or in a public building, or in the company of people of some differing or opposing gender(s). And yet, the kids, our students, are doing it. Doing “it”. And even doing the it of conversation with such freedom and abandon. While 16% of 7th and 8th graders have already had intercourse, 50% are experimenting with what they consider more acceptable sexual activity, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Can you imagine what kind of parents they must have? What about the parents that are not ready for this?

After a year long commitment to gaining understanding and providing a structure or process for providing Diversity Awareness Training in one form or another, nothing was more disheartening than one of our team’s last conversations about the need to soften (or weaken) the use of the word “diversity”. If we are so frightened by the connotation or threat of using the word “diversity” to train and support staff, how will we ever be able to educate our students? If variety is the spice of life, why is diversity so dreadful to name?

How can we possibly cover these issues, concerns, ways of being that are so different, diverse, sexual? The reality is we can no longer NOT talk about sexual identity and gender identity. Society is changing. Families are different and diverse. Holding on to old standards and rigid rules that promote conformity while restricting and marginalizing specific groups and individuals does not benefit or build communities. It is also illegal, unethical and damaging.

I wonder if talking about gender differences is so uncomfortable because we might have to truly acknowledge the disparities. We can’t keep pretending there are no differences. We can’t continue to ignore inequalities and detrimental practices. If we talk about sexuality, we might need to recognize that middle school students are sexual beings. How can we possibly teach in a classroom full of sexually gendered students? I imagine it won’t be much different than teaching in a classroom with our current and past groups of diverse and developing sexually gendered students, except that we might ensure that everyone is welcome and safe and understands that we expect them all to have futures with the expectation and knowledge that they are worthwhile beings. Perhaps we may even quiet some of their own fears and unfamiliar feelings about those newly activated, not yet regulated hormones and body parts. While I have been in classrooms on occasions that could have used a visit from Father Abstinence and Sister Mary No-More Masturbation, I also wonder why a brief statement about appropriate time and place (or a note from the clergy) might better serve students than the don’t ask, don’t tell-wish-you-could hose-them-down-and-hope-for-the-best technique.

Many of us continue to promote the one size fits all means to an end. We can’t quite imagine that gender and sexuality are not simply choices that can be carefully considered and determined. Isn’t it best to pretend that there is one “normal” choice for life, and hope for the best? Boys like girls. Girls like boys. Bathrooms neatly labeled, locker rooms identified. Genitals predetermined. Grow up get married live in suburbia, have children, never look back or to the side. Of course statistics on marriage longevity, domestic violence, child abuse, depression, infidelity, and substance abuse support this one way approach, right? I understand being free to be you and me doesn’t necessarily end the social ills associated with “acting” normal, but it is a starting place.

Middle school students are so afraid of not being able to fit in, the easiest way to fit in is to help determine who doesn’t fit in. Labeling each other as gay, is often an easy and fast way in, or out. It’s easy. It’s even accepted and overlooked. Kids will be kids after all. And quite frankly, don’t some of us feel similar? Why do “they” have to throw it in our faces all the time? If some of those students didn’t act so gay they wouldn’t be treated that way. Right? What we fail to acknowledge is the fact that acting or being straight does not direct us to automatically think of sexual activities, acting or being lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, queer, transgendered, or intersex appears to force some of our thoughts. Many no longer see individuals, multifaceted humans, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, parents, and friends. We stop and try to make sense because we just don’t understand, or get it or want to know. Why, oh why do they have to throw it in our faces? Sadly, the incidence of suicide in the LGBQTI community is often a result of self-hate based upon a biological make-up that is judged unacceptable. Why would any school need to have a speaker at their faculty meetings?

We need to learn how to separate individual and culturally based personal feelings about sex and sexuality from the need to provide social-emotional supports for all students. We need to accept that middle school students each have varying degrees of identified and identifiable sexuality, they all have a gender and they all have academic expectations that should not be impacted by gender or sexuality. Some have started the process of individually identifying gender and others are not yet sure, or ready or interested in these developments. Some may never approach it. Many students struggle with giving up some of the non-gender-determined freedoms of pre-pubescence. Others struggle with premature pubescence. All this is happening while singing songs about sex, watching movies about sex, reading books about sex, sexting, tweeting and twittering sex, and even experimenting with sex. We can no longer ignore it. We need to provide opportunities for guided and supportive, developmentally appropriate conversations when they are raised.

Dr. Bryan was able to present the typically, electrically titillating or for some, disturbing topic of sexuality in a way that calmed all of the electricity and quieted the arousing taboo. She presented an overview of terminology. She charged us with the task of identifying what we needed in order to educate our students. Wow, what a concept. Educate our students about themselves and others in the world in a way that is thoughtful and developmentally sound, about topics that we all can identify with. Dr. Bryan discussed gender and sexuality and diversity and education. It seemed almost easy. We don’t need to teach the facts of life, but we need to be factual, unless we are teaching health, in seventh grade, when 50% are becoming sexually active in one way or another. We don’t need to stake our claim on the continuum of sexual or gender identity but we need to acknowledge that there are differences. We don’t need to prophesize or sermonize, we need to neutrally synthesize biologically sound information if or when it comes to our classrooms. We could even determine how to recognize and target social-emotional growth, biological and developmental milestones in a meaningful way. Maybe even incorporate guided supports into our daily routines. We don’t have to sit and wait for these topics to come to us. We can boldly and calmly prepare our students to live in a world that is diverse and inviting.

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