My daughter returned from her third grade ‘Meet the Teacher’ with news she’d heard through friends: a boy in her class last year was now wearing a dress and using a girl’s name. As I responded to this statement with excitement and thoughts about how she could support her peer. I wondered what the school was doing to create a safe space for this child to explore their gender? And how would the school help my daughter and other children accept diverse gender expressions?
Children need support from adults to help them think differently about gender and sexuality, but many adults are unsure how to begin such conversations. Educational researcher Elizabeth Meyer and her team argue that we need to move beyond rainbow stickers, ally t-shirts, and other forms of passive support to create an intentional and inclusive space where all children and families feel welcomed and affirmed.
Incorporating LGBTQI+ inclusive practices has a positive effect on children’s spirituality. It’s a justice-oriented activity that normalizes the gender diversity already present in children’s groups and helps children think about ways they can be more inclusive. In addition, it supports all children as they question cultural understandings of gender and develop their own identities based on personal experiences and a sense of self.
There are many ways leaders can help children explore and appreciate diverse gender and sexual identities:
Rethink practices and habits that encourage binary gender norms. Pay close attention to how gender norms are built into your program structure. Instead of addressing your group as “boys and girls,” use a gender-neutral term like “friends.” Avoid statements like “your mom and dad” that assume a heterosexual set of parents. Examine your behavior for other ways you unwittingly reinforce gender binaries in your practices and expectations. These might include having children sit boy-girl-boy-girl, praising girls for their appearance and boys for their performance, or expecting boys to be boisterous and girls quiet.
Use books as a gateway to explore gender and sexual diversity. Examine the books you read with children. Do they represent a variety of gender identities? Do they reflect the diversity of LGBTQ families and relationships? If not, add books to your collection that offer greater diversity. During read-alouds, try substituting a plural pronoun (they/them) for “he’ or “she” as you read. And when you do read a gender-stereotyped story, invite children to explore what happens if the characters’ gender identities shift. Does the plot work the same with timid boys and courageous girls, or men who care for children and women who set off on a quest?
Provide specific teaching on gender and sexual diversity. Children need information to counter normative gender stereotypes. Use a tool like The Genderbread Person (see Related Resources) to talk about how our identities are influenced by anatomical sex, gender identity, gender expression, and attraction. Adopt resources created by advocacy groups such as the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) or Love in a Big World to examine cultural norms about gender and sexuality in more detail. You might even create an online or physical space where children can post questions about gender and sex that the group will research and discuss.
Photo Credit: https://www.genderbread.org/