It’s okay to be different: maybe all of us need to go back to kindergarten

Talking about gender can be difficult because of how we view the word ‘different.’ Saying ‘men and women are different’ isn’t an innocuous statement because of how we approached different. Different is not simply ‘not the same.’ In our culture, different comes with a value judgment. Different means ‘not the same and one of these is less than.’ Different means ‘one of these is not the default.’ This is why I define sexism as ‘the idea that male/masculinity is the default (or preferred) gender, and female/femininity is less than.’ Our cultural sexism comes from this belief that there is a default gender, even though it’s a 50/50 toss up what gender you will be born. Nature has no preference. It flips a coin. When people start to talk about the differences between the sexes, this argument and our cultural idea of different rises to the surface. There is a preferred option, the Default. Then there is the Other, which is less preferable, and if you can find ways not to be associated with it, that’s great! (Not really.) That’s why I’m wary when I read about the innate differences between males and females. I’m not saying these differences aren’t real (some are), but many differences are cultural or exaggerated by our need to make one set of traits preferable to the other.

We make value judgments about everything, gender included. There is a default, make no mistake. This is why it’s difficult for me to get a grasp on how to deal with gender problems. How do you teach gender and address real gender differences without further exacerbating the idea that one gender quality is preferable over another? One way to not talk about gender is to coin ridiculous terms such as ‘reverse sexism.‘ Sexism works one way, the Default over the Other, and it affects BOTH genders. There could be an argument female qualities are being more valued in society now, but that still doesn’t make female qualities the Default.

Jessica Mack sums up how I feel about the idea of ‘reverse sexism.’

This is why we should drop-kick the term “reverse gender gap.” It’s alarmist, annoying, and sexist in its very syntax. It conjures up some kind of endless gender pendulum that will swing endlessly to extremes. Also, it’s disempowering to men. I know quite a few men and women partnered up with members of this new gender-norm-upending, breadwinning gaggle of femme fatales. I don’t think they see themselves as losers on the short end of the stick.

Ah, the endless gender pendulum. How do we break that bi-polar need for the Default and the Other? It’s a question that is larger than gender and might go to the very core of most of the problems in America. We swing between extremes. Obese vs. anorexic, men vs. women, black vs. white, Left vs. Right, nerd vs. jock, and the list just goes on and on. It’s endless, it’s tiring, and it’s not productive. We can’t correct real problems, like sexism, if we keep trying to swing the gender pendulum between extremes. That’s why crying ‘WHAT ABOUT THE MEN!!??!!!?!?!’ doesn’t do any good. Well, yes, men have problems, but they’re caused by this bi-polar extreme we stumbled into creating. We define each other on characteristics we may have had no control over picking. Did you decide to be born in a particular city? Did you pick your race? We can pick our gender with a bit more freedom, but we can’t do this at birth. I think this bi-polarism comes from the need for Americans to believe we are all born with innate, unchangeable characteristics. Maybe it’s easier that way. The world is simpler if we can say, ‘Oh, they were just BORN that way.’ (Side note: the ‘born this way’ argument has been used to great affect at getting people to accept LGTB rights, and I’m not arguing with that progress.)

I’m now going to end with happiness! And most of all, I’m going to suggest a solution. This post by Ms. Melissa (as she is referred to in the article), is about how she realized the need for gender education in the classroom. She found students, by the ages of six and seven, confirming and enforcing the rigid, bi-polar gender roles of American culture. I’m going to quote the part about how gender conformity starts, literally, when we’re born.

Gender is not a subject that I would have broached in primary grades a few years ago. In fact, I remember scoffing with colleagues when we heard about a young kindergarten teacher who taught gender-related curriculum. We thought her lessons were a waste of instructional time and laughed at her “girl and boy” lessons.

My own thoughts about gender curriculum shifted when I became a mother. As I shopped for infant clothes for my first daughter, I was disgusted that almost everything was pink and there was no mistaking the boys’ section of the store from the girls’. I refused to make my baby daughter fit in the box that society had created for her. “What if she doesn’t like pink?” I thought. “What if she likes tigers and dinosaurs?”

As my two daughters grew, I talked with them about gender stereotypes. I let them choose “boys’” clothes if they wanted to (and often encouraged them because they are more practical). The first week of kindergarten, my younger daughter’s teacher told me that she had a heated argument with a boy while they played dress up. “She insisted that boys can wear dresses if they want to,” the teacher told me. I beamed with pride.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I had a child dealing with gender variance (defined as “behavior or gender expression that does not conform to dominant gender norms of male and female”) in my classroom that I realized how important it is to teach about gender and break down gender stereotypes. Why did I wait so long? I should have taken a hint from that kindergarten teacher years ago. As I thought about how to approach the topic, I realized that the lessons I was developing weren’t just for Allie. She had sparked my thinking, but all the children in my class needed to learn to think critically about gender stereotypes and gender nonconformity.

I read this and was blown away by how young we teach children to enforce gender norms. I did notice there wasn’t an explicate a judgment made about whether male or female was considered better. The children were just supposed to follow one set or stereotypes or the other. I suspect that later in life they’re taught to value one set of stereotypes over the other. To value one end of the bi-polar pendulum, you have to confirm and enforce these rigid standards. There has to be the ‘us or them’ mentality to get this sexism thing in motion. The entire piece is a wonderful point-by-point of the different ways Ms. Melissa taught her children about gender. Here, however, is the part I really liked:

Toward the end of the discussion I explained: “People make all kinds of different decisions about gender. Sometimes, as we grow, we might not want to pick one or the other, and that’s OK; we don’t have to.” I wanted them to begin to see that our lessons were not only about expanding the gender boxes that we’ve been put into, but also questioning or eliminating them altogether.

Afterward, I had the students do a simple write-and-respond exercise. I asked them to pick one activity that they associated with girls and one associated with boys to write about and illustrate. Monica drew two brides in beautiful wedding gowns. Miguel drew a man with a purse slung over his shoulder. I showed off the pictures on the hallway bulletin board around the words “It’s OK to Be Different.”

Only when ‘It’s OK to Be Different’ can we talk honestly about differences and how they affect our lives. Living in the world of Default and Other bars honest conversation. Living in a world of honest differences could be a place where problems get solved. It could be a place where more people are safe and happy.