Monday, October 19, 2015

Falling Between the Cracks - When Declaring an Identity Does More Harm than Good

While I have read Nakkula and Toshalis before, and contemplated gender in the classroom (and in my research project last year), I feel as if this time around, I am left with more questions. This book does an excellent job of breaking apart the different bits and pieces that make up a person's identity - one of the major components being societal norms and expectations, and what they mean for human beings. "The players are lost to the play itself" (Nakkula 100) seems to be a perfect analysis for what "defining gender" means for adolescents. As humans, we are all in some sense "playing a part," but, for some of us, that "part" comes more naturally than for others. Some of us don't feel the need to modify or break out of the mold that society expects us to fit into, while some can't fathom trying to fit into the mold. So what does this mean for our students? What does it mean that they are trying to define something that might not need to be defined right now? Why can't society allow children and adolescents to "try on" gender, masculinity and femininity, instead of making a definitive choice? What would that even look like/sound like/be like?

Tillett Wright is an activist, speaker, writer, photographer. In her TedxWomen talk "Fifty Shades of Gay" (which I found both captivating and fascinating), Wright brings up her childhood, and the notion that we, immediately upon meeting people, put them into "boxes" because acceptance means there is some sort of bonding going on. She then talks about how these boxes are both limiting and dangerous - and I wonder if our students feel that way when asked to try and define themselves. Perhaps we put too much emphasis on "finding oneself" or "discovering who you are" when instead we should be focused on "try it on" and "see how you feel." Most importantly, Wright talks about the support she had from her parents no matter who or what she decided to wake up and be - she "wasn't asked to define [herself] at any point, just allowed to be." She then felt this weird shift when asked to pick a side - boy or girl, gay or straight. She said she knew deep down that she was none of those things definitively, and because of that, she "fell between the cracks." 

How many of our students are "between the cracks" right now, especially at a time when labeling or defining oneself as "gay" or "transgender" can be seen as a heroic act of courage. What about those students that truly don't know what or who they are, and don't feel like they should have to decide one or the other, but are being asked to do so? I know we have talked about the genderbread person, and the masculinity/femininity spectrum....but why should our students have to pinpoint exactly where they fall? I think our fight needs to be redefined and fully understood in this way: "Gender identity work in our schools is the work of freedom fighting. It is a fight for the freeing of authentic expression, for the full presentation of all our students. It is the fight to help our students be fully present as learners, as classmates, as the people they see themselves to be" (115). 


  1. I just finished reading Melissa's blog and I think it's interesting that you both mentioned the way that gender can be limiting. And I love the way you explain, "Perhaps we put too much emphasis on "finding oneself" or "discovering who you are" when instead we should be focused on "try it on" and "see how you feel." That's a huge shift in the way that self-expression/self-esteem/etc. is typically approached. How would our roles as teachers change? What would administrators, district officials, and other educational leaders have to do to support such a philosophy? How would the public react?

  2. I agree Tina, as we have already talked about this year, labels are limiting, even if we are labeling ourselves. I like the idea of having a space where we can try on different identities and see how they feel. We can make decisions about who we are, but we do not need to "pin-point" as you (Tina) said, but that we move fluidly though our choices. How often do we even as adults make decisions based just on our OWN feelings and thoughts?

  3. Tina, yes...why do our students need to make definitive decisions about their identities when they are at a place where they are still in the process of developing their identities?? Like you say...our students should be encouraged to "try it on" in terms of gender identities and sexual orientations. Also, I like the way you use the word spectrum when you discuss masculinity and femininity because I think that word fits perfectly. Where do any of us fall on the gender spectrum and how can we get our students to begin to think in these terms??

  4. Tina,
    Nice use of blank space here, also great video. Another person who discusses issues related to Tillett is comedienne Tig Notaro, whose recent standup is entitled "Boyish Girl Interrupted," really excellent and courageous stuff. Tillett uses the word "Pundits" I think any time we are talking about pundits whether they be within the peer group or not, we are in dangerous territory. A pundit is an expert or, in this case, a self-proclaimed expert, who proffers their opinions, and they can be really dangerous. Support is much harder than finger pointing, understanding tougher than labeling. What if clothing stores were just organized by size, rather than gender? What if toy stores just had creative areas? Could we at least let our children explore, before adolescence, maybe then we might get to some really interesting questions and discussions.