For many of my coworkers, and several of my contemporaries, the discussions around gender swap/switch/bender day were always framed with “it’s a school tradition.” Yet I am beginning my fourth school year here, and I have never seen that be part of Spirit Week. I wouldn’t even know that it’s been done here before if I hadn’t seen pictures of male students crossdressing, which a former coworker had on her desk because they had been her students. So when a poster went up at work that set out the dress-up days for Spirit Week and Tuesday was labeled “Gender Switch,” I stopped mid-step in the hallway and stared. Within seconds, all sorts of awful scenarios started running through my head, and when I walked to my classroom I immediately looked it up online. Surely, this wasn’t still a thing… was it?
My searched turned up an article from May of last year, where a Wisconsin elementary school faced backlash over that day. Good, I thought. Other people get that it’s not cool. I felt vindicated for approximately 30 seconds… and then I read the article itself. I was shocked to find that every argument they were making was, in my opinion, either homophobic or transphobic–that the same assumptions I wanted to avoid by canceling that day were the assumptions that were being used as arguments to cancel the day at that elementary school.
The Huffington Post, which itself was quoting a different news source, chose to highlight two quotes that were excellent examples of the attitudes I am referencing:
“I think it’s just teaching them the wrong lesson about gender. If you’re a boy, stay a boy. You shouldn’t have something like that at school,” an unidentified father told the station.
Hernandez said she finds the theme “ridiculous” and “creepy” and added that “having students dress as ‘transvestites’ will distract from the learning process,” the outlet writes. She also suggested the event promotes the acceptance of homosexuality to students.
“They might as well call it ‘Transgender Day,’” she told EAG, adding that she has “never stepped out” to complain about something.
The level of ignorance in these statements is, frankly, outrageous. There are a ton of issues with the idea of having a day where you allow 14-year-olds to dictate what it’s like to be male or female based on their outfits–but none of those issues involve being creepy, or changing student’s gender identity, or “promoting” homosexuality (or even its acceptance, which should be promoted anyway but doesn’t even factor into this conversation). So what, then, are the issues that I found with this day?
As I just stated, the idea that teenagers get to decide what is masculine enough or feminine enough is problematic. Male students immediately started talking about how they had to wear dresses, do their makeup, and gossip, as if those were the only indicators of femininity. Female students immediately talked about baggy clothes, swearing, and beards, as if those were the only indicators of masculinity. So anyone whose outfit choices diverged from those caricatures would immediately stand out as not feminine or masculine enough–something that is already a problem for many of those students in the first place.
Moreover, it perpetuates the notion that gender is a binary notion. What happens to the people whose gender identity falls outside of these neatly-drawn lines? What happens to the people who are trying to discern their gender identity? What happens to the people who know their gender identity but refuse to conform to society’s bullshit expectations for said gender? They are excluded; their choices are deemed illegitimate.
The most important point, for me, is that none of these issues are simply a conceptual problem I am having with this–they are all real issues that will affect real students in my building. As I sat here thinking about it, I immediately saw students’ faces. I saw them clear as day, walking down the hallway–and my brain supplied choice bits of what some of their classmates would say. As I thought of those students, I thought of how hard we have worked over the past three years I have been here so that all students felt accepted. How it has taken this long for students and adults alike to unlearn their bad habits and misconceptions about gender and sexual orientation. How, in one day, we could lose all that work and set my entire building back.
The comforting thing was that I was not alone in my outrage, in my fear. In the quiet of my classroom after the night school students went home, with the cold night creeping in through the windows, my coworker and I talked about why it was problematic, and how to bring it up with administration, and how to use this as a teaching moment. We shared tales of the trans* people in our lives, and how much we love them, and how as cisgendered people we need to work so much harder to be good allies and make sure that we are making their voices be heard. And as my coworker walked me to my car, he smiled and said, “I’m going to ask ___________ to look it over. You know, so we make sure we’re addressing the right concerns.”
I know it’s a cliché, but I swear my heart grew four sizes at that moment–and I have never loved or respected that coworker more.