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Gender identity lessons, banned in some schools, are rising in others

Students are told that dolls aren’t just for girls, and that there are no ‘boy colors’ or ‘girl colors’

Science Teacher Max Firke watches the closing panel at the end of the annual Pride Town Hall at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., in May. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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Some lessons are direct: “Who can describe what transgender means?” In other classes, the discussion is more subtle: “Remember, families can come in all shapes and sizes!”

Sometimes teachers simply shift their language to reflect gender diversity that may be in the room. Instead of “Good morning, boys and girls!” the teacher might say, “Good morning, scholars!”

In Florida and several others states, educators are restricted in teaching about gender identity, but elsewhere, teachers are embracing the topic as the number of transgender and gender nonbinary children rises.

Resources and lesson plans for those who want to teach about gender identity are becoming much more common. Seven states now require that curriculums include LGBTQ topics. The National Sex Education Standards, developed by experts and advocacy groups, name gender identity as one of seven essential topics, alongside puberty, consent, sexual orientation and other subjects. And the federal government recommends that schools include gender identity in their sex education programs.

“There’s years of research that demonstrate that curriculums that include respect for others regarding their sexual orientation and gender identity are more effective,” said Kathleen Ethier, director of the division of adolescent and school health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s true not just for LGBTQ students, she said. “When you make a school environment safe and supportive for the most vulnerable youth, you improve the school environment for everyone.”

Opponents argue that teaching about gender identity is driven by liberal ideology and is inappropriate for children, especially young children. Five states, including Florida, ban or limit how teachers can talk about gender identity and sexual orientation, with at least 10 states considering such measures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Books that feature transgender or nonbinary characters have been subject to numerous ban attempts.

The restrictions often go beyond the classroom. Many districts have resisted efforts to allow transgender students to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity, and 18 states limit transgender women from competing in women’s and girls’ sports, though some measures are on hold pending a court challenge. Philadelphia’s school district even came under fire for informing teachers about an independent Trans Wellness Conference where some attendees discussed how to support youth who are transitioning genders.

Classes that address gender identity are still the exception in American schools. But an increase in the number of young people identifying as trans or gender nonconforming has prompted many schools to change course and adopt lessons that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. A Gallup survey released last year found 16 percent of young adults in Generation Z identify as LGBT, more than any other generation.

The approaches vary, particularly for elementary schoolchildren. In some classrooms, lessons about gender identity focus on gender stereotypes. Students in first grade, for instance, may be prompted to consider that there are no “boy colors” or “girl colors.”

Some classes use the book “I Am Jazz,” the story of a transgender girl. “I have a girl brain but a boy body,” she says. “This is called transgender. I was born this way!”

A lesson meant for first grade called “Pink, Blue and Purple” comes from a curriculum called “Rights, Respect, Responsibility” developed by the activist group Advocates for Youth. It tells students that gender is not a fixed attribute.

“You might feel like you’re a boy even if you have body parts that some people might tell you are ‘girl’ parts,” the teachers are told to say. “You might feel like a girl even if you have body parts that some people tell you are ‘boy’ parts. And you might not feel like you’re a boy or a girl, but you’re a little bit of both. No matter how you feel, you’re perfectly normal!”

The lesson continues with students looking at various toys and assessing if each best suits boys, girls or anyone. Through discussion, the teacher helps students understand that all the toys — dolls, drums, paints, helicopters — are for anyone.

New Title IX rules set to assert rights of transgender students

In his kindergarten classroom, one teacher in western Massachusetts using “Rights, Respect, Responsibility” introduces the idea of gender as part of an exploration of identity. He explains that people use all sorts of pronouns: he, she, they, ze. He introduces the terms transgender and gender queer but doesn’t fully define them because that is too much for kindergartners, said the teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his district did not authorize him to speak publicly.

He talks to students about anatomy but declines to classify various body parts as male or female. “We don’t say a penis belongs to a man,” he said. It belongs to a human, he explains.

And he makes clear that even if a doctor proclaims at birth, “It’s a boy!” that baby may not be a boy. “Someone who was born a boy may not feel they are a boy.”

Similar lessons are offered in older grades in his school, building in sophistication as children get older.

Others take a more moderate approach. Kara Haug, who teaches sex ed in several Sacramento-area elementary schools, does not bring up the question of gender identity in her classes, which are mostly grades five or six.

But she said her pupils often ask about it, and she will answer. Once, for instance, a student asked: “Can we stop our periods if we don’t want them because we feel like a boy?” So she explained how hormones work.

Another curriculum called HealthSmart obliquely addresses gender identity in fifth grade in the context of respect for oneself and others. Students read stories about children their age and discuss whether the characters seem to be boys or girls or whether it’s unclear. They read about a child who is bullied because of gender expression and then create a text message campaign to encourage their peers to accept and respect diversity.

HealthSmart explores the subject more directly in middle school, where body parts are presented in a gender-neutral way: It might refer to a “body with a penis,” for instance, rather than specifying that boys have penises. People are referred to as partners, not boyfriends or girlfriends.

“There’s a real push to be inclusive of all students,” said Suzanne Schrag, senior curriculum editor at ETR, which publishes the HealthSmart curriculum. She said gender identity was not discussed in the previous version of the HealthSmart curriculum, published in 2012-2013, but was added in a 2020 update.

In high school, some teachers are more direct. Sam Long, a transgender man who teaches biology at Denver South High School, said he regularly discusses gender identity in his classes.

“LGBTQ identities are a naturally occurring facet of human variation, and that is why we need to learn about them in the context of biology and human anatomy,” he said.

Long encourages students to consider that gender on a spectrum is an alternative to thinking of gender as a binary. At the start of each year, he talks about his own personal story and transition.

Bill Farmer, a science teacher in Evanston, Ill., takes a similar approach. Like Long, he teaches about people with intersex traits — those born with reproductive or sexual anatomy who do not fit a traditional male or female binary. And he introduces the idea that gender is a social construction, not a biological fact.

He teaches that there are three separate identities: biologic sex, or what sex organs one has at birth; gender identity, or what gender one identifies with; and gender expression, meaning how one presents to the world. So a student might paint his fingernails — a typically female gender expression — but still identify as a boy.

“There’s not many spaces where students have the opportunity to engage in these discussions in a more structured way and where there’s a safe space to ask questions,” he said. He added that there are at least one or two trans or nonbinary students in each of his classes, more than ever before. “Most students are testing out or trying to figure out where they fall in their gender identity.”

Out of 10 biology teachers at his school, he estimated that four or five talk about these issues in class.

In Maryland, officials at the Education Department included gender identity in the statewide standards that were recently adopted for sex ed. But that doesn’t mean all teachers will teach these topics, said Lea Jaspers, who helped write the plan.

The framework calls for instruction to represent all students regardless of gender identity and other factors, but as a matter of practice, each district decides for itself how to teach the subject. Jaspers thinks it’s mostly used in schools where a student has identified as transgender, and she said one of the goals was to be sure those lessons were state-approved for teachers who need them.

“The framework is very comprehensive so a teacher could never say, ‘We are not allowed to say that,’ ” she said.

Due to the politics, the landscape remains a patchwork, with most students not exposed to these ideas, said Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, executive director of GLSEN, which advocates for LGBTQ students in K-12 schools.

“One district might have a safe and affirming and inclusive curriculum,” she said. “Another across the way could be having a vastly different experience … It’s deeply uneven.”

Sometimes, schools add these lessons because they become aware of a particular student grappling with identity questions and want them and their peers to feel comfortable. In other cases, the lessons reflect a changing culture where these subjects are considered less taboo, and where school leaders want kids who haven’t yet realized they might be LGBTQ to come out in a supportive climate.

“There are trans and nonbinary kids from K through 12. It is not unusual. It is probably true in every school in the country,” said Ellen Kahn, senior director of programs and partnerships at Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which offers training for schools that want to adopt an LGBTQ-inclusive approach. “Some are more willing to lean in and learn.”

Kahn said the number of training requests from schools have nearly doubled in the last year, with about half coming because they became aware of one or more student who is transgender or nonbinary.

Nonetheless, while these lessons appear to be more common, they are far from universally accepted, and lessons seen as too explicit or aimed at young children often face blowback.

Conservatives argue that inclusive curriculums pose a special challenge. Lessons in schools amounts to “cult grooming and ideological grooming,” in which students are taught that their gender is “fluid” and can be changed, said James Lindsay, a conservative activist who has advised legislators on measures dealing with gender and race.

The rise in children identifying as transgender or gender nonbinary, he argued, is being driven by a culture that introduces the idea to children who might never have adopted it on their own.

“The message is if you dress or act a certain way you might not be the sex you are,” he said. “When I was a child I wanted to grow up to be a firetruck. Children do not always know exactly what is going on in the world and they need some strong boundaries to protect them.”

In Maine, Gov. Janet Mills (D) removed a video where a teacher explains gender identity to kindergartners from the state’s education department website after the Maine Republican Party began airing an ad attacking the governor for it. In the video, the teacher says that sometimes doctors “make a mistake” when they tell parents whether their newborns are boys or girls.

“A review of the video led the Department to conclude that the lesson is not something we would recommend including as part of kindergarten instruction, and, as such, has been removed from the site,” spokesman Marcus Mrowka said in a statement.

The teacher, Kailina Mills, replied that she was disappointed by the move. “The Maine Department of Education and Mills administration caved to pressure instead of standing up for some of the most vulnerable people, families and students in Maine,” she said in a statement.

In New Jersey, statewide standards for teaching sex ed are set to take effect this fall. They include discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity. One school system caused a stir when it presented a possible first-grade curriculum that explained to first graders that some boys may not feel like boys even if they have “body parts that some people might tell you are ‘boy parts.’”

Gov. Phil Murphy (D) responded by ordering a review of the guidelines and said some lesson plans “do not accurately reflect the spirit of the standards.”

The state education department then issued a clarification that discussion of gender identity should involve gender stereotypes (math isn’t just a “boy subject,” for instance). It added: “They should also help children to understand that every person deserves respect, no matter their identity or expression.”

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