Breaking the Gender Dichotomy: The Case for Transgender Education in School Curriculum
by Kand S. McQueen - August 14, 2006
Gender is viewed by western society, as well as most of the world, as a two-sided paradigm consisting of the specific categories of male and female. Accompanying this dichotomous archetype are very stringent, socially constructed rules and regulations defining precisely what it means to be a man or woman. Above all else, male and female are seen as separate entities and mutually exclusive, complementing, but never overlapping categories. Like the rest of society, much, if not most of current school curriculum is based around the assumption that all students can easily be classified as male or female, thereby perpetuating the dichotomous gender ideology; however, the truth is, while most people fit this paradigm, some do not. The purpose of this paper is to challenge the underlying assumptions of the gender dichotomy, to identify how the dichotomy affects all students, and to make a case for including a transgender curriculum in our schools.
Gender is viewed by western society, as well as most of the world, as a two-gender paradigm consisting of the specific categories of male and female. Accompanying this dichotomous archetype are very stringent, socially constructed rules and regulations defining precisely what it means to be a man or woman. Above all else, male and female are seen as separate entities and mutually exclusive, complementing, but never overlapping categories. Like the rest of society, much, if not most of current school curriculum is based around the assumption that all students can easily be classified as male or female, thereby perpetuating the dichotomous gender ideology; however, the truth is, while most people fit this paradigm, some do not. The purpose of this commentary is to challenge the underlying assumptions of the gender dichotomy, to identify how the dichotomy affects all students, and to make a case for including a transgender curriculum in our schools.
THE PHENOMENON OF TRANSGENDERISM
The great majority of people who perceive themselves as male are born with male genitalia and those who perceive themselves as female are born with female genitalia. The exceptions are transgendered persons (Cook-Daniels, 1997), who either permanently or periodically do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth (Carroll, Gilroy, & Ryan, 2002). Transgendered individuals physically appear to be one sex, but inwardly feel as if they are the other sex.
Currently, transgenderism is considered to be a psychological disorder. Gender dysphoria is a psychiatric term used to describe a fundamental incongruence between a persons birth sex and his or her gender identity. Also known as gender identity disorder (GID), it is characterized by a strong and persistent cross-gender identification and a persistent discomfort with ones sex that is not motivated by any perceived cultural advantages of being the other sex (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). At present, there is an ongoing debate about whether the condition of gender identity disorder should continue to be classified as a disorder. From a legal standpoint, New Jersey recently ruled that transsexualism, a form of transgenderism describing an individual who lives full time in the so-called opposite gender (Cook-Daniels, 2002), is a disorder and, consequently, a handicap (Kiely, 2001). Conversely, Bartlett, Vasey, and Bukowksi (2000) utilized empirical studies in an effort to determine if GID in children met the American Psychiatric Associations Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th Edition (DSM-IV) criteria of mental disorder. They concluded that the diagnostic category of GID in children as it currently exists should not appear in future editions of the DSM. Additionally, there is no evidence to support the idea of curing a young person of his or her gender dysphoric feelings (see Bradley & Zucker, 1997). While questions of transgender etiology provide for interesting epistemological discourse, the issue at hand concerns how schools should be dealing with students who do not fit the current gender dichotomy.
Homophobia is often attributed to a broadly established heterosexism, a term that Herek (1992b) defines as an ideological system that denies, denigrates, and stigmatizes any nonheterosexual form of behavior, identity, relationship, or community (p. 89). Similar to racism, sexism, and other systematic forms of oppression, heterosexism is perpetrated in both societal customs and institutions, and in individual attitudes and behaviors. The belief that everyone is, or at least should be, heterosexual feeds the rampant homophobia present in todays society. Similarly, there exists a gender dichotomism. Like heterosexism, gender dichotomism reflects the belief that everyone is born unambiguously male or female and anyone not fitting the dichotomy is seriously flawed. By failing to acknowledge the existence, let alone the normalcy of transgendered individuals, the schools only foster the hegemony of the gender dichotomist ideology.
GLB AND T?
Sexual orientation and gender identity are two completely different attributes, like age and race (Cook-Daniels, 1997). Most gay men feel like men and most lesbians feel like women. Transgendered individuals may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual. However, there appears to be somewhat of a tendency in at least some of the available literature to lump transgenderism in with gay, lesbian, and bisexual populations, even when to do so is questionable. For example, Mufioz-Plaza and Rounds (2002) conducted face-to-face interviews with 12 male and female participants in an effort to determine the types of social support systems available to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual (GLBT) high school students. These individuals were described as, 18-21 years old, who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (p. 52). The authors go on to apply their conclusions to GLBT adolescents. However, not one of the participants in the study was transgendered; transgendered youth were recruited but none chose to participate. Regardless, the authors continue to discuss their conclusions as if transgendered individuals were represented in their sample. Another example is found in a report that compared the challenges of GLBT homeless adolescents with their heterosexual counterparts (Cochran, Stewart, Ginzler, & Cause, 2002). The sample consisted of what was described as 375 sexual minority adolescents, aged 13-21. Only one youth self-identified as transgendered and yet the entire discussion proceeded to group T in with GLB.
Lack of scientific studies notwithstanding, there are similarities found in comparing the experiences of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students with those of the transgendered: Both groups are perceived as challenging the limits of acceptable gender behavior, which may be at least part of the reason they are ostracized by the gender-conforming majority of society-at-large (see Herek, 1992a).
There are, however, differences in the experiences of GLB and T students. Friend (1993) suggests that gay, lesbian, and bisexual students have been made invisible, their voices silenced. If GLB students are invisible, then transgendered students are currently inconceivable (Cook-Daniels, 1997). Consider, for example, the differences in nomenclature between the two groups. Homosexual has heterosexual as its opposite. The question, Are you homosexual? can be answered in the negative with, No, I am heterosexual. However, the word transgendered has no accepted opposite term. Hence, there is no easy way to answer the question, Are you transgendered? in the negative. Accordingly, the answer becomes, No, I am normal. This lack of terminology contributes to the underlying assertion that non-adherence to the gender dichotomy equates abnormality and deviancy even beyond the heterosexist view of same-sex attraction.
Another difference involves the locus of conflict for the two groups. Many gay, lesbian, and bisexual students come to realize that the conflicts they experience are a result of societys homophobia and heterosexism, not their own homo/bisexuality per se (Friend, 1993). Hence, the source of conflict for the gay, lesbian, or bisexual student lies outside of the individual, resulting in an external locus of conflict. Transgendered individuals also experience the effects of homophobia, heterosexism (whether warranted or not), and gender dichotomism. But unlike the GLB student, the transgendered individual also experiences a very personal, inner conflict: They feel they are in the wrong body. Even if gender dichotomism were non-existent and society was completely accepting of gender dysphoric individuals, these individuals would still have to live with the conflict of residing in a physical sex that is incongruent with their inner feelings. In this way, transgendered students experience both an external and an internal locus of conflict, and consequently, are doubly affected.
SCHOOLS AND THE TRANSGENDERED STUDENT
Friend (1993) proposes that schools have reinforced heterosexism and homophobia by employing two silencing mechanisms: systematic exclusion and systematic inclusion. Systematic exclusion occurs when positive role models, messages, and images about GLB people are silenced in the school. Examples of systematic exclusion include the following: teachers who take action to interrupt racist or sexist name-calling but do not intervene when homophobic comments are made; school officials who fail to protect students from peer harassment and violence; and also, the systematic exclusion of issues pertaining to sexual orientation from the curriculum. Systematic inclusion occurs when discussions regarding homosexuality are always placed in a negative context. Examples include characterizing a gay male as a predator of young boys, only speaking of homosexuality when addressing the topic of HIV/AIDSwhich serves to link homosexuality with danger and pathologyand only addressing sexual behavior when discussing homosexuality. This results in an underlying message that homosexuality equates with sex, while heterosexuality equates with love. While Friend makes an effective argument about the potential damage of such discourse, it should be noted that homosexuality, at the very least, is beginning to be acknowledged in the schools. Transgenderism is treated as a non-entity within school curriculum. If schools fail to raise awareness of the transgender phenomenon, students only exposure to this population may come from sources like The Jerry Springer Show.
Schools can begin to raise awareness by educating students about the existence of transgenderism. Many, if not most disciplines are already well suited to include this topic in their subject matter. Biological, historical, sociological, and legal perspectives are but a few of the ways to begin to introduce the incidence of transgenderism to the student population. The inclusion of a transgendered curriculum in our educational systems could begin to remove the mystery, and as a result, the stigmatization of transgendered individuals.
THE CASE FOR A TRANSGENDERED CURRICULUM
Several reasons exist for teaching transgenderism, as there are benefits to be gained from such a curriculum for both transgendered and non-transgendered students.
Benefits for Transgendered Students
For transgendered students, a benefit of teaching a transgendered curriculum is an environment that is free of emotional and physical abuse. Many members of society become uncomfortable when the established boundaries of gender appropriateness are crossed. Consequently, students who overtly challenge societys gender expectations are at an increased risk of harassment and physical attack, which is evidenced by the rationale behind most anti-gay violence. The most often cited reason for attacking a person who is perceived to be homosexual is the victims non-adherence to traditional gender roles (Patel, Long, McCammon, & Wuensch, 1995). Herek (1992a) posits that violent homophobic perpetrators may actually rationalize their actions by seeing gay people as worthy of punishment, which allows attackers to believe they are rendering gender justice by restoring the natural order. Whereas gay students are seen to be pushing gender boundaries by being sexual with a person of the same sex, transgendered students are seen as throwing the two-gender paradigm out the window. Violence, harassment, and terror often follow. Dennis and Harlow (as cited in Friend, 1993) claim that school officials are violating their in loco parentis duty when they fail to provide for students safety. By showing that the transgendered person is a human being and not some kind of mutant monster, other students can begin to let go of their fears and prejudices, which can result in a much safer environment for the transgendered student.
Teaching transgenderism can also result in increased self-esteem for transgendered youths. Oftentimes, young people who question their gender identity feel as if there is something intrinsically wrong with them. By coming to view transgenderism as a naturally occurring phenomenon, they can better accept who they are, resulting in happier, better-adjusted transgendered students.
Benefits for Non-Transgendered Students
Teaching acceptance for transgenderism automatically challenges the two-gender paradigm, which could be of value to non-transgendered male and female students. Adolescence is typically a time of strict gender adherence. Transgender awareness can work to break down those rigid gender stereotypes and begin to allow males and females to be more self-accepting of their own opposite gender qualities.
Hate, fear and prejudice can result in profound psychological baggage for those individuals coming from a gender dichotomist viewpoint. Eliminating prejudice can serve to free the bigot from his or her own victimization (Lipkin, 1996). Replacing the current misunderstanding, misinformation, mystery, and fear surrounding transgenderism with understanding and acceptance could lead to better overall adjustment for all concerned.
Once students are able to move beyond their initial discomfort, transgenderism could become a fascinating topic, one that could lend itself to much dialogue and discussion. When students are engaged, the opportunity for serious learning is enhanced.
It is generally assumed that male and female are mutually exclusive categories. Perhaps it is time for society to take a closer look at that assumption. The phenomenon of transgenderism provides a challenge to the two-gender paradigm.
There are many questions surrounding the occurrence of transgenderism that have yet to be answered. While there are multiple etiological theories in existence, there is no one definitive agreement on why transgenderism exists. What is known, however, is that there are people in the world, many of them students in public education, who do not identify with their assigned sex. Ignoring their existence only serves to foster the hegemony of the gender dichotomist ideology. By embracing a transgendered curriculum, education could instead help us to recognize a broader and richer conception of humanity.
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