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Part 1: Terms and Definitions for Gender-Inclusive Classrooms

By Dana Stachowiak
 | Jul 02, 2018

gender-inclusive-classroomsThis is the first installment of a five-part series on cultivating gender-inclusive classrooms. It was written as a complement to “The Power to Include: A Starting Place for Creating Gender-Inclusive Literacy Classrooms,” an article that appears in the July/August issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.  

Understanding the appropriate terms and their definitions is incredibly important in cultivating gender inclusivity in your classroom.

The terms sex and gender, although often used interchangeably, are defined differently. Sex refers to the biological and genetic makeup of a person’s body—a binary used to label someone a man or a woman. It is important to note here that this binary fails to create a space for people who are intersex, or those born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that is both or neither male nor female by definition.

Gender refers to the socially constructed rules and roles that exist to define what it means to be masculine or feminine. Over the past several decades, gender rules and roles have been challenged, largely in the name of equality and inclusion. For example, where women were once told that only men could be mechanics because it is a more “masculine” line of work, women are now being told they can do anything a man can do in the workforce. If we think more deeply about gender as a socially constructed concept that has changed over time, we can see how it is different than sex. Sex, on the other hand, has remained a constant binary of male or female (again, though, with the  exclusion of intersex individuals).

This leads us to the next term: gender identity. Gender identity is how an individual personally identifies in terms of their gender. Because sex and gender have gone hand in hand with binary thinking, people whose sex aligns with the female gender often identify as feminine, thus embodying traits that have been named as such. Likewise, people whose sex aligns with the male gender often identify as masculine, thus embodying traits that have been named as such. When someone aligns their sex with these gender norms, they are cisgender.

Western society is one of the few societies that only recognizes two genders, but when we think in terms of gender identity, we recognize that there is more diversity in gender, including transgender, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming. It is important to note a few things before reading forward. First, I recognize there are many more gender identities than these; however, for the scope of this blog, these three will be discussed in depth. Second, the definitions I use for each of these terms are general and meant to be a starting point for understanding. I encourage readers to seek out information about the other genders and to listen to how people identify themselves. Honor all identities, do not assume pronouns, and respect each individual’s choice. Gender identity is personal to each individual, and any definitions used here reflect my positionality (as a white, genderqueer scholar), research, and experiences.

The term transgender (or trans), is becoming more familiar, but is still not widely understood. Transgender is often used as an umbrella term to describe individuals who transgress gender norms, but more often, transgender is a term for people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were deemed at birth. It is not appropriate to ask a trans person to identify their sex. Genderqueer is used by individuals who identify as both male and female, sometimes only male or only female, and sometimes neither male nor female. Gender nonconforming individuals do not conform to gender norms. If we think of transgender as an umbrella term, both genderqueer and gender nonconforming could fit under this category, but not everyone who identifies as genderqueer, for example, also identifies as transgender.

The topic of sexual orientation is beyond the scope of this post, but it is important to know that discussing sexual orientation is distinct from discussing gender identity.

Stachowiak will participate in ILA’s Equity in Education Program at the ILA 2018 Conference in Austin, TX. Literacy and Our LGBTQ Students: Starting and Sustaining Schoolwide Transformation, a panel featuring a cross-sector of literacy leaders, inclusive educators, and activists, will take place on Saturday, July 21, from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM at the Austin Convention Center. The full recording will be archived on our Facebook page.

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