change

Fabricated fear

I think I have found the impasse of single sex education in New Zealand. There is a piece of fabric that is commonly known as pants that seems to send some single sex (girls) schools into a hysteria over gender. This piece of clothing has been worn by women for a long time, yet girls schools in the 21st century maintain skirts and culottes and tunics (WTF…seriously…) as the only way for young ‘women’ to be recognised in public as belonging to a ‘girls school’.

I have already expressed my frustration with an open letter to secondary principals, but this one is particularly for girls schools. I thought feminism (in all its fraught, contested and colonised ways) enabled women to express a freedom of embodiment that was not reduced to a singular way of being female that is ‘feminine’ via dressing in coded uniforms, effectively cancelling out feminism. All this talk about empowering women while disabling their freedom to be uniquely powerful with their individuality. The paranoia about the public perception of ‘girls in pants’.

If young women are questioning their gender identity or expression at a girls school, are they ‘betraying feminism’? Do trans guys at girls schools represent some sort of confused status of ‘growing strong young women’? Does the public image of a school outweigh the mental health of transguys – who might be experiencing extreme dysphoria, anxiety, depression and possibly feel suicidal? How is that schools can give medical dispensation for students undergoing other forms of medical treatment to wear modified uniforms yet transguys cant wear pants to help them feel safe, secure and relieve the anxiety of the dysphoria that is exacerbated by being forced into femininity!

What is the point of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) if the ‘universe’ it proclaims to design for ignores the margins, or pretends they don’t go out that far here (i.e. but there are no transgender students here).

Seriously – denying young people the right to feel comfortable and safe in their own bodies sickens me. It is an institutional form of abuse I am tired of hearing wrapped up in rhetoric around community consultation, and tradition. I’m tired and fed up with platitudes of caring about student well-being and requiring them to be exposed to a dis-ease infested environment. I sometimes wonder if the 21st century fell out of the spacetime continuum and they had to pick up something to replace it so we got bits of the 20th up until about 1950 because I’m not seeing a lot of shift in schools towards freedom of individuality – but the complete opposite.

So if you are a doctor or medical professional who is supporting a young trans guy attending an all girls school, please write them a medical certificate that reads – ‘administer systemic change to your schools uniform policy, but in the mean time give this student pants’ – wear daily, wash regularly.

Open Letter To Secondary School Principals

Dear school leader,

I have been working in schools for 20 years. I am also a product of the New Zealand school system. I am also proud to work with young people in the 21st century. I’m aware of the challenges of change, of change that is occurring rapidly and the desire to produce the best possible outcomes for those in our institutions.

The desire to move with the times in regard to future oriented/focussed education has seen modern learning environments and the integration of technology to grasp the new and complex ways of working and creating‘ ‘confident, connected, actively involved life-long learners’. Ensuring young people have a strong sense of who they, to be ‘positive in their own identity’. Therefore I ask one simple question. How can young people who are questioning their gender or sexuality experience ‘inclusion’ while they are outrightly denied opportunities to be who they are? How can New Zealand Secondary Schools call themselves ‘non-discriminatory’ when their very practices are designed to enforce discrimination, in order to maintain a sense of school identity? I’m confused, and I don’t think it’s a phase.

While it seems that MLE’s work hard to break down physical and pedagogical barriers there appears to be a counter move to maintain traditional ideas of gender. We have inherited a legacy of ‘single sex education’ from the early 20th century and these are perhaps caught between tradition and historical constructions, but is this a valid reason to maintain policies and practices that deny the existence of transgender or those students who’s sense of self falls outside prescribed normative notions of masculinity and femininity? Schools find ways to respect cultural diversity through inclusion of additions to uniform but refuse to allow students flexible options to express their gender regardless of sexuality.

If I could suggest one thing that might enable a new way of thinking, I’d invite school leaders to see this not as a moral issue, rather an opportunity to bring the concept and representation of diversity into the 21st century, it is actually about accessibility. But not just access to physical space, but to social, emotional, psychological and pedagogical access to knowledge, ideas, and practices that validate their identity. Yes this is a plea to be MORE PC – to Please Consider, Providing Choice.

Please phase in uniform choice and phase out outdated assumptions that require male and female bodies to be clearly identified by separate uniforms. Gender inclusive practices go beyond bathrooms and changing facilities (but these are still needed), staff training around use of language that helps young trans, gender and sexually diverse people (including staff) feel acknowledged needs to be part of ongoing professional development.

There are new sexuality guidelines for school, please do not ignore them or hope that ‘common sense’ will suffice, otherwise, schools rely on sense informed by fear, myths, and misconceptions. Respect for diversity requires ‘unique sense’, careful and thoughtful consideration BUT more important, courageous action. That is, to acknowledge these students exist in your community whether visible or not. Allow groups of young people to form support groups, do not force them ‘underground’ and into the shadows, to slam the closet door shut to protect the reputation of the school, or your own. To me, this is the ultimate indicator of a school that has yet to grasp the value of a more complex, uncertain and flexible concept of diversity. I’m still waiting to see Principals encourage and endorse these groups openly. I hope I don’t have to wait for my own child to get to High School (you have 5 years to get it sorted).

As an ex health teacher and a counsellor I ask that you consider the violence inflicted by denying and invalidating at least 10% of a school population. Then consider the violence that is normalised by society through homophobic and transphobic language and ask yourself if you are satisfied ‘common sense’ is working to make schools safe for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, fa’afafine, and takataapui young people.

Finally a personal reflection question -are you leading your community into the future of diversity or the past?

Bi the way

I have been wondering how long it would take me to write this blog. It comes with some mixed feelings and apprehension, although I’m not sure why. So, I feel the need to come out…again…like start again with coming out. At the same time, I feel no need to yet the metaphor is so fun – like hide and go seek ‘in the closet, out, in another, in a bigger one, stuffier one…who will find me’. Maybe I just want a time machine and go back to 1986 and pass myself a note that says ‘do not tell your friend you think you might be a lesbian…DON’T DO IT’. I’ve never struggled with my sexuality, but I felt pressure to pick a side. In a binary system there isn’t a lot of choice. So way back in the heady days of androgyny and shoulder pads…(god…even singlets had them), if you were remotely attracted to the same sex you were gay. I was still into boys, liked them a lot, they liked me, and indeed I didn’t get to ummmm ‘test drive’ this same sex attraction for another 5 years. So…all that boy stuff in between was a phase?

So I want to re-out myself as more than likely bisexual. Although no-one really comes out as bisexual because it just doesn’t seem plausible to a lot of people who insist you must have a preference. Sure I do – sexy is sexy – done. Of course most people have their sexuality assumed by their relationship status. Which is why bisexuality itself doesn’t really ‘exist’ because monogamy insists on one partner at a time – the gender status of that person tends to define your sexuality publically. Except now I’m not even sure about my gender.

I’ve always been miss-gendered. Frankly that doesn’t bother me either. I have kind of handed over my gender status to the observer. If I’m seen as male that’s ok, except when I want to use a public toilet then I do feel grateful to be living in NZ where most people get that women sometimes have short hair and prefer shorts and jandals even in the middle of winter. But I do prefer unisex bathrooms, it just feels like anyone choosing to use them has their shit together.

Being a bisexual – bi-gendered person means I refuse to comply with most if not all usual norms around gender and sexuality however I am perpetually put into boxes, my identity is shaped by my relationships-family status and occupation. Labels serve others needs to make sense of the world, and especially themselves in relation to their own identity. The common normative assumptions form a comfortable zone of acceptance.

For the record ‘Bi’ is not a transitional sexuality, neither does it mean open to anything or anyone, at anytime, its not hypersexuality (sounds very sci-fi – like doing it at light speed). Bi women have a different experience than bi men, because of the implicit and explicit sexualisation of women for the pleasure of men, their bi status tends to be read more as sexual availability. The fear and misunderstanding for bisexual individuals comes from both gay and straight communities. People just can’t ‘figure it out’ and so make all sorts of strange and unusual statements to suggest there is something not quite right. Well – they couldn’t be more wrong. It feels pretty natural to me to be attracted to someone based on more than what they might or might not be packing in their undies.

But if I really could say anything to myself in 1986 it would be to not give myself a label and to trust my body to know and that shoulder pads do not look great when you already have actual shoulders.

docile rating

I’ve never been a huge fan of the decile rating system of schools in New Zealand. So when the government announced it is considering doing away with them I was a quietly optimistic for about a 10th of a second. Decile ratings are divisive and should be reviewed.  But I’m not convinced the idea of individual risk factors being used to target funding on an individual level is going to turn the tide of under achievement. It is yet another move to distance the stated intentions of economic and social policy from its effects. It’s another clever example of neo-liberal policy wrapped up in rhetoric around targeted funding. There are some pretty interesting criteria being proposed for defining those students ‘at risk’. Some are a little baffling, but probably are statistically accurate as I am sure there have been people crunching numbers in order to bring us such revelations.

Even if the decile rating system is disbanded it won’t change socio-economic segregation and stigmatising of particular schools based on demographic and dare I say it assumptions based on ethnicity. Education is precariously place in the society and the landscape of political manoeuvres.

However I wonder if we could replace the decile rating with a docile rating. Schools that teach to a 19th and 20th century curriculum and maintain a ‘bums in seats’ compliance model of learning would rate highly for docile learning. Those taking risks, enabling all kinds of energetic expressions and the presence of emotions with a valuing of novel and unique approaches to relationships would rate low in docile.

Businesses and employers would know what kind of ideas young people had experienced and how their thinking and ways of relating to diversity might have enabled or constrained their perspective. Docile ratings would be independent of the incomes of families and would reflect the commitment of a school to break free of traditional models and modes of learning.

Extra negative points for not having a uniform and having a play-ground at high school.

Please Rain On My Parade – It’s Lost Its Rainbow

On a warm sunny evening in central Auckland two celebrations were under way, the lantern festival and pride parade. Tough choice for some but great to have colour, culture, light and celebration taking centre stage.

This year I was in Ponsonby road, hoping to capture some of the pride vibe. However the vibe didn’t exactly resonate with me and the dissonance perhaps spoke more about the complexity of claiming spaces and rituals to define communities and identities within these. In the space of a couple of hours I moved through time, battled history and oppression, grappled with politics and ate ice-cream. It was an evening where morphing and refracting power through a socio-cultural-political-economic-historical-gendered lens offered a mixed perspective. And at times I lost focus, had things enlarged, split, minimised and dispersed.

Leaning up against the barricade in the sunshine took me back to a time when the parade was called Hero and it was a night time event. Large, vibrant loud and provocative. Church groups protesting with catchy phrases such as ‘Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve’. It wasn’t a family affair. But with the sun on my face, a 6pm start and children scooting along the footpath the sexual part of sexuality was toned down to the point of wondering if Santa might even show up. Church groups now IN the parade, Adam and Steve are now married and all political parties are suddenly claiming playing a part in the homosexual law reform bill.

Dykes on bikes and Miss Ribena – thank goodness for a queer constant in the rainbow tinted multi-verse leading the way. Then stopping, music from 1986 blaring at me, I can’t hear myself think as I am transported back to being 13 and catching a glimpse of myself in a shop window with almost the same haircut as I had then, but the sunglasses can’t hide the crows feet. Reflections and refractions of time. The parade has come to a halt. Protesters? What not the TPP again? Wait? No Pride In Prisons – a group peacefully disrupting the flow to bring focus to the treatment of transgendered people in prisons. I’m now dancing to distract myself from my own thoughts of violence and abuse, fear and hatred and the fact that Miss Ribena has been parked in front of me for 5 minutes music still blaring.

The police come through and the Minister smirking…then political parties…smirking….then Banks?….Tertiary Institutions?…Coke?…wait is this a corporate branding mission? There are a couple of vegans and some surfers from Raglan, where are the Tangata Whenua? A quiet truck goes past, beautiful bird sounds and I fear that is it for a bi-cultural presence. Pacific beats thrumb and a steel drum band pass by – back to party vibe finally.

But it just feels awkward, the barriers seem to magnify the incongruity. Dazed and bemused, I wonder who’s parade is it? Remembering the years I marched in body paint spinning and breathing fire, charged with adrenaline and endorphins and feeling life was an ever expanding fractal. I search for faces with that same look on the other side of the barriers. Zombies. Some people marching look thoroughly confused, like they are not sure why they are there, ‘what is this flag in my hand?’ I’m now cheering them on to reduce their obvious discomfort – this isn’t pride!

Fletcher building bringing up the rear with Grey Lynn Tyres – well at least there was rubber in there somewhere.

Our-dentity

And so tomorrow morning I will wake to my alarm for the first time in 5 weeks. My body will remember how to get to work and I hope my legs are ready for pumping pedals so early. I’ll shower and for the first time in 20 years I will not put my hair up. I will reach for my product and hope for the messiest look, one that will cause eyebrows to raise wondering if I intend it to look that way or maybe I am just off to the bathroom to fix it.

I’m now not sure what to wear. It would seem natural now I can almost pass for gender indifferent to go with my boyish (although I’m not sure at 43 that fits) short hair look and go all shorts and shirts. But I have found myself drawn to skirts and all things considered feminine including…a dress.

So I’m going to enjoy this week of reintroducing my-selves, in all genders and ages of expression. I’m struggling with this 40’s decade because I am way too old to be young and definitely too young to be considered old. In fact it is a strange way of locating people and putting them in a particular place this chronologically appropriate thing.

So maybe I need a skate board to go with the skirt and short hair and really mess things up. Think an orange skate board would look great beside my bike, with my plant and other more serious mature counsellor things like….ummmm…I’ll get back to you on that.

Back to the hair. It still interests me just how powerful hair length represents identity. But where is the ‘I’? Who is the ‘I’. So I’m ditching identity for ourdentity. Who’s with us?

Drowning sorrows

About a year ago I wrote a piece about the need for Kiwis to move on from the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude when it comes to water safety. I’m talking adult responsibility here, and I might even add driving, drinking and sex to the list of things we’d rather not talk about or simply assume this thing called ‘common sense’ will offer some guidance and protection. I’m wondering what all these things have in common and what aspects are unique or perhaps not so easy to make sense of. With four possibly five people drowning in just a single 24hr period it’s more than a personal tragedy it’s a question of relationships that go beyond individuals and notions of responsibility.

In terms of a philosophical shift in ‘where the buck stopped’ the move from God to the individual happened a while back (more commonly referred to as the Age of Enlightenment – although there are always shadows) and we’re still trying to figure out what that actually looks like in practice. We’ve made some reasonable steps in terms of recognising what chronological age might limit and we probably over cooked the gender thing at times. But the idea of connection and taking care of others has mutated into a ‘them and us’ separation with ‘them’ also incurring some form of repellent type shield protecting ‘us’ from any sense of care or even interaction. The emerging apathy becoming more a form of collective sociopathy. This is what concerns me and I don’t think we need another advertising campaign, or philanthropist chucking money at it.

What I do think (for what it’s worth) is if people can reconnect with a sense of community and connection regardless of the amount of length of time that community remains together, then ‘care taking’ might take on a more active and interactive form. A group at the beach, a line of traffic, a park, dance party, festival, these are ‘pop-up’ communities. In a way what probably needs to happen is something similar to what has occurred with technology where relationship have adapted and changed. Part of the hang up is about the meaning of ‘individual’ and ‘response-ability’. The idea of caring about others needs a 21st Century reboot, a decent ‘control-alt-delete’ jolt from Western metaphysical defaults – especially the Cartesian split.

Keeping others and ourselves safe from harm is an ethic, one that is sometimes a matter a life and death. Let’s talk about it and say hi to each other as a first step. Be safe out there – I care.

Moment Of Impact

Last night those dearest to me were in an accident. I was home making toast and cups of tea awaiting their arrival. When they didn’t arrive, I wondered if I should eat the toast. Then a call to say ‘we’ve been in an accident’ the next few moments seemed to last forever as I heard the words ‘we are ok’. Relief instantly overwhelmed me followed by anger and frustration.

Why are humans still in control of vehicles? I think once transport is fully automated then human ego’s will no longer kill others with wheels of mass destruction. Problem is we are attached to the idea that we – with our limited reaction times, varying degrees of visual acuity and general sense of entitlement and selfishness – should not give up our right to injure and kill others trying to move themselves around.

That’s what road deaths are – death by transportation is utterly ridiculous. To spend more money and resources to improve ways to do this is even more insane. I wonder if in 200 years we will look back on this era of obsession with cars like we might on the era of medicine where bloodletting and trepanning were acceptable.

Well, come to think of it many politicians do seem to talk like they have a hole in their head. Maybe trepanning is making a come-back after all. Or they have found a way to recycle crash test dummies.

when the only answer is ‘yeah-na’

I promise this is my last flag blog. It’s hard not to be taken by the colours red white and blue at the moment. I was all for change up until recently. But I’m not so sure anymore because I no longer know why I want change. My deep ambivalence is disconcerting and refreshing. Going through the process has given New Zealanders a chance to ask what we stand for it has started conversations beyond sport and the weather, truly remarkable. If one of the driving forces is to distinguish between the Australian flag and ours then I have a simpler solution just change the background colour. Heck there is nothing more distinctive than the green/gold vrs black/white rivalry why not just make it official. If I’m truly honest, my attachment to colours and symbols is waning in the face of a world divided by fear. This was a good dress rehearsal, a first draft of sorts and perhaps it is time to go back to the drawing board. It would be cool if we could get a flag that changed depending on the angle or perspective you had of it. That might speak more broadly of our colonial heritage and the hidden stories and identities as a nation.

Modern Learning Environments – rearranging the desks and chairs on the Titanic?

There are some great teaching practices going on in schools and other learning institutions. There are resources being developed, pumped, and thrown into the mix. And there is new furniture to buy desks and chairs in all sorts of configurations to ‘zhuzh up’ learning spaces. I’ve just been trying to do some ‘zhuzhing’ (how on earth do you spell zhuzh?). I hate shopping at the best of times I can barely buy my own lunch. But as my neurons fired off in a panic around table shapes, ottomans and whiteboards I wondered how a Modern Learning Environment (MLE) is defined.

Now I don’t teach anymore, so I’m hardly in a position to be an expert, but I’ve seen some of the wonderful work my colleagues do. Indeed the NZ media has taken on the subject of MLE’s this weekend and others like Sally Hart have responded more eloquently than I will. I suppose my question is more a philosophical one than a pedagogical one. I’ll leave that one to others who are more qualified to talk about differentiated learning in the 21st century. My question has to do with the structural power imbalances that still exist and more obviously defined by uniforms and how teachers relate to students via the use of titles such as Miss and Mr. I suppose it’s a bit curious how we have not seen any real shift in curriculum content and structure in the last 100 years either. Of course there have been ‘upgrades’. Subjects are still divided into sciences, arts, languages…etc. We still sit students down to sit 3hr exams (and expect teachers to mark them yesterday) – whether this is done on computers or not makes no difference – it’s just rearranging the deck chairs.

Why? I think the larger question is where does the school system fit in the 21st century? I believe that question has to be framed in the larger socio-political and economic framework. The basic format and purpose of schools has not changed. The illusion of change is superficial and alluring especially the advances in technology – shiny things. Basically, schools are still training workers for jobs to contribute to economic growth. We are creating conscientious consumers – but still consumers. Schools train young people to fit society. The various rituals and protocols are about providing opportunities to know the expected success pathways of life – be heterosexual, but if you are gay (or any other variety of diversity) get married, reproduce, get into debt, spend the rest of your life paying it off, maybe save the world on the side and create a cure for cancer and world peace, and be happy.

Perhaps a little cynical. Perhaps uncomfortably accurate. Regardless I still hate shopping and we know what happened to the Titanic. Time to design a better ship to move through a different medium.