identity

Image difference

The longer I work in a secondary school, the more I realise how much the public image of a school matters. I’m really fascinated at how diversity fits with a schools image. Many schools report they ‘value diversity’ or ‘celebrate diversity’. More often than not they mean cultural diversity, actually I would say almost exclusively (thanks to the New Zealand Curriculum statement) diversity really just means ethnicity. But this is where things get interesting and a little perplexing.

Alongside this schools are charged with supporting young people to develop a strong sense of their identity. Again this seems on the surface to be just fine, except when other forms of diversity start to ‘contaminate’ the pristine, clean cultural definitions. This is the most popular image used in school advertising across the county, a picture of smiling faces of various ethnicities. For simplification, the rhetoric goes something like this:

  • We love diversity – so you need to all wear a uniform, and wear the correct one for your assigned sex, oh and no other outward signs of individuality like piercings or hair colour, style, length…but we want you to be yourself.
  • We celebrate diversity – but not pride week, no you can’t have an LGBTQ+ group – people might object and that would make the school look bad. But we will do pink shirt day because being anti-bullying looks good for our image.
  • We value diversity – but let’s make sure students with unique needs are siloed off so they don’t disrupt the learning of others.
  • We are inclusive of diversity – but our common room isn’t accessible.
  • We encourage diversity – so long as you’re not failing NCEA and making our stats look bad.
  • We welcome diversity – but we are a single sex school so you have to have the right body parts to attend.
  • We embrace diversity – so long as you manage your anger, fear, sadness and frustration and behave the same as everyone else.
  • We recognise diversity – but if you are bullied for being transgender this might not be the school for you, you’re asking for special treatment and it’s just too hard for us to adapt to the 21st Century, bathrooms have always been this way, actually we’d prefer not to know you exist at all.
  • We support diversity – only if you behave in ways that keep everyone comfortable, so don’t be too gay…
  • Basically – we accept diversity – so long as you’re not different.

None of this is ever blatant, it is a quiet dismissive attitude, an omission in policy, an intentional avoidance, an awkward silence, or a flustered defensiveness. Because schools are now brands with an image to uphold (sounds a bit like political parties). Diversity is messy and complex and while education is locked into the neo-liberal politics of advanced capitalism, a schools image will often be prioritised at the expense of a fuller definition and recognition of diversity.

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Choice Uniform

Ok, its been a while since I blogged and I am probably going to piss people off or take the warm fuzzy glow off something that most people are seeing as a move in the right direction when it comes to enabling flexibility of gender expression in schools. My Facebook feed went crazy a few days ago with the story of the Dunedin intermediate school that was eliminating gendered uniforms. This move is seen as revolutionary, some sort of highland fling needs doing as kilts and skirts blend boys and girls in a new gender neutral utopia that allows students to freely express themselves.

I want to be excited ‘yay’. I want to be optimistic ‘maybe other schools will do it now’, I want to be supportive ‘it’s important’. Right, now that I’ve got that out of the way – time to get realistic and bit more critical for the sake of actual change. So stop reading now if you want the warm fuzzy version.

Has this school actually done anything earth shattering? No. They are talking about adding long pants as an option and culottes, which are about as functional as stubbies. If guys choose to wear a kilt…it’s a kilt, not a skirt…duh. This is the same as wearing any other form of cultural dress. Get guys in culottes and then I’ll be impressed.

There is no such thing as gender neutral – because neutral is masculinised – pants or shorts. So what we are talking about is not feminising or enabling feminine expression. KILTS ARE NOT SKIRTS!

It is an intermediate – these are still ‘kids’ – show me a high school – or better a single sex school that does this and I will be convinced, more so if it’s a boys school.

If people think students now have ‘freedom’ to choose – think again, the gender norms still apply and when boys can grow their hair long, girls can cut theirs short and not shave their legs and it be ok – THAT is the other uniform rule that has to be broken. When a girl can wear short hair and not be asked if she is a boy or a girl that will be the sign of change.

Finally – a truly radical move from schools in New Zealand these days is to NOT have a uniform. I went through primary and intermediate without a uniform, I think I am ok as a result. Show me a school that moves from uniform to no uniform and that will be radical and ground breaking

Uniforms perpetuate the idea of gender, regardless of flexibility – there is still an absent but implicit assumption that there are feminine and masculine uniforms.But good on ya Dunedin North Intermediate for listening to students, that is worth celebrating. but wait until you guys get a good southerly up those kilts and I reckon there will be a quick run at the uniform shop for pants. And no modern uniform should have culottes they are worse than gender neutral they are gender dysfunctional.

 

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.

A mo(ve)ment in time

A man runs through a crowd

A vehicle in pursuit, chasing him down, looking behind

Bodies parting like a zip, closing behind in disbelief

Shattered bodies, desperate screams for help, adrenaline surging seeking a path through the chaos

Broken pieces of time and space

A man drives through a crowd bodies scatter, disbelief, a surreal juxtaposition

Two men in different places

Steal the attention they have split the masses

The man in yellow will share this day forever with another an entanglement of torment, of pain and of suffering

No celebration at the end

Time closes in on the other his race is over

It is not over…

(In memory of Bastille Day attack 2016 – with the Tour de France leg on the same day where Chris Froome had to run with his bike)

Diversity debate-able

I found it curious that a panel debating about diversity at a writers festival would be so defensive when challenged about their representation of the topic. Actually – it was more of an observation that was offered by Philip Patston, which was met with a swift series of awkward justifications.

I wondered about this as the panel seemed to care deeply about it from a cultural perspective and even the odd reference to gender. I’m remembering a comment about being tired of talking about identity and the sorts of ‘same-washing’ language that has started to plague conversations about difference and diversity in general. These statements are often couched as a form of acceptance or inclusivity by not noticing diversity at all, ‘we are all the same on the inside’ or ‘I don’t see race I just see the person’ discourse that renders deep and complex conversations inert. It’s like a double shot decaf late with extra milk approach to coffee – there in name only, or trying to discuss religion and people just say ‘each to their own’.

That was my puzzlement. I don’t think this panel should have needed to be told to include these rich, layered aspects of diversity such as sexuality and disability, just acknowledge it and find ways to speak what you are not speaking to. It’s not about having a panel of 10 or more to represent all forms of diversity it is an ongoing awareness that it exist at all levels of communities, including ethnic ones, disability-unique functioning, sexuality exist yet seems unable to enter diversity conversations, this panel was symptomatic of the general normative diversity ideology sweeping through neo-liberal societies. Companies are happy to exploit diversity without engaging with it – but that is another conversation.

I like what Lana Wachowski says when it comes valuing difference, that people need to respect others not ‘in spite’ of their difference but because of it. Time to start a new conversation, rather than a debate.

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.

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.