norms

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.

 

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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.

Schools skirting around issue of uniform

I’ve been waiting for the media to respond to the recent school uniform hysteria with Henderson High School’s unfortunate justification for the enforcement of knee length skirts. I was interested to read a response today and while it touched on some of the issues I was going to raise I became more interested in the comments from the public. It fell into a predictable pattern of ideas about sexual differences between males and females based on their physiological materiality, notions of responsibility and choice as a result of the inevitable outcomes of ‘natural’ male desire and the role of schools to police young bodies in order to mute or eliminate this contamination of learning environments. I have four challenges or provocation to put forward:

First a reality check – all teenager are sexual beings. Schools need to accept that cladding bodies in a uniform will not prevent young people seeing each other in these ways, they will be attracted to each other, and it won’t just be opposites attracting. Sexuality is always present, not at a particular year level, not when certain body parts develop, its part of being a human – even in accounting.

Second – schools emphasise sexual difference through clothing deemed appropriate for males and females. If schools are serious about de-sexualising young people as best they can they would all be in long pants or long skirts – or skirt like attire. There is also the issue of female bodies and breasts – will a school dare to say over a certain size they must be bound or that an over garment will be shapeless and baggy like a sheet. But we might not be able to stop there because people find lips, necks and hair sexual – so we might need to cover them as well (hang on – I have a familiar image entering my head).

Third (and perhaps my most provocative point) – of course teens are experimenting and taking risks sexually and experiencing desire with their bodies. Figuring out sexuality however doesn’t begin and end at high school. High school are places where lot of sexual beings exist, including adults – and some teachers are barely out of high school themselves. Schools and teacher training institute need to be more proactive in talking about the very real phenomenon of teacher-student attraction without fear of it dissolving into a moral panic. Our shame about sex and sexuality in general as well as the real power imbalances between adults and young people should be more open to discussion. However I fear we’d rather maintain the institutional paranoia around sex that maintains silence and gendered assumptions which make the teaching environment a vulnerable space particularly for male teachers who’s interactions and behaviour will always be under scrutiny for ‘inappropriate’ interactions.

Finally. Rape is a violation – a violation of respect and is often an act of extreme violence with traumatic outcomes for survivors. But we need to stop linking uncontrollable sexual desire in men and the sexual provocation of women to some predetermined natural outcome of sexual difference that rape is part of. It enables and maintains justification of date rape, sexual conquest a a right of passage and a ‘scoring’ of masculinity points. While sexual difference has largely focussed on male desire, female desire and sexuality has largely been ignored or misrepresented. Finding out more about how male and female bodies are similar in spite of the more obvious differences will not stop rape but might begin to open space for challenging the assumptions that support rape as a natural outcome of sexual difference.

It is time to stop skirting around the bigger questions and for educators to boldly step into a genuine critique of the purpose of uniforms and what ides schools hang onto in order to justify their continual gender normative policing.

 

 

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?

Parental advisory

Warning – this blog will intentionally question the concept of parent. Some language will be unfamiliar and offense could be taken if you subscribe to narrowly prescribed notions of family. Viewing may lead to questions that may not have simple answers.

There is nothing more grating than the question ‘do you have children?’ I fall into some sort of suspended animation or alternative dimension when I hear it, where all possibilities are present for the correct answer but I have to pick the one that will satisfy the person asking because everyone has a different formula for the ‘right’ ratio of parents to children ranging from 0 to…. probably not an extremely high number perhaps the teens? I’m never sure how they will respond but EVERYONE has an opinion about it and they usually feel entitled to tell me, even if they know nothing else about who I am. This is because the universal experience of life is to have a family – however it is put together, what we ‘know’ about it from experience has more than likely influenced a default sense of ‘what works’.

Once you get to a particular age the question becomes more earnest or takes on different meaning depending on the context and probably gender and other intersections of time and space. I am able to take up the social position recognised as parent although I’m not sure that I’d say I fit the expected ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ role – that in itself will invite some consternation from people determined to make the one ‘giving birth’ mum and the complementary ‘Donator of DNA’ Dad. Parenting has become a bit like career planning, with plenty of guidelines, willing coaches, experts, advice, and shoulders to cry on if it doesn’t go well. The other alternative is parenting is like reality TV, where we get edited versions and scripts that appear natural but really aren’t. Either way it seems to be a little weird.

There are many people parenting children who are not recognised for this. I meet many ‘mumsters’ in my job, young women in their teens with many siblings who take on a significant parent role but have to navigate the delicate power dynamics with parents and maintaining a sense of themselves. Rather than talking about ‘half’ and ‘step’ I think it’s important to name the quality of the role and the unique positions they afford people. Kiwis love to use the words Cuz (cousin) and Bro (anyone of either gender for whom you feel affection) so it shouldn’t be so hard to spread that openness to parenting.

Today marked 8 years of sharing life with this amazing and beautiful young being and what I appreciate about that is the young person who allows me to take up this role has an opportunity to see that regardless of the body parts I may or may not have I am genuinely interested in their life and how I can support them to feel confident, open, and curious about the world. If I can do that well and keep a sense of perspective on my role and how important I am/not while allowing for mistakes, falls, upsets and apologies (me included), then I might consider I’m doing an ok job.

Blood is thicker than water, it dries up, cracks, gets diseases and stains if you get it on your clothes. Water is part of everything and can exist in many forms – I’ll take water over blood any time.