While gender is discussed in the media often in relation to sexism, restroom accessibility, workplace rights, and the like, it is very seldom discussed with students in the context of a learning environment before the university level of study (if at all). These leave students on their own in terms of navigating their personal gender expressions and hence vulnerable to matching the social expectations of the community they find themselves in. Many students are already experiencing some form of uncertainty or discomfort as they continue to grow into their personalities and preferred modes of expression but are not offered the language or tools that would help them better understand themselves, others, and nuances of the social world around them. By equipping students with the language, tools, and most importantly, platform to openly discuss these issues with their peers and educators, students are given back the freedom to explore their identity without fear of consequence for straying away from social norms and expectations unfairly placed on them from a young age.
Overview of Gender vs. Sex:
If we look at the physical features that determine sex (anatomical, chromosomal, hormonal, etc.), many cultural and medical practices place people into one of two categories: male or female. These categories are limited, as the exclude intersex individuals. Additionally, sex is not the same as gender; people have their sex assigned at birth and their gender identity, which do not always align. The terms ‘male,’ ‘female,’ and ‘intersex’ are often used to signify sex, while terms like ‘man,’ ‘woman,’ ‘nonbinary,’ and ‘transgender,’ are often used to signify gender. Gender is often described as a socially constructed phenomenon, where these labels are given value and significance based on cultural, societal contexts. While gender, like sex, is often posited as binary with labels of ‘male’ translating to ‘man’, ‘female’ translating to ‘woman’, this is overly simplistic. Gender works along a spectrum, where numerous genders (both named and unnamed) that individuals can choose to identify with.
- Key Terms
- Sex: a person’s sex refers to their biological characteristics, namely their genitals and reproductive organs. When a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not conform to either male or female, they are referred to as intersex. Sex works along a continuum.
- Gender: one’s internal sense of being a woman, man, gender neutral, gender non-conforming, transgender, non-binary or anything that’s uncategorized / unlabeled. Gender works along a continuum, and is self-selected.
Unpacking Gender Activity
Directions: It is important to start with a brief sketch of the differences between gender and sex at the start of discussion to prevent confusion later in the discussion. A venn diagram can be drawn on the board with the respective sections “gender” and “sex” to be filled in during the discussion. It is important to offer a middle space for students to express confusion or areas of potential overlap, while nonetheless keeping the categories distinct. If students are of a particularly young age group, you can start by offering brief and general definitions of each to analyze and dissect together as a class to stimulate students’ thinking. Throughout this conversation, take care to point to or emphasize areas they may be overlooking (in terms of similarities or differences).
- Introduce the terms “sex” and “gender” by drawing a venn diagram and placing the definition of each term in the appropriate circle.
- Ask students to explore their understanding of the terms gender and sex. The instructor can either build the concept map by tracking students’ input or students can be invited to individually come up to the board and add a single word / phrase description of gender into one circle of the venn diagram.
- Note: Make sure the students are clear that you are talking about sex in terms of biology, and not in terms of the act of having sex with someone.
- Reflect on the class venn diagram. Ask the group what questions this brings up for them, and provide some questions of your own.
- Extension activity: provide texts for students to examine and to begin researching answers to their questions.
Gender Identity Discussion
Directions: The central question that will be discussed is: “What does it mean to be identified by other people as “X” gender? Students will explore terms like: Woman/Girl, Boy/Man, Nonbinary, Transgender
- Put up columns on the board for “boy/man”, “girl/woman”, “nonbinary / both / neither”
- Ask students to describe what the “non-binary / both / neither” category might look like or means in general. Provide an example of what a non-binary person might say to describe their gender identity.
- Ask students to write or draw what their gender identity means to them.
- Note: emphasize that this is a personal question and not a question about “What does identifying as X gender mean for everyone?” but rather “What does identifying as X gender mean for me specifically.”
- Ask students who feel comfortable to share with the class or with a partner.
Directions: This activity will have students examining different gender stereotypes.
- Break students into small groups.
- Provide each group with a specific gender stereotype.
- Ask each group to then generate as many gender stereotypes that they are aware of in a list.
- Regroup the class, and begin creating a list of gender stereotypes on the board.
- Ask the class to examine these gender stereotypes by answering the following questions:
- Where do these stereotypes come from? (where did you learn them?)
- Do you think these stereotypes are true?
- Can you think of someone who breaks or challenges these stereotypes?
- Why do you think we have gender stereotypes?
- Why are gender stereotypes harmful?
- What can you do to challenge gender stereotypes, when: (a) we hear them, (b) when they are directed at us, and (c) when we think about them towards other people?
- Offer students to reflect in their journals or separate sheets of paper on the discussion and what it caused them to think about as well as how it made them feel. If there is additional time, students can be offered the space to volunteer to share their reflections. (no one should be forced to share).
- What does it mean on an individual level to feel like X gender? What does it feel like to be a girl?
- Do you feel like X gender at all? Sometimes? Never?
- Does it sometimes feel bad to be called X?
- How / when do the two conflict?
- What might make “X” gender not fit in said appropriate box?
- Are these stereotypes fair or unfair?
- How does it feel to experience norms / societal expectations surrounding your individual identity?
- Go in a circle and have everyone share a character trait they have that might make it so they don't fit in a particular box / category perfectly (ex. I identify as a girl, but I like trucks, etc.)
- Is gender as black and white as there existing women / girls and boys / men? Is that the end of the story? Or is there gray area, in-between and differences within each of those categories?
- What should we / can we do about it?
- My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis
- I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel & Jazz Jennings
- Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky
- The Gender Wheel: A Story About Bodies And Gender for Every Body by Maya Gonzalez
- Introducing Tedy by Jess Walton
- Children's Reflections on Being a Girl or a Boy
- Teaching Tolerance Lessons on Gender Identity
- Gender Spectrum Resources on Gender Identity