I wrote a post recently about finding out that several moms in M.’s preschool had been discussing M. (and in particular, her ANATOMY) behind my back. (You can read that post here.) It was a pretty terrible experience, and I decided it needed to be addressed in some way. So, I wrote a letter to the staff at the preschool. M. has since “graduated” from the school, but she spent two years there, and I really liked the school. They were consistently supportive of M.’s gender identity. They didn’t always get it right, but they tried, and they were generally open to learning along with us. I really am grateful for that. So, here’s the letter I sent to them the other day:
I experienced a “learning opportunity” this weekend and wanted to pass along the wisdom I gleaned from it.
I was at a birthday party for one of M.’s preschool friends, and was having a conversation with another parent whose child was also invited. The subject of M.’s gender identity came up. I had never spoken to this parent about M.’s gender, but she seemed very keen to have a chance to discuss it with me. At first, I was really pleased – I absolutely welcome the chance to educate and illuminate, in any way I can, about the topic of gender diversity.
However, the conversation ended up being a really negative experience for me. This mother explained to me that she and several other parents had been informed – a year ago – by their children that “M. has a penis,” and that none of them believed their children. She went on to say that she and the other parents had discussed this issue, apparently at length and more than once, among themselves, and had gone to our children’s teacher to ask about it. The teacher then confirmed that yes, it was true that M. has a penis.
It was apparent that this mother and the other parents felt frustrated that they had not been “told about this.” I gather that they were fine with M. being a “girl with a penis,” but that they were upset that they had not been informed of this and had therefore been “calling their children liars.” I explained (in a friendly way, I hope) that we didn’t announce M.’s gender status to the class because it wasn’t really anyone’s business what M. “has in her pants” (or, more accurately, her skirt).
The reason I’m sharing this with you is to suggest that next time you have a transgender child in your midst (and I’m sure you will!), you do two things to promote a safe and supportive community:
- Impress upon the other parents the fact that it is no one’s business what type of genitals a child has, nor is it appropriate to be discussing this with the other parents. (Isn’t that what we would say to our children?) Our privates are private! However, because the bathrooms in the preschool classrooms don’t allow the children much privacy, I think a good response to parents asking about this would be, “We are a school that is welcoming to all kinds of diversity, including transgender students.” I don’t think the conversation needs to be more specific than that – and probably shouldn’t be. Does another parent really have the right to ask the teacher about my child’s genitals?
- If the parent of the transgender child is open to talking about the issue, I’d suggest that you strongly encourage the other parents to talk DIRECTLY to that parent if they have concerns or questions – and not simply whisper and wonder behind her back. By not talking openly about this issue, we encourage an environment of fear, shame, and exclusion that is hurtful to us all.
I am grateful to you for the chance to learn and grow together around this issue. I am grateful for all your loving support of M. and her parents. I hope my thoughts on this will be helpful to you and future students – and I’m always happy to talk more about it if you’d like to.
A few days later, I received a reply from M.’s teacher:
Dear gendermom, Thank you for reaching out to us in this way. I appreciate your thoughtful and thought- provoking message – it has been an inspiration for reflection and discussion over the past few days.
Yeah, I BET it has!
I am glad that you shared this story with us and please know that we are considering your suggestions as we move forward in our work here…I feel honored to have worked with you and your family over the past few years. It was both a joy and a huge learning curve for me and I will be eternally grateful for all that you offered up to me both personally and professionally.
That’s nice, isn’t it?
The only shadow hanging over this lovely note is the memory of my first conversation with this teacher, over a year ago, about M.’s gender identity. As we discussed M.’s impending transition from a male identity to a female one, her initial response was to inform me that she needed to “balance the needs and views of ALL the families, some of whom may see things differently.”
I said something like this: “Would you ‘balance the views of all the families’ if some of those views were that people with darker skin were inferior?”
“That’s different,” she said.
“Umm, no, it’s not,” I said. If I had known the word ‘transphobia’ at the time, I would have given her a little vocabulary lesson….
As an additional follow-up to what shall henceforward be known as The Incident of the Genitally Obsessed Gossip-Moms, I also sent an email to M.’s current school, a super-progressive private elementary school where she just started kindergarten. The principal wrote back promptly to thank me for my suggestions, express his full support, and ask how he could help. I knew I liked that school.
The next morning, after dropping M. off in her classroom, I saw the new assistant principal in the hall. On a whim, I asked her if we could chat for minute.
She leads me to her office and shuts the door.
“Did you see the email I sent?” I ask.
“Yes! Yes, I did. I did.” She nods a whole bunch. I gather that this is intended to show me that she is taking this VERY. SERIOUSLY.
I appreciate this.
Time for my List of Demands:
I tell her that no one should be talking about my kid’s body parts.
I tell her that if anyone has questions, they can talk directly to ME.
More nods. “Yes, directly to you. Absolutely.”
I tell her I’d like the school to do a staff training on gender identity and that there’s a therapist who can do the training for FREE, because she’s funded by a local nonprofit. “I gave the contact info to the principal already, but maybe you would like it, too?
“Yes! Great!” More vigorous nodding. She grabs a pen and enthusiastically writes down the name.
“So… I really want to use the right language,” she says. “Would this training be about ‘Gender Fluidity’?”
I realize that she’s really nervous. This is totally new to her and she’s afraid of saying the wrong thing and offending me. It’s a strange, and not particularly pleasant, sense of power – making someone nervous because they see me (and my child) as… different and therefore somehow threatening. Is this how African-Americans feel around well-intentioned but clueless white people who don’t know any black people?
“Actually, I’d say it’s a training about ‘gender identity,’ because we ALL have one.”
She nods, writes this down. But she doesn’t quite get it. She doesn’t realize that SHE has a gender identity, too. She still thinks my kid is the only one who has one. She still thinks that she and all the apparently cisgender kids at the school are “normal,” and that M. is the special case, the only one crafting a unique gender identity out of the rainbow of options available to us all. Oh well… perhaps the ‘Gender Identity Training’ will blow up her thinking a bit.
A proverb comes to mind right now. It’s supposedly an ancient Chinese curse. But perhaps it’s also a blessing?
May you live in interesting times.
Well, my friends, it certainly continues to be interesting. Thanks for being here with me. I’ll keep you posted…