Earlier this year, Fox News reported on a California middle school teacher who gave their seventh-grade students gender-identity handouts in class. The handouts were informational, explaining the difference between gender and sexual identity, as well as romantic and sexual attraction. The teacher didn’t ask students to fill in the handouts or share any personal information. So what’s the problem?
In this case, parents didn’t feel their kids should be learning about gender or sexual identities outside of health class. But most of us know how American health and sex education routinely fails students. (I didn’t even have a health course in seventh grade.)
When I was in school—not just middle school, but high school, too—we never talked about gender. We barely talked about sexuality. We talked about hetero sex and watched a video of a woman giving birth. When I was in fifth grade, boys and girls were separated for a puberty talk, and the only part of it I remember is the teacher showing us how to put a pad in a pair of underwear.
I didn’t learn that there were other sexualities until sixth grade, and I didn’t learn about other genders until high school. I didn’t know nonbinary was an option, and I didn’t know why I cringed every time someone called me “miss,” or even worse, “ma’am.”
At the same time, I didn’t mind being called a girl, and I didn’t hate my feminine name. Now, since I’ve learned about other genders and come out to myself (if not to everyone in my life), I use a different name in some spaces that lets me embrace my nonbinary identity. I’ve asked more people in my life to use they/them pronouns when referring to me.
This science teacher is doing these kids a favor.
They gave these kids resources, an invitation for them to learn about themselves on their own, and the opportunity to ask questions of adults they trust. They may have even shown their students that they are one of those trusted adults that so many of them need.
The Gender Unicorn sheet that the teacher passed out was likely new to many students. It’s new to many adults, too. The response from parents and the school’s principal shows hostility that these kids will pick up on. Some of those students needed that handout and will use it to understand themselves and others around them.
Middle school is a rough time no matter who you are or where you’re from. It’s already a time when a lot of kids experiment with gender and sexual identities, so why shouldn’t they have a safe environment to learn about those things? It shouldn’t be limited to one class that may only take up a small part of the year. That’s not enough time, and their questions shouldn’t be limited to the space of an hour.
It’s not just for the transgender and gender-nonconforming students either. Teachers who give these types of handouts are also teaching straight, cisgender students to be better allies. We need them, too.
How many millennials and Gen Zers (and older generations, for that matter) can’t even name all the parts of their own bodies? How many people are afraid to say “vagina” even in private conversations with their doctors? How many adult men don’t know what a period is (and yes, they should know this)?
Gender and sexuality exist on a spectrum. People of any age, but especially kids and teens, need to be allowed to safely explore their gender and sexual identities.
I wish I’d had this teacher when I was a kid. Teaching students that there’s a space between male and female, a space between straight and gay, validates their identities and shows them that the label doesn’t have to be the most important part of their identity, but also that there may be one for them if they want it. It lets them explore who they are when society leaves so little room for them to do that.
The negative responses from parents and the school show students that 1) they should fear what they don’t understand, and 2) those who need these resources have fewer trusted adults in their lives than they may have thought.
Removing resources from these students polices the information they receive. It insults their intelligence and their ability to make their own decisions about their bodies.
More teachers should be handing out Gender Unicorns. More parents should help their kids understand their identities. More resources should be available for students and their parents so that instead of fearing what they don’t know, they can accept it and advocate for their LGBTQ+ peers.
School is already a place where a lot of kids start learning about their bodies. Why not make it a positive one for them?