Gender on a spectrum

In her last column Courtney Martin challenges the way we think about gender roles, sexual orientatio

Like most teachers, I have a few quirks that seem to emerge over and over again, every semester. I ban the word “weird” from my classroom. It is, in my experience, used as a substitute for critical, original thinking and a buffer from dealing with new learnings and discomfort. Which brings me to my next quirk—I am constantly advocating discomfort. I borrowed this idea from my brother, who borrowed it from Piaget—to be optimally uncomfortable (i.e. just a little, so you can concentrate but feel a little thrown off) is the most fertile time for real learning. And finally, I am constantly talking about spectrums.

One of the questions we ask in feminist theory is: what part of our behavior is socialized and what part is biological? Basically, we are modernising and gendering the nature vs. nurture debate. I ask my students not to peg themselves as one or the other—a social constructionist or an essentialist—but to consider where they might fall on a spectrum and where they might move on that spectrum with regard to specific issues.

For example, are women more prone to multitask naturally or because they have been socialized that way? Some neuroscientists suggest that we have more fibers in our corpus callosums, the part of the brain that links the two hemispheres; this appears to facilitate faster movement back and forth between the right and left brain, and therefore, quicker shifts in thinking and action.

On the other hand, perhaps girls are socialised to believe they are better at multitasking because it props up a whole economic system which depends on women taking on a greater range of responsibilities (sometimes called “the second shift”) than men. Or perhaps both are true. What do you believe? And where does this plop you down on the nature-nurture spectrum? (Note: for far too long the majority of us have indiscriminately placed ourselves on the nature spectrum when it comes to issues of gender and sex.)

Another spectrum that I ask my students to engage is that of sexual orientation. Rather than thinking of attraction as existing on a binary—heterosexual or homosexual—or even as tri—throwing bisexual in the mix—why not consider the possibility that our attractions develop along a spectrum? This rocks the foundations of so many of our current political debates and social realities in a really good, unsettling way. If I’m not heterosexual, but merely participating in a heterosexual relationship at the moment, it changes the way I might consider engaging issues like “gay marriage” or “family values.”

And finally (this one will really blow your mind) what if sex itself exists on a spectrum? Anne Fausto-Sterling, a widely-read and celebrated, feminist scientist, argues that there are in fact five sexes, not two. Four percent of babies are born intersexed, meaning that their reproductive organs don’t all fall into just one category—male or female.

In our current medical system, these babies are “assigned” a sex through reconstructive surgery (sadly, often based on whether the penis appears to have the potential to be “large enough” to be normal.) Four percent! That means that out of a college of 6,000 students, 240 were born intersexed.
That day of class always sends my students home to the dinner table asking, “Mom, dad, was I really a girl when I was born?” By the end of the semester, most parents have been bewildered by at least one question inspired by our class discussions. I consider it an honour.

Courtney E. Martin is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn, NY, and the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normality of Hating Your Body (Piatkus Press). Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com
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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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