rationale for doing queer work in schools: dissertation excerpt

By | May 2, 2015

I wrote a lot over the last few years about doing queer work in schools. I wrote almost as much about doing trans* work in schools. (I typed the word ‘trans*’ so often that I put a sticker on my asterisk key so I could always find it easily.) All the writing ended with a dissertation, pieces of which I hope to use for articles and chapters that people might actually read. (Nobody reads dissertations. They just don’t.)

Until those articles and chapters start coming, I thought I’d share with you chunks of what I wrote. Here’s an excerpt from my introductory chapter, in which I set out the rationale for addressing gender and sexual diversity in schools.


The first emergency that drives this dissertation is the need to create livable educational spaces for queer bodies. The project of this dissertation is to confront societal norms around gender, gender identity, and gender expression in order to open up spaces for children and adults to interrogate and explore their relationship to their own and others’ genders.

The project of this dissertation is to transform the social order with the aim of achieving increased support for those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA), but it is equally about dismantling misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia so that all people, regardless of their sexual or gender identity, can be free. Cultural expectations about gender are folded into, for example, the spoken and tacit rules for how women and men, girls and boys, should dress and carry their bodies and engage with others and make decisions about relationships, family, and careers. These expectations are also implicit in larger symptoms of cultural dysfunction, as in ongoing efforts to silence, bully, intimidate, and threaten women who speak up against sexism in video games and other popular media, as well as in cultural messages about masculinity that lead male-identified people to distance themselves from their emotional experiences and to engage, often unreflectively, in aggressive and sometimes violent behavior toward others.

garfinkel normals

Garfinkel’s diagram representing the “normals” view of gender.

This cluster of social ills is rooted in what Garfinkel (1967) referred to as the “normals” view of gender: The belief that there are two, and only two, gender categories; that all people, with very few exceptions, fit neatly into one of those two gender categories; and that all people, with very few exceptions, fit neatly into the gender category they were assigned at birth.

Despite overwhelming evidence that dominant assumptions about gender, linked to this “normal” view, constrain people’s intellectual, emotional, vocational, and social lives, only the most limited efforts have been undertaken to challenge these narratives with students in formal educational contexts. This is particularly true at the elementary level, where it is often assumed that children are not sophisticated or mature enough to engage in a systematic inquiry into societal norms and related social inequities (e.g., Bigler, 1999). Yet a growing body of research makes it clear that children begin to internalize dominant beliefs about gender as early as preschool (Martin, 1998, 2009) and that these beliefs, if left unexamined, may solidify and become accepted as unquestioned fact well before puberty (Davies, 1989; Wohlwend, 2012a, 2012b). Further, recent work with young children suggests they have a greater capacity for abstract reasoning and engaging with sophisticated concepts than is typically assumed; that, in Bruner’s (1960) words, we can “begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development’. (p. 33). Empirical work with young children has demonstrated that they are perfectly capable of learning about, for example, complex systems (Danish, 2013), physics (Hammer & Elby, 2003), and the contested and complex narratives of world history (Goldman, 2004; Hogan & Weathers, 2003).

Recent research into curricular interventions surrounding societal norms and individual, social, and institutional biases suggests that children are also capable of engaging in sophisticated inquiry into race and racism (Tatum, 2003; Van Ausdale & Feagin, 2007), sexual orientation and heterosexism (Ryan, Patraw, & Bednar, 2013; Sapon-Shevin, 1999; Swartz, 2003), and gender and sexism (Bryan, 2012; Ryan et al., 2013). Appropriate scaffolds, and activities sufficiently tied to children’s lived experiences, these studies suggest, make it possible to engage in the work of building theories about the world and its social structures even in elementary school.

This dissertation brings the issue of gender diversity to late elementary (4th and 5th grade) learners, focusing on teaching them to develop strategies for critiquing and challenging problematic cultural norms surrounding gender, gender expression, and gender identity. The study described in this dissertation is built around the following premises:

  • It is important—even necessary—to support learners in deconstructing socially accepted norms about gender and, indeed, the ability to engage critically with gender is for many children no less than a question of survival.
  • Elementary-aged children are quite capable of interrogating societal norms—even norms as complex and deeply enmeshed across social structures as those surrounding gender—when provided appropriate cultural tools to do so; and
  • Appropriate cultural tools for interrogating gender include transmedia narratives and platforms, which can enable learners to develop an attunement to, appropriate, and reinscribe messages about gender in a personally and culturally meaningful way.
  • The ability to engage with media messages about gender is built on three categories of activity: creative, critical, and performance-based engagement.

The need to address gender diversity in schools

The study driving this dissertation reaches beyond issues of sexism and gender inequality that comprise the vast majority of educational interventions that directly address gender as a topic of inquiry (Chung, 2007; Freedman, 1994; Hobbs, 2004; Kang, 2013; Rouner, Slater, & Domenech-Rodriguez, 2003). Although these are important issues to address with learners, they tend to rely on binaristic, essentialist assumptions about what constitutes gender and gender identity, and they therefore fail to fully support learners in developing a theory of gender that accounts for the diverse forms of identity, performance, and expression that comprise all individuals’ daily experiences of the world (Heffernan, 2011; Ryan et al., 2013). To that end, this dissertation takes up what I call “the fiction of the gender binary”—the persistent belief that the world can be divided into two, and only two genders, and that anyone who does not fit fully into one of those two gender categories is an anomaly or a freak.

The corrosive and coercive effects of the fiction of the gender binary begin before children are given a choice in the matter. In America, all children are assigned one of two genders at birth and begin to internalize cultural assumptions about “gender appropriate” behavior even before they begin to talk (Martin, 2009). In addition to the overt and subtle messages about gender norms communicated by parents, siblings, and teachers (Martin, 1998, 2009; Wohlwend, 2012a), messages about how to appropriately express one’s gender are communicated through the material resources that populate childhood: television shows and movies (Gauntlett, 2008; Gill, 2007; Wohlwend, 2012b); color-coded clothes and toys, with their gender-specific designs and intended uses (Goss, 1999; Pollen, 2011); technologies (Calvert, 1999; Cassell & Ryokai, 2001) and storybooks (Gooden & Gooden, 2001; Peterson & Lach, 1990). The effectiveness of these tools in mediating children’s awareness and reproduction of gender norms is apparent in the speed and ease with which even toddlers begin to police the gendered behavior of their peers and themselves (Davies, 1989; Martin, 1998; Ryan et al., 2013).

Gender policing can shift into bullying. Recent research suggests that the most frequent victims of bullying in K-12 schools are gender variant children: Those whose clothing, hairstyles, mannerisms, or other forms of self expression diverge from accepted norms for their assigned gender (Limber, 2012; Meyer, 2009). Moreover, cultural norms about gender restrict all children’s opportunities to explore and express their developing identities, regardless of the extent of their real or perceived gender variance (Brill & Pepper, 2013; Ehrensaft, 2011).

Challenging the fiction of the gender binary by teaching students about gender diversity, then, is a social justice concern not only for the estimated one in 500 American children who are “significantly gender variant or transgender” (Brill & Pepper, 2013, p. 2), and for the 4-6 percent of children who exhibit “gender variant behavior” (Hein & Berger, 2012; Van Beijsterveldt, Hudziak, & Boomsma, 2006), but for all learners, regardless of their gender identity or expression. To date, however, little empirical work has offered effective strategies for teachers who hope to implement pedagogies of gender diversity, and most research is limited to efforts to counteract bullying based on real or perceived gender variance (Meyer, 2009).

Building on a theoretical framework that integrates queer/transgender theory and transmedia theory, this study embraces the treatment of gender as a social construct through which all forms of identity and expression are interpreted and made legible (Bornstein, 1994; Butler, 2004; Foucault, 1979). Because of the pervasive, persistent, and increasingly (re)inscribable nature of the transmedia format (Kinder, 1993; O’Halloran, 2009; Scolari, 2009; Shirky, 2011), it was selected as a key avenue through which gender can be constructed, explored, and at times challenged or resisted.

Through the design, implementation, and analysis of a curricular intervention that emphasizes gender diversity, the study offers principles for supporting gender fluency, or a set of skills and dispositions that enable a learner to identify and critique assumptions about gender; and transmedia fluency, defined as the set of skills and dispositions that enable a learner to follow, critique, and inscribe messages across multiple media platforms. Taken as a cluster, these fluencies make up what I label trans*literacies: the skills, practices, and beliefs needed to negotiate and challenge gender norms across multiple media platforms. Through work with late elementary (4th and 5th grade) learners, this study also aims to offer insights into how assumptions about gender are internalized before and during the early stages of puberty, and how to support learners in developing more reflective forms of gender expression as they move toward adolescence….


I end this introductory chapter with a disclaimer, in the form of the story of the sex researcher John Money. Money was apparently the first to propose a distinction, in the late 1950s, between sex and gender (Money & Ehrhardt, 1972; Udry, 1994). In a series of articles published beginning in the 1970s, Money argued that while sex was biologically determined, a person’s gender—the ways in which individuals express their biologically determined traits—is learned through socialization into cultural norms. Money’s argument drew on the infamous “John/Joan” case of a child (“John”) who was born with a penis but was raised as a female (“Joan”) after a failed circumcision (Money & Ehrhardt, 1972; Stryker, 2009). On Money’s advice, John/Joan’s testes were removed and as John/Joan approached puberty, doctors began to administer estrogen to promote breast development and other secondary sex traits.

In publications and public talks, Money presented Joan as an exemplar of the power of nurture to trump nature: Joan was a person whose gender was not born but made. Joan, at age nine, was so perfectly feminine that Money suggested nobody could ever guess that she had been born with a penis:

Eventually she will inevitably be told about her medical history, which is too well known by relatives for a realistic expectation of permanent secrecy. No one else knows that she is the child whose case they read of in the news media at the time of the accident. Nor would they ever conjecture. Her behavior is so normally that of an active little girl, and so clearly different by contrast from the boyish ways of her twin brother, that it offers nothing to stimulate one’s conjectures. (Money, 1975, p. 71)

Money trumpeted the Joan/John case as a complete success, using it to argue against the prevailing wisdom of the time that a person’s gender is determined wholly by biology. Money argued that while biological sex is linked to sex traits including reproductive organs and hormones, gender is a cluster of primarily learned behaviors that reflect social norms (Colapinto, 2013; Money, 1975).

John/Joan’s real name was David Reimer. He went public with his version of his story in 1997, when he learned that Money had built a career on proclaiming triumph in the ‘making’ of Joan. Reimer tells a different story: He never felt like a girl, was drawn even in childhood to traditionally masculine activities (including playing with guns and urinating standing up), and hated the way his body developed in response to female hormones. At age 14, he refused outright Money’s recommendation of vaginal construction surgery and told his parents that he would commit suicide if they forced him to continue visiting Money’s clinic. His parents took him to a new team of doctors, who offered David support for living as a boy (Colapinto, 2013). David requested, and received, male hormones; he underwent surgery to remove his breasts and construct a phallus (Butler, 2004; Colapinto, 2013).

David Reimer—the confounding boy without a penis—was forced to wear dresses because social structures could not tolerate the notion of a man who lacks a phallus. Money insisted to Reimer’s parents—people he winkingly described as “young people of rural background and grade-school education” (p. 67)—that the only choice for their child was for him to assume life as a girl. Reimer himself seemed, contradictorily, to both reject this path and echo Money’s assumption that a boy without a penis is no boy at all. Colapinto (2004) notes that Reimer expressed anxiety throughout his adult life that he could never completely fulfill his wife sexually. As an adult, Reimer struggled in his marriage, had trouble keeping a job, and never fully shook his childhood experiences at the hands of Money’s research team. After two failed suicide attempts in his 20s, he successfully ended his life in 2004, at age 38 (Colapinto, 2004).

I include in this chapter the admittedly sensationalist account of David Reimer, “the boy who was raised as a girl” (Colapinto, 2013), to underscore a crucial point about those who theorize about gender: While gender may well be viewed as a socially constructed fiction—and, indeed, will be treated as such throughout this dissertation—it is also a very real lens through which we experience our lives. Theories about gender, whether developed by philosophers, sexologists, queer theorists, or learning scientists, have a very real impact on very real people. Gender is one ‘structure of intelligibility’ (Butler, 2004; Foucault, 1980; Shapiro, 1992) used to ‘read’ others and to ‘write’ ourselves; the ways in which we theorize gender, then, implicate us all to the extent that our theories efface, omit, and obliterate those whose lives are not rendered intelligible by our theories. Butler (2004) exhorts readers to “consider for the moment the ambivalent gift that legitimation can become”: Any act of rendering legitimate a previously illegitimate existence “will take place only through an exclusion of a certain sort, though not a patently dialectical one” (p. 105).

I therefore proceed with extreme caution in theorizing gender and applying these theories to the everyday educational lives of children. Although the theories I propose here are intended to render intelligible a broader spectrum of gendered lives—to render intelligible more people, and therefore to ease somewhat the burden they bear in being heretofore unreadable by social structures and cultural norms—I also attempt to remain excruciatingly mindful of the evil that can be wrought by manipulating social structures. The stakes of tinkering with gender norms are high. This was evident to me immediately as I began to talk about gender with the 4th and 5th graders participating in my study, evident in the energy and emotion the children brought to gender-focused classroom activities. Even at age 9 or 10, children can articulate, very clearly, the ways in which gender constrains and defines their experiences; even at age 9 or 10, children are aware that their genitals organize their lives. My goal, then, is to build a theory of gender that makes possible new experiences, new ways of operating in the world; my goal is to help to build a world of increased possibility.



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