n. the pervasive and systemic belief in male/masculine and female/feminine as the only true, natural and correct gender identities and expressions

gender normativity n. the privileged state lived - whether momentarily or perpetually - by those whose genders perceptibly 'fit' with locally-derived and understood expressions of masculinity (for men) and femininity (for women)

gender non-normativity n. the oppressed state lived - whether momentarily or perpetually - by those whose genders do not perceptibly fit, as above

Monday, March 16, 2009

Gender diversity? On the uses and abuses of a new concept

This is the short conference paper that I presented this past weekend at the Education Graduate Students' Society conference held every year in my department. Comments welcome!


Due to the common occurrence in education discourse of the phrases religious diversity, ethnic diversity and – more recently – sexual diversity, it was only a matter of time before ‘gender diversity’ appeared in the educational research literature. Although the notion of gender diversity has been consistently used as a feel-good term for gender parity in the management literature, for example, its entry into the discourse of education seems to signal the acknowledgment of gender as other than a simple binary of male/masculine and female/feminine. Because I am a gender non-normative education scholar whose gender identity and expression most certainly do not fit within this binary, one might imagine that I would jump onto the gender diversity bandwagon, so to speak. However, I have my doubts. In this paper I address three critiques to gender diversity as a gender justice project in education.

My first critique of gender diversity embodies my skepticism of a liberal acceptance and acknowledgment model for combating what amounts to pervasive and systemic violence, discrimination and harm. There have been small scale-scale qualitative and national-scale quantitative studies documenting frequencies and student experiences of living with enforced gender normativity in school. Students of all ages who, either momentarily or consistently, step outside of what is locally considered to be correct masculinity or femininity risk much. They could lose any sense of belonging in the school community or, even, their physical safety. Some lose their lives, either by their own hand or the hands of others. At best, even as we look back to our own childhoods and adolescences there is no arguing that any gendered experience of school is generalizable apart from one marked by awkwardness and discomfort. From self-harm to bodily self-hatred to voluntary circumscription of our aptitudes and pleasures, learning to do gender ‘correctly’ is not fun for anyone.

If we apply the logic of gender diversity to the harm and violence experienced in schools by those who are gender non-normative – whether they are for one hour or a whole year – we are turning a blind eye to these dangers. By celebrating gender differences, as is implied in diversity discourse, we are affirming the goodness of being gender non-normative without taking action on harm and violence. By contrast, a power analysis of genderism is a harm reduction approach to dealing with gender injustice in education. Genderism – like racism, classism or heterosexism – is a social force that gives or takes away privilege based on one’s adherence to local gender norms or standards of gender-normativity. Anti-genderist education recognizes the life and death implications of gender normativity long before it embarks on a celebration of our many gendered and splendoured differences. And because most people can point to times in their lives when they were doing gender correctly, and because many cannot remember having been gender non-normative or experienced genderism, there exists a power structure in which those who feel more or less at home within the gender binary enjoy gender-normative privilege. Those who do not feel more or less at home within the gender binary are subjected to gender non-normative oppression. This is the framework that I use when thinking through what we in education must do about genderist harm and violence in schools. I contend that such a framework is required to articulate a gender justice project in education that is just as concerned about the violence experienced by transgender and transsexual youth as it is about bodily self-hatred, self-harm and starvation, or hyper masculinity and gang violence. Gender diversity as a concept is not suited to this work.

My second critique of gender diversity as a transformative educational project has to do with the present historical moment wherein a failure to conform to the gender binary is most often interpreted as a sign of queerness or non-heterosexuality. In an upcoming article in Sex Education, I make the argument that any social justice project in education requires an envisioning process whereby we envision what a school would look like that embodies the end result of our project. With regard to anti-homophobia education, I argue, envisioning the school at its means that we would have to see the full participation of students who we would recognize as queer given our current visually-based understandings of what queer looks like. However, it is a person’s gender expression – in terms of both behaviour and grooming – that is scoured for clues about their sexuality when we lack information on that person’s life or relationships.

The conflation of gender non-normativity with queerness is especially evident when we speculate as to the hypothetical sexualities of children and young adolescents. We seldom look to a child’s overt sexual behaviour or sexual or affectional orientation toward partners of ‘the same sex’ in order to suppose that he or she is non-heterosexual. Consequently, when we envision the children and youth whose identities would flourish – and that we would recognize as flourishing – in the school at the end of anti-homophobia, we are not, in fact, advocating for the end of homophobia but instead for the flourishing of gender non-normativity. When envisioned in this way, an anti- homophobia educational project can be equated with a gender diversity project and re-cast in practice as ‘pro-gender diversity'.

I worry that a pro-gender diversity project – the subject of my critique in this paper – would in practice become an anti-homophobia project mired in a sexual minorities-only paradigm. Pro-gender diversity would thereby risk losing its linkages with other gender-based movements and concerns in education such as bodily self-hatred, self-harm, violence, etc. I contend that, as long as the dominant culture conflates gender non-normativity with queerness, a gender diversity project will be ultimately bound up in a sexuality conversation. While I certainly advocate anti-homophobia education and the visibility of sexual minorities in schools, I am leery of this movement’s capacity for dealing with gender in a way that opens doors when student lives hang in the balance as a result of systemic genderism and transphobia. For this reason, and others, I reject gender diversity.

My third critique of the concept is grounded in my concern that working against genderism from a gender diversity platform means focusing our attention on the ‘Others’ of sex and gender i.e., transgender, transsexual, genderqueer and gender-variant students whose presence would be required in order for most people to name that classroom as ‘gender-diverse’. I argue that we should not to wait for the presence of a student like me who stands out as gender non-normative in order to activate our awareness that genderism is a bad thing. In fact, it touches the lives of all children, whether or not they are perceptually gender normative girls and boys.

In a changing climate of parental rights and school accountability, gender expression is effectively a grey area which allows for teachers to perpetuate highly personal standards of exactly what children should or ought to be or do, or become. When faced with gender non-normativity, particularly in a young child, teachers are apt to adopt a mandate of gender socialization, particularly in naming a behaviour or characteristic as a problem or an issue to be ‘dealt with’. Several studies point to the myriad ways in which the gender binary is naturalized in the classroom practices of teachers. I offer two examples here.

In a quantitative investigation of student teachers’ approaches to categorizing student behaviours as serious or worthy of intervention, Kokkinos and co-authors (2004) found that student teachers—when compared with experienced teachers—were more apt to label certain behaviours (such as crying) and character traits (such as being suspicious, sensitive, cowardly, etc.) as ‘serious’ in boys whereas behaviours labelled ‘serious’ in girls included profane language, rudeness, restlessness, distrust and disobedience. The authors concluded that behaviours which differ from preservice teachers’ gendered expectations of students would likely stand out to them as more meaningful. To name and address a child’s behaviour as ‘serious’ is to say that a shift toward some ideal type is necessary. The implications bear directly on responses to student behaviour which may not be viewed as especially ‘problematic’ outside of the teacher’s own understanding of gender. For me, this study serves as a reminder that teacher educators ought to be concerned about genderism and its ramifications in the classrooms of their students.

In keeping with widely gendered patterns of ADHD diagnosis, Jackson and King (2004) conducted a study of elementary teachers’ perceptions of student behaviours to find out whether teachers were being influenced by the perceived gender of a child in their labelling of ADHD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). ODD is a behavioural disorder wherein, bluntly, a child says ‘no’ for the sake of saying ‘no’ and tends to defy all caregiver attempts to pacify, reason with or negotiate with them. In the childcare context with which I am familiar, ADHD is seen as routine and ODD is seen as very serious, with the obvious outcomes for the perception of differently diagnosed children by caregivers. In a nutshell, kids with ODD are, problematically, viewed as ‘problem kids’.

In the Jackson & King study, teachers were shown video footage of boys and girls coached to display a particular set of hyperactive, or, oppositional behaviours in keeping with clinical guidelines for diagnosing ADHD and ODD, respectively. Jackson and King found that boys who display oppositionally defiant behaviours in keeping with the ODD guidelines are more likely to labelled as hyperactive by teachers, whereas girls who display hyperactive behaviours in keeping with the ADHD guidelines are more likely to be seen as pathologically defiant. Jackson and King sum up these findings, stating that, quote “these teacher rating tendencies could contribute to higher diagnostic rates of ADHD among boys and ODD among girls” (ibid.) [Unquote.]. If teachers are so influenced by genderist conceptions of student behaviour, it can be argued that a child given a medical diagnosis and pharmaceutical behavioural remedy is perhaps so targeted due to being seen as one gender and not another. This is especially troubling when we recall how teachers are the vanguard of child development as well as gatekeepers of services for children with learning and behavioural difficulties.

Having fleshed out three critiques of gender diversity, I will outline why I am more generally suspicious of diversity as a concept when it used with the intention of broadening ideas about what gender is and how it is lived. According to the gender binary, ‘gender diversity’ would be achieved when both identifiably male and identifiably female people are present in a given space, group or representation. Of course, I take issue with the idea that gender is only as diverse as a binary of men and women, boys and girls. However, broadening gender diversity to include other genders creates similar difficulties. Both binary and diversity models beg the question: who else must we include in order to say that a representation, image or group is gender-diverse?

The question should not be ‘what else is there to represent?’ but ‘what does the act of representation do?’ If we cast about looking for ‘other genders’ to include alongside male-masculine and female-feminine, we are doomed to fail. This is because our new larger field of genders will always contain those it does not represent from the perspective of those who are not represented but who are, most certainly, gendered. An example of a similar difficulty comes to us from the arena of sexual minority advocacy. This is the weighty acronym (among many) employed by some queer organizations—GLBTTIQQ, standing for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, intersex, queer and questioning. Recently I have also come across acronyms with an A, for asexual. There is the obvious difficulty of continually adding to this laundry list of identities and then, when viewed from the perspective of those excluded such as butches, femmes, polyamourists, pomosexuals – the list goes on – there is exclusion and injustice. The question ‘what else?’ leads to ‘what still isn’t?’ And this is a central failure of a diversity project.

What representation does in every instance of ‘diversity’ is associate its contents – in this case, whichever ‘diverse genders’ it portrays – with what is ‘good’. In photographs representing diversity – and plenty turn up in a Google image search – people smile. Diversity carries an entirely positive or progressive connotation and cannot easily be spoken of as a ‘bad thing’ to do or be. Currently, almost every representation of diversity offered in language or image contains only people who are men and/or women, masculine and/or feminine. I do not think it somehow better that ‘gender diversity’ might be broadened to contain people of other genders because this still sets limits in terms of how we can think about gender.

I argue that the last thing we want to do by persisting with a diversity metaphor in anti-genderist education is create another system of exclusion whereby a limited constellation of ‘gender diverse’ people or identities takes the place of a similarly limited zero sum binary of male/masculine and female/feminine. For instance, if a group, space or representation contained male/masculine people, female/feminine people and me (a female-bodied, masculine-identified person), would we be doing good work against gender oppression if we named this as an example of ‘gender diversity’? I do not think so. As gender-diverse as I am, not I nor anyone else’s genders – even in the hundreds or thousands – will suffice to keep a representation of ‘gender diversity’ open enough for the full spectrum of gender-variance to be included in its beauty and complexity

My goal here has been to destabilize the good feelings that permeate diversity discourse by outlining three critiques of thinking with ‘gender diversity’ in education, drawing our attention to its limitations as a concept. I believe that we must begin thinking differently about gender especially in teacher education, and I want us to skip over the usual ‘diversity is good’ pathway for including issues of difference anew in the equity components of teacher education programs. I do not want the fostering or celebration of gender diversity to be a goal of preservice teacher learning about gender. I instead want them to know that genderism is a force that can confer or withdraw a student’s will to live or experience happiness and fulfillment. I want preservice teachers to situate themselves within the power structure of the dominant genderist society and recognize the moments in their lives when they have been gender non-normative. And they are there. Ultimately, I want preservice teachers to come to a place where they recognize the contingent and individual nature of all genders. Perhaps then they will not risk perpetuating genderism in their classrooms. And I don’t think that celebrating gender diversity is the task at hand.

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