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Partnering with Schools to Support Children with Gender Variant Behaviors and Interests

By Graciela Slesaransky-Poe, Ph.D.

Five years ago, when my son turned three, he put his “blankie” on his head pretending it was long hair and declared that he was a girl. We have gone a long way since then; he no longer thinks he is a girl, but he is not a typical boy, either. He is what we call a boy with gender variant behaviors and interests. Boys like my son prefer to play with girls, are interested in girls’ toys (such as Barbies, fairies, and princess dresses) rather than in cars, trucks, and sports. So, a year before he started first grade, I decided to find out if his future school was going to be the right school for him, and for us. I did not know where to begin, so I asked the school counselor for advice on how and with whom we should approach this subject.

Through a parent listerv1 in which I participate, I learned that schools respond very differently to concerns raised by parents of gender variant children. Some respond very positively and strive to provide a climate that is safe, while others  respond by telling parents that non-conforming gender behaviors and expressions “are seen as a provocation” and they  can’t protect the child from teasing or harassment.

At my initial meeting with the school counselor, I described my son’s gender variant behaviors and interests and gave her two resources that had helped my family understand my son, and encouraged us to proactively partner with his school: a guide called If You are Concerned about your Child’s Gender Behaviors: A Guide for Parents (GSAEP, 2003); and a document called From Teasing To Torment: A Report on School Climate in Pennsylvania. (Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, GLSEN, 2006). The school counselor admitted having limited knowledge on the topic, but she felt very confident assuring me that by the time my son would start first grade, the school would be ready for him; that it would be a safe place for him and for my daughter, who would be entering fourth grade. We agreed that we next had to meet with the Principal, and at that time my husband also attended the meeting. The Principal responded with empathy to our fears and concerns. She recognized the need for professional development, and a few months later, the Bryson Institute2, lead the first professional development session on gender variance for the whole school.

Much has taken place both at the school and district levels since those initial meetings. Now our son is a happy student finishing up second grade. Because of the school counselor’s interest in this topic and her desire to begin doing some work with students and teachers, she piloted some of the lessons from the Welcoming Schools program addressing gender stereotyping in young children. She also created a study group in the school comprised of a few counselors and teachers interested in developing a deeper understanding and knowledge on the topic, who meet on a regular basis to discussed readings and videos on this subject. Furthermore, the school counselor shared these experiences with her colleagues in the other elementary schools, and as a result, they created a district-wide committee of counselors and teachers learning together how to support students with gender variance behaviors and interests, and GLBTQ students and families.

This year, the new district Superintendent became aware of the different initiatives that have been taking place at several schools, sometimes not widely known or supported. As a result, he decided to take action and develop a district-wide approach to the subject, and invited me to be a part of the process. Because many principals gave him positive feedback on my past presentations, I was invited to participate in a meeting of approximately 100 individuals, ranging from central administration personnel, K-12 principals and assistant principals, counselors, and other leadership personnel, all considered to be critical players at the district-level. At that meeting, I was asked to share our personal story and to help the district begin to critically think about ways in which to design a comprehensive approach to establish policies and practices so that the district can move forward towards ensuring that all students, parents, and staff feel safe, welcomed, and free from teasing, harassment, and bullying, regardless of their gender identity and sexual orientation.

I am now involved in my own district as well as in others, and I draw my contributions from three different sources. First, my experiences as a Special Education Professor and Inclusive Education Consultant who has supported administrators through district-wide initiatives, many of which may have been seen controversial and were met with resistance from staff and the community, such as the promotion of inclusive education practices for all students. Second, my participation in the Welcoming Schools Advisory Board and the lessons we have been learning from the Pilot and Leadership sites implementing the program over this past year. And thirdly, and perhaps the most important one, my experience raising children with gender variant behaviors and interests, and educating teachers, camp counselors, and other significant people in their lives, that we should strive to promote and embrace all ways in which children just are who they are. Or, as we tell our children, that there are many different ways of being a boy or a girl. And that all are OK ways of being a boy or a girl.

1. List of exchange of email messages (listserv) for parents raising boys with gender non-conforming behaviors and interests sponsored by the Gender and Sexuality Advocacy and Education Program (GSAEP), Children’s National Medical Center, Washington, DC.

2. A local organization committed to improving the climate and support systems for LGBTQ youth, by providing education, outreach, and consultation services to schools, and other service agencies, in order to create more supportive and affirming environments for all children and youth.