Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.
The topic of gender, and how children should be taught about it (and if they should be taught about it at all), has become a delicate, controversial and highly-provocative topic. Any writer who dares to even touch on this topic today is doomed to receive a barrage of hatred from people who come from a wide range of diverse backgrounds.
I know this, because I myself have been on the receiving end of that hatred on more than a couple of occasions in the past.
After writing and publishing a blog post entitled Gender-Neutral Toilets in Schools: Some Research and Conclusions (which I thought was a pretty balanced and fair synopsis of some of the most pertinent research and history on this issue) I received nasty messages on social media, hateful reviews of my books on Goodreads and Amazon (by people who hadn’t even read the books) and even messages to family members and friends who had shown the audacity to like, or comment, on one or more of my photos or posts. This was my virtual ‘second-wave’ of acrimony: I had received my first after publishing On Gender Neutral Toilets in Schools.
For a community that claims to celebrate diversity, a small (but significant) minority of 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals do themselves and their cause no favors by showing complete intolerance to diversity of opinion.
This leads me to today’s gargantuan mission: to describe what the published evidence states about what should actually be taught about gender in schools, and then (in the coming weeks and onwards) when and how it should be taught. I know that the hate will come to me by reflex-action by some individuals who won’t even read this far. All I can say is bring it on: we all show our true, ‘rainbow’ colours through our actions.
With that out of the way, let’s begin.
What should we be teaching children about gender?
Before we can even begin to answer that question, we need to answer a question that is much more fundamental: What is gender?
Growing up as a primary school kid in the 80s was a fairly simple experience with regards to this issue, and the question of what gender was didn’t need to be asked (or so it seemed). My school friends were boys and girls, and nothing else. Boys looked and acted differently to girls. My parents and the adults I encountered in society were men and women – and they were all very easy to distinguish as such.
I guess what I’m saying is that the data from my life experience provided everything I needed to know about gender: There were boys, girls, men and women. Nothing else (or so it appeared).
Today, however, that assumption – that gender is binary, is thought by many to be inaccurate. Former elementary school principal Anthony Ciuffo sums up his awakening to this knowledge eloquently: in a recent ASCD report:
Perhaps the most important lesson we gleaned from our immersion in the literature was the idea that gender is not the binary concept (where someone is either a girl or a boy) that most of us have grown up believing it to be.Anthony Ciuffo, 2019. Rethinking Conventions: Keeping Gender-Diverse Students Safe. ASCD.
This central, bold premise is rather a big one. I wanted to find out where Ciuffo was getting his information from. As a molecular biology graduate this statement made some sense to me initially: Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, with the only distinguishing feature between most males and females at the chromosomal level being that one of those pairs consists of an X and Y chromosome for males, whereas a woman has an X and X chromosome in that position within the karyotype (a karyotype is essentially a list of all of the chromosome pairs). Some rare exceptions to this rule do happen, however (some of which I was surprised to learn about during the course of my research for this blog post):
- Klinefelter syndrome (XXY biological males)
- Chapelle syndrome (XX biological males – described as an ‘intersex’ condition)
- XYY males
- Turner syndrome (biological females who have one X chromosome missing, or partially missing)
- Triple X syndrome (biological females who have three X chromosomes)
- Swyer syndrome (biological females who have the XY chromosome pair, normally present in biological males)
The fact that these ‘syndromes’/conditions/possibilities exist in the first place should surprise most people who assume that gender is binary – even the biological evidence suggests that numerous exceptions to that premise exist. This raises more questions:
- How many gender-affecting situations at the genetic-molecular level are we not aware of?
- To what extent do chromosomal arrangements actually affect gender?
That last question is a pertinent one that humanity will soon have to really get to grips with, as both anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests that that the ‘full story’ of gender is by no means determined by genetics alone. Take Sasha Komarova (a Russian model) for example: she has Swyer syndrome (XY), yet she would most certainly identify as a female (and many would argue a very attractive one, at that). At the chromosomal level she ‘should’ be a male, but the physical reality that has manifested is a female body.
Research-based evidence that supports the notion that genetics have a role to play in a wide-range of gender expressions is mounting by the year:
- In September of 2019, the largest-ever genome-wide-association study of same-gender sexuality was published in the very well-respected journal, Science. The primary finding was that multiple genes are significantly associated with engaging in same-gender sexual behavior (Diamond, Lisa. 2021)
- A large literature review by Polderman et al, 2018, came to this significant conclusion: “Based on the data reviewed, we hypothesize that gender identity is a multifactorial complex trait with a heritable polygenic component. We argue that increasing the awareness of the biological diversity underlying gender identity development is relevant to all domains of social, medical, and neuroscience research and foundational for reducing health disparities and promoting human-rights protections for gender minorities“.
One can only conclude from the karyotypic and genetic evidence that gender may not be binary after all, and that other chromosomal/gene-loci/genetic-molecular arrangements may exist that lead to a gender expression that does not match the binary that we’ve mostly grown up to believe is true. In fact, to hold steadfast the central dogma that gender is exclusively a binary phenomenon is not only old-fashioned, but it’s plain wrong according to the scientific evidence we have at present.
Next week I will explore gender from a brain chemistry and hormonal profile perspective. Following that, I will explore what should be taught to children, and at what stages in their development it should be taught.
Bibliography and references
- Ciuffo et al., 2019. Rethinking Conventions: Keeping Gender-Diverse Students Safe. ASCD.
- Namiki, 1997. Disorder of Sex Chromosome. Nihon Rinsho.
- Diamond, 2021. The New Genetic Evidence on Same-Gender Sexuality: Implications for Sexual Fluidity and Multiple Forms of Sexual Diversity
- Polderman et al., 2018. The Biological Contributions to Gender Identity and Gender Diversity: Bringing Data to the Table. Behavior Genetics.