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Guest Opinion

The complexity of gender identity


I taught English and retired from CB South in 2016. When I began at Unami in the ‘90s, I thought Central Bucks the most enlightened district ever.

In every decade in the second half of the 20th century and into this century, society and its institutions — especially schools — have changed to accommodate the ever-unfolding truths about our citizenry — all of us — who are “created equal.”

In the 1950s and ‘60s, our nation concluded that Black children deserved the same education as white children. This notion produced protests, violence and murder from Americans opposed to any change in the flawed notion of separate but equal. Nonetheless, we realized that change was overdue and started to work toward better education for all children.

The 1972 Students with Disabilities Act recognized that students with physical or mental challenges had the right to learn. Special education classes, mainstreaming, and individualized lesson plans became a reality. Not all taxpayers understood this, but parents with kids who had dyslexia, Down syndrome, physical challenges or emotional issues did. If you have a child with a learning issue, you understand how reevaluating what takes place in school is vital to the lifelong success of your child.

Also in 1972, the Civil Rights Act was amended to include Title 9. It stated that “equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities” was the right of girls as well as boys. Centuries of stereotyping women was reversed with Title 9. Not everyone agreed that public funds should support girls’ sports — there was opposition even into this century — but if you have a daughter in a sport who is stronger for learning self-discipline and being part of a team, it is a result of society rethinking how unfair things have been in the past and making them right.

My daughter graduated from CB West in the ‘90s. She was different — bright, but different. She was never the 12-year-old girl going on 20. She preferred boyish clothes, spent hours drawing and writing, and was never the teacher’s pet. She was bullied because she did not fit the mold or know how to be cool. We sent her to psychologists, and I read everything I could to “find” her in educational literature, but there were no answers.

One day in college she read an issue of Time Magazine that changed her life. The cover story was about autism; as she read, she saw herself.

Later, a doctor confirmed that she was on the autism spectrum. Thus began a painful road to understanding who she was — and what she needed her parents, family, and friends to know about her.

Autism was not widely recognized in the ‘90s as it is today. In my classes at South, I had students on the spectrum, who were acknowledged by staff and students as complete people — just a variant of what people call “the norm.” There were books in our libraries about people with autism — and none of those books had neon signs on them requiring that everyone read them. If a student needed or wanted it — it was there. With these advantages, my daughter would have been spared a painful adolescence.

In the same way, any child who is a variation on the “typical” deserves to see herself/himself/themself in books and respected by adults. Students in the LGBTQIA+ community need encouragement and validation of identity at every point in life.

In my generation, friends hid their sexual orientation well into adulthood because of fear and shame. This continued long after LGTBQ rights were in public discourse. In 1998, Matthew Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die on a fence in Laramie, Wyoming because he was gay.

This is the time when our nation must recognize a truth about our population — the complexity of gender identity — and provide a haven for children who are dealing with this reality as they navigate adolescence. Welcome and celebrate everyone in a class; make a difficult journey through adolescence less intimidating. Isn’t that the moral and human thing to do? A classroom needs to be vibrant, challenging and inspiring. It must be warm and inviting, not neutral.

As in the past, we must affirm that we are all created equal — even as we recognize our differences. Like it or not, gender identity has always been a reality; only now it is in public view.

Elizabeth Esris is a former Central Bucks South High School English teacher. She lives in Warrington.

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