Sex Ed can actually be quite boring. After we’ve gotten the giggles out about the words for the reproductive system, and looked at the after effects of letting an STI go untreated for far too long (“if it burns, if it looks funny, if you don’t know” … picture several 17 year olds, answering in unison “go to the clinic”), we talked about healthy relationships, we talked about establishing sexual boundaries, and we got through a very boring (and thorough) lesson on contraception.
On the last day of the unit, we needed to talk about what the curriculum terms “Sexual and Gender minorities”. This was actually probably one of the most important classes I’ve done this year. There were some new terms for me: gender variant, and two – spirited. And many new words for the students. Like, transgender, a person whose gender identity, outward appearance, expression and/or anatomy does not fit into conventional expectations of male or female. This was the curriculum definition – I defined it as, your body and mind don’t match when it comes to being a boy or a girl.
“Ms. Stewart – that’s me !” One of the students piped up. “I feel like that. I feel like I am a boy, even though I am a girl.”
My mind starts racing, what do I do now? What do I say?
I realised very quickly that this isn’t about me feeling awkward – this kid knew exactly who they were, and had just been given a word (in English) that more or less described how they felt on the inside and identified on the outside.
I waited for the other students to react dramatically. Nope. They knew too. Maybe not the language, but they knew their classmate.
My reaction then? That’s normal. If you feel that way, that’s just fine.
I think things are getting better for kids that are different. Not to say that we don’t need to continue to do more work as educators, and adults, and communities – but that I think that things are changing. For the better.
I didn’t make a big deal. We went through the rest of the terminology. We discussed the difference between sex and gender, and took a look at the Genderbread person online.
Avoiding Labels while Taking Risks
As much as it is empowering to give someone the language to explain themselves, boxing them into a label is also disservice.
For fun, I introduced Ellen Degeneres, and the Ellen show – this was more as a funny video treat at the end of class. The student with some new vocabulary went home and Youtubed Ellen extensively, finding out about her charity work, her show, and how at first she had had a hard time coming out as a lesbian. This was reported back a few days later – “Ellen, she’s so cool!”
And I thought – well, you’ve got the language, a potential role model and people you feel comfortable sharing with – you’re so cool!
As a teacher of high school and language my lesson here was, you never know. You never know what is going to be important to someone, so take those risks and go outside your own comfort zone.
Resources for Teaching about Gender and Sexual Health
If you’re a teacher, or someone that has to talk about this sort of thing with youth, some of the resources that I used are available via the links below:
Teaching Sexual Health: This is curriculum for those teaching sexual health to students from elementary to high school, divided by age level. It covers a wide range of topics from decision making and healthy relationships to contraception and STI’s.
Sex Etc. : This is a website from the US targeted at teenagers. Advice on contraception, decision making, and sexual health. The language is easier to understand, and a bit “hipper”.
Genderbread Person: An infographic explaining gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and attraction. Very clear, and great for starting a discussion!