Opinion: Educators should discuss gender and sexuality in classrooms

Two UGA researchers say outlawing such discussions can devastate children

In a guest column, two University of Georgia researchers discuss how to talk to young children about gender or sexuality in the classroom, issues they say are important for schools to address rather than ignore.

Stephanie Jones is a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Georgia who teaches in the Mary Frances Early College of Education and in the Institute for Women’s Studies. A doctoral student in the University of Georgia Department of Educational Theory and Practice with an emphasis in early childhood education, Dylan Brody is a veteran preschool educator who conducts research on childhood and play.

By Stephanie Jones and Dylan Brody

A crisis has been created in our country, with more than 200 anti-transgender bills passed in 2022 and bills prohibiting educators from discussing issues of gender or sexuality in the classroom. Silencing topics around the body can have devastating effects on children, youth, and our society.

Teaching abstinence-only sex education, for example, produces well-documented negative outcomes and ignoring how gender is used to control, intimidate, and violate people perpetuates a society where gender-based forms of abuse are largely deemed acceptable. These actions also limit opportunities to explore and express joy, acceptance, and well-being in our bodies, which are essential to our physical, mental, and emotional health.

Here is some language that can support conversations between educators, families, children, youth, community members, and legislators.

The shaping of gender identities, femininity, and masculinity

Imagine this: You are a preschool teacher and some of the toddlers arrive dressed in T-shirts that say “Daddy’s Princess” or “Stud Muffin.” The children can’t read the words, but they are already immersed in a world where they are reading all kinds of signs from adults that shape their understanding of themselves and the world around them.

Many of these signs are about gender identities and expected gender roles, which are often also tangled up with sexuality. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but we want to say very clearly that gender and sexuality frequently get conflated but are indeed separate and need to be treated as such.

Dylan Brody (left) and Stephanie Jones (right).

Credit: Courtesy Photo

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Credit: Courtesy Photo

Let’s take the “Daddy’s Princess” shirt. It’s probably pink, a color that has become attached to femininity, and a princess is often connected with someone who is perceived as a girl with a gender expression that is feminine. There are other gendered messages embedded too, such as a patriarchal relationship where the father is the man of the house, the protector of his princess, and yet probably “soft” when it comes to his “little girl.”

There are infinite examples of this kind of gendering of even the youngest children. In fact, gender reveal parties actively gender a baby before they can even thrive on their own outside of the womb.

“But that is their gender at a gender reveal party!” you might think, and we would say it isn’t their gender but rather their assigned sex.

The “sex” of a newborn is often determined by observing their genitalia, presuming that external organs that look like a penis and testicles indicate a male baby and external genitalia that look like vulva and labia indicate a female baby. In fact, it’s helpful to think about the words male and female as sex assignment and separate from gender and sexuality.

Sex assignment at birth and intersex babies

The Cleveland Clinic reports that about 1 in every 1,000-4,500 babies born present with genitalia that do not fit into the male or female category. Recently in the United States, babies would often be subjected to irreversible surgical procedures to “fix” their anatomy and have physical sex characteristics that match the sex assignment chosen by physicians and parents. For many physical, psychological, and reproductive reasons, there has been and continues to be resistance to these surgeries on intersex babies and children.

Sex is not limited to the male/female binary. Most people have genitalia that appear and are assumed to be male or female, but a lot of people have internal and external genitalia and even chromosomes that do not align with what we have come to call a boy or a girl. They are intersex, their assigned sex often placed somewhere along the middle of the spectrum between the male and female binary.

Binary thinking and the gender binary

Binary thinking is all around us. In fact, very young children are taught to identify opposites starting in preschool. What’s the opposite of white? Black. Opposite of tall? Short.

Good? Bad.

Male? Female.

Boy? Girl.

Masculinity? Femininity.

This opposite-thinking is binary-thinking. Early childhood classrooms saturated with the Boy/Girl gender binary, like having Boy lines and Girl lines; or an adult asking for a “big strong boy” to help carry something. Even very young children are often taught that a perceived girl rolling around wrestling is not “ladylike,” but a perceived boy doing the same thing is “being a boy.”

In other words, very young children are actively taught — all the time — whether or not the way they express gender through their bodies and behaviors is acceptable for the side of the sex (male-female) binary on which they have been assigned by adults.

But children are often perplexed by and critical of these binaries.

As educators who have worked closely with young children, we have witnessed how they often live gender quite fluidly. Many children like to be physical, play dress-up, build with blocks, pretend-feed baby dolls, be the princess, and be the construction worker. They see themselves as capable of being and living across the spectrum of what it means to be human.

Even as they get older, some people are more comfortable expressing a gender identity that evolves. This holds true for people across the gender spectrum including people who identify as cisgender (when gender identity aligns with assigned sex), transgender (when gender identity does not align with assigned sex), and gender diverse people. Some people don’t feel as though they belong on either side of a masculine-feminine, boy-girl, or man-woman binary and express a gender identity that is nonbinary.

Some nonbinary people feel no connection to gender, some feel a connection to both man and woman, and some feel a connection to something that is outside the binary entirely and they may not have language to express those gendered feelings.

Everyone should have the freedom to explore who they are and what feels right to them as their lives unfold.

So much to talk about beyond sexual intimacy

Sex assignment, genitalia, gender, gender identities, masculinity, femininity, and binary thinking are already conversations that happen informally and formally in children’s lives all the time even if the vocabulary is different. The ideas behind these words are everywhere, including in music, clothing, hairstyles, hobbies, toys, cartoons, movies, and we haven’t even gotten into how sex (as in sexual intimacy), sexuality, and sexualization are integrated into our daily lives as well.

Some people may be confused by gender identities or expressions of gender that they don’t expect, but everyone has a right to express gender in ways that make sense to them. It is never acceptable to target someone through verbal or physical abuse or another form of discrimination because of their sex or gender.

Confusion or fear often drives people to silence, control, and punish things they don’t understand or accept. But these are not “new” ideas or lived experiences, even if the language seems new. Our language is trying to catch up with the gendered ways people have felt and expressed since the beginning of time. Language — which is always evolving and never static — can open up ways to grow and have humanizing, educational conversations.