Gender neutrality: Why teachers won't ask boys and girls to line up in Lincoln, Neb.

Across the country, schools, sports teams, and other groups are defining what it means to be 'gender neutral.' For many parents, this is new territory to navigate and understand. 

Renee Jones Schneider/The Star Tribune/AP
Zeam Porter – who identifies as a transgender individual – speaks about the years Porter played basketball on the girls team and how it always felt like the wrong team, during the Minnesota State High School League's public hearing on a proposed transgender policy on Wednesday, Oct.. 1, 2014, in Brooklyn Center, Minn.

In addition to the growing list of considerations to create what many consider a discrimination-free world, gender neutrality is gaining traction as an important topic for parents to understand.

Gender neutrality – creating an environment in which distinguishing roles based on someone’s sex or gender is discouraged – seems to be the newest frontier in inclusivity for parents to navigate, and to help their kids navigate too.

Recently, school teachers at a middle school near Lincoln, Neb., were given a handout with tips on how to create a gender-neutral classroom environment. The handout was from the group Gender Spectrum, that according to its website, provides, “education, training and support to help create a gender sensitive environment for all children and teens.” 

According to a report from the group Nebraska Watchdog, the handouts included 12 tips, which included avoiding language such as “ladies and gentlemen” or “guys” to help attain inclusivity for any students  who don’t identify with either a particular gender, or their birth sex.

1) Avoid asking kids to line up as boys or girls or separating them by gender. Instead, use things like"odd and even birth date," or "Which would you choose: skateboards or bikes/milk orjuice/dogs orcats/summer or winter/talking or listening.” ….

2) Don't use phrases such as ”boys & girls," ”you guys,” ”ladies and gentlemen," and similarly gendered expressions to get kids’ attention. Instead say things like ”calling all readers," or ”hey campers" or"could all of the athletes come here." Create classroom names and then ask all of the ”purple penguins" to meet at the rug.

3) Provide an opportunity for every student to identify a preferred name or pronoun. At the beginning of the year or at Back-to-School Night, invite students and parents to let you know if they have apreferred name and/or pronoun by which they wish to be referred.

While some school administrators, including Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Steve Joel, welcomed the changes, some parents and teachers questioned if the training went too far. Joel recently spoke with local radio station KLIN and said that he was “pleased” with the training materials, and linked those materials to creating an inclusive school environment where bullying, particularly as it relates to sexual orientation, is properly addressed and stopped. 

According to Nebraska Watchdog, Al Riskowski, executive director of the Nebraska Family Alliance, said that his group supports legislation to combat bullying but says that these training materials go “way beyond trying to teach someone how to respect another individual” or understand gender identification or sexual orientation to a “whole new idea of boy-girl.”

An ILJ Review report about the handouts highlights other recent instances around the country where schools are wading into gender-neutral territory. 

The first two cases cited, in Colorado and California, have dealt with students being allowed to use the restroom that corresponds with the gender they identify with, not their biological sex. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill in 2013 that made it the first state in the US to create a law on transgender students’ rights beginning in elementary school.

Also, the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) is currently considering policies that would allow transgender students to participate in sports based on their gender identity, not their birth sex. 

According to a report from local NBC affiliate KARE-TV, the draft of the policy, which will be discussed in the MSHSL December meeting, does not specifically address locker room and restroom requirements, and private schools are not excluded from the policy.

On Wednesday, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio put a bill before the City Council that would allow transgender individuals to change their birth certificates with only a letter of support from a variety of health workers, according to a report by The Christian Science Monitor.

For parents who want to dive deeper into gender neutral definitions and issues, a simple online search will unearth organizations and articles eager to share tips for avoiding references to gender or labels relating to one gender or another. Plus, it's important to remember that kids might be more tapped into the gender neutral discussion, since schools now appear to be leading the way in exploring what discrimination means and how to put an end to it.

Whether parents support creating a gender neutral environment for kids, are wary of defining what it means to be gender neutral, or are entirely confused by the effort, you might start by asking your kids for their take on the issue, and then work together to find your family's path forward.

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