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Your Gender is in Your Heart,

Not Your Pants

“If you are a person who is standing up to pee, please put the seat up before you start, and put the seat down when you are done.  Then flush and wash your hands.”

I say these words to my kindergarten class of five and six-year-olds at the beginning of every year.  When you teach kindergarten, in addition to their ABCs, you’re also teaching children about where to put their P’s (pun intended) and basic hygiene.  Fives and sixes are still learning about using communal bathrooms, so they all need to hear consistent messages about flushing, giving people privacy, and washing their hands.  (Please, children, wash your hands.)

“If you are a person who is standing up to pee…”

I first started saying these words when I began at my current school, five years ago.  There was a communal bathroom at the back of the room: one toilet was in a stall with a door, the other wasn’t.  All the kids used the same bathroom, and, with the curiosity and obliviousness that are so endemic to this age, they were happy as clams.  But the seats kept getting wet.  So I decided those bathroom manners were, like everything else in early childhood, fair game for a discussion.  


“Friends, our toilet seats are wet.  Does that feel good?”


“No,” everyone agreed.  


“Okay, so here’s how we’ll fix it.  If you are a person who is standing up to pee, please put the seat up before you start, and put the seat down when you are done.  Then flush and wash your hands.”  


“Do you mean a boy?” several children asked, almost in chorus.  


“Oh, no, I mean a person who is standing up to pee.  Do all boys always stand up to pee?” Heads shake.  


“Exactly.  So I mean a person who is standing up to pee.  Any other questions?”  


Nope.  End of conversation.  Fives and sixes can be so refreshing that way: appeal to their lived experience, and they’re willing to listen to adult authority.

“If you are a person who is standing up to pee…”

I used that phrase every year, as often as necessary.  I remember a tour of fancy adults coming in, right as I began.  Oh, well.  Welcome to kindergarten, where we really have to talk about how to pee.  

“If you are a person who is standing up to pee…”

The next year, I was interrupted again.  “Do you mean a boy?”  Same question, same answer, same dawning understanding.  We moved on.  

The following year, I was totally ready.  “If you are a person who is standing up to pee…” Yep, someone wants to know if I mean a boy.  At this point, I’m comfortable, I don’t even bat an eye.  “Nope, I mean anyone who is standing up to pee.”  It goes even more smoothly, and I congratulate myself on having practiced this conversation, one that, simultaneously, adults around the country are unable to have in a civil manner.

Last year? Silence.  The kids all look at me, waiting.  I finish, and that evening, I tear up as I talk about it.  “No one, not one kid, asked if I meant a boy.  The kids are all right.”  This is the year we talk about gender as a choice.  Gender makes it onto our list of things that everyone gets to choose for themselves – things that you can’t decide for someone else.  This is a big deal for five- and six-year-olds, who like to tell other people about themselves, often with hurt feelings as a result.  “You can’t tell somebody about their name, or their family, or their feelings, or what they’re thinking, or their gender.  They get to decide that for themselves.”  I explain gender as “Whether you feel like a girl, or a boy, or something in between, or both, or neither.”  They all seem fine with this.  (Dear grownups: gender is not about what’s in your pants.)  Conversations about “girl things” and “boy things,” are passé; “Isn’t it so funny people used to think that there were girl things and boy things?” a kid asks me one day.  “Yeah, that’s silly.  Everyone knows girls and boys get to choose to do whatever they want,” another child chimes in.  Hold on to that, my friends.  

We talk about our school’s 50th anniversary, and about how there will be people coming to our school who haven’t been here before.  “Have you noticed that all the bathrooms in our school are for everybody?” I ask my class.  “Yeah,” they agree, and one points out, “That’s different.  Because in other places, there are girl bathrooms and boy bathrooms.”  “Yeah, but that’s not fair,” another child says.  “Because what if you’re not a boy or a girl, then what bathroom would you use?”  The room stops and ponders this in horror.  When you’re five, the location of the bathroom is really, really important.  “I think we should make signs,” I tell the children.  So that people who are coming to our building for the first time know where to go.”  “Yeah!” the children cheer, and they set to work.  Almost every child collaborates on a sign, including my most reluctant writers and illustrators.  This is very important.  

“This bathroom is for peeing and pooping,” one sign reads.  

Another says, “This bathroom is for everybody.”  

My favorite: “This bathroom is for you if you feel like a girl or a boy or both or neither.”  That one is still up in my classroom.

I knew that kids coming from our classes of four-and five-year-olds would have already broken down “girl things” and “boy clothes.”  My colleagues and I support children in their gender expression and identity and protect the trans* kids in our care, knowing that we do so with the full support of our administration.  At my school, adults are expected to put children first, and the administration encourages and expects us to address “difficult subjects,” like race, gender, and class.  As educators, it is our responsibility to protect the children in our care, to give them the vocabulary and the space they need to be their full, true selves.  When adults fail in these duties, children are the ones who suffer.  LGBTQ children attempt self-harm much more frequently than straight cis kids, and each time a trusted adult turns their back on bullying, acts as if they don’t see all their students, or erases a student’s lived experience, we are betraying their trust. All of this happened at a school where trans* rights are supported.  I never worried that my supervisor would walk in and demand to know what I was doing, or that an irate parent would accost me, and my boss wouldn’t have my back.   Grownups- we can, and must, do better.

Every child, regardless of their gender expression and identity, deserves this kind of support.  As we affirm our trans* sisters, brothers, and those who have moved beyond such designations, the Movement for Black Lives supports us in creating these spaces in our schools and affirming that all children deserve such care in their schools.

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