Divide by gender?
Can we do these activities in a way that includes those with a transgender or intersex identity, whether they are “out” or not?
This is a difficult issue. It is always a challenge to model the kind of gender-inclusive community we want to see in the world, while recognizing the realities of living in a world which generally recognizes two genders (“gender binary”), each associated with a specific biological sex. Yet, participants who do identify as male or female benefit from time with others of their gender identity. Here are some considerations for creating a gender-affirming Our Whole Lives (OWL) community:
- Acknowledge that Our Whole Lives programs often talk about gender in a male-female way, that not everyone sees themselves in that gender binary, and those people may feel uncomfortable. The class should covenant to respect those feelings. Ask the group what they think the best way of welcoming transgender participants might be. Ask how they can help one another recognize and challenge assumptions and make their environment safer and more comfortable to all orientations, genders and identities people may hold or question.
- Always make space for participants who may be questioning their gender by making no assumptions about the identities of anyone in the group. Because of the amount of growth and identity development that children and youth experience in the course of a year, it is not sufficient to ask participants to privately self-identify their gender to the facilitators at the beginning of the program and assume identity will remain unchanged all year.
- When dividing by gender, always allow students to self-identify their own gender, rather than having the facilitators tell participants which group to go to. If there are more than two facilitators, each time the class divides by gender, one facilitator can offer to be an ally for any participants who are questioning their gender identity. You might make this offer in every session, even if nobody uses this option initially. Each gender group facilitator can remind the group that even though the group has divided by gender, participants should not assume that everyone in the group has the same gender experience.
- When an activity calls for dividing into groups by gender, determine the purpose of that activity. If the session is about anatomy, then biological sex may be more important than gender identity. If the session is about power issues, then it may be important to provide a same-gender space for participants to feel safe sharing difficult stories. Be clear about the purpose of the division, so all can make an informed choice about the best place to be.
Even if no participants ever utilize any of the transgender options at any time in the program, they will remember that space was intentionally made for people under the transgender umbrella. As a result, they may be more likely to remember, include, or demand a space for trans people in their own communities.