Respecting Gender Identity

To continue the effort to discern and address the ways in which Middlesex could be a more welcoming, inclusive place for all students and adults, this year’s Community Life Symposium focused on the topic of gender identity, giving special consideration to how assumptions about gender are often built into everyday language, practices, and policies. Invited to guide the morning program on September 24 were five representatives from OUT MetroWest, a nonprofit organization founded to help build communities where LGBTQIA+ youth can thrive.

Given that having a clear, shared vocabulary would be important to facilitating discussions, the group took the time to provide definitions and explanations of many gender-related terms, differentiating between “sex” (a person’s chromosomes and anatomy at birth) and “gender” (how a person thinks of their identity) and “gender expression” (how a person chooses to express that identity). In recent years, an individual’s use of preferred pronouns has become one aspect of gender expression, with people using not just “he” or “she” but also “they” as their personal pronoun.

“Our brains can handle this,” one speaker noted. “We often say things like, ‘I wonder if they are coming back for their wallet?’” More importantly, she advised, “Don’t assume a person’s pronouns based on appearance.” And if you make a mistake with pronoun usage, she added, “Just correct yourself quickly and move on.”

The group then reviewed several frequently asked questions, confirming some of the ways in which individuals and communities can serve as allies for LGBTQIA+ youth. Keeping up with current events, skipping gender language (like “ladies and gentlemen”), and rethinking traditions (such as requiring different colored graduation gowns for boys and girls) are just a few of the ways that people can be supportive. Ultimately, being willing to have hard conversations about a fundamental question – “Where are LGBTQIA+ people excluded from policies or traditions?” – is a meaningful step toward becoming a fully inclusive school.

Subsequently forming breakout groups by grade, students collaborated on exercises that focused on LGBTQIA+ history, giving them a better understanding of the past and perhaps an idea of what they can do to make a difference in the Middlesex community.