Gender bending, never ending

The public debate about the state of gender following the J. Crew advertisement controversy back this spring continues, most recently with an NPR piece by Linton Weeks titled, “The End of Gender?”  The author draws on recent news items to argue that gender’s days are numbered, citing accounts of Kanye wearing women’s clothing, parents raising a genderless child (I’m skeptical, btw), and a high school declaring its prom gender neutral.  Weeks also includes commentary from scholars across a variety of disciplines, including a bit from Dean Spade where he argues that gender should be eliminated in government record-keeping to provide a macro-level strategy that counters some of the top-down catalysts for transphobia and sexism.

But Dean Spade’s legal strategy won’t necessarily compel a widespread deconstruction of gender. “Race-blind” policies enacted by the government in France, which prohibit the collection of data about race, have been argued to sweep existing discrimination under the rug and even exacerbate differences based on race.  And moreover, while it’s heartening to hear that schools and universities are adopting gender-sensitive policies and programs designed to help marginalized youth and open the hearts and minds of the mainstream, I worry that these news bulletins about the fall of gender are simply panic-induced messages to the public that make comfortable the polemic about the debate and in the end serve to reproduce the gender binary.  This is no more telling than in the concluding paragraph of Weeks’ piece, which quotes neuroscientist Lise Eliot expressing that “the goal is to keep girls physically active, curious and assertive, and boys sensitive, verbal and studious” – despite the article’s heading, such a conclusion actually reifies the very differences between boys and girls, men and women.

I was actually really excited to see a countering view to the article by Leonard Sax, who argues that gender is no more salient or more important than through work in single-sex schools.  He argues that although the examples in Weeks’ piece of gender bending might be hopeful, they are far from common, and simply ignoring gender won’t make it disappear.  He argues that gender differences are no more apparent than in the classroom, and that variables such as race, class, or geographic location don’t even matter when pitted against gender.  Weeks summarizes Sax, noting that “on many parameters relevant to education, such as attention span, a white boy from an affluent home in Bethesda or McLean has more in common with an African-American male from a low-income home in Southeast D.C. than he has in common with his own sister, a white girl.”

And then he lost me.  Data on the “gender crisis” in education has actually made explicitly clear that gender differences overall do exist in the U.S. (marginally), but that class plays a huge role in educational achievement.  Moreover, where gender differences exist they are most detrimental for black and Latino boys – not white boys.  And at the highest income level, black, Latino, white and Asian men are actually more represented in colleges and universities than women.

The discussion of single-sex schools is interesting as an intervening variable in the construction of gender, however.  During research I conducted on single-sex schools, we found that single-sex schools are not by any means static in their treatment of gender: some schools, like those we found common to parts of Latin America and in the U.S., make clear that the schools are designed to raise boys to be boys, and girls to be girls.  Others, however, embody a mix of lessons about gender bending with a more practical understanding that gender constructions are very real parts of children’s lives.  I believe that single-sex schools could lend themselves to be safe spaces for people within a category (in this case, male and female) to explore together the boundaries of the category and grow to be more flexible.  For most of us growing up in today’s world, gender is “high stakes” – as Dean Spade puts it – and to overcome the very real construction of gender in our everyday lives will take more than a couple high-profile news articles about nail polish or high school prom.

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