What Divides Us, Becomes Us

What divides us, becomes us. The case for teaching all during puberty health education. 

As young people in the US mature in an increasingly non-binary world, rife with other idealogical deepening divides, the question of whether or not to separate genders when teaching puberty is a consideration of whether or not to take a giant step backwards. Even worse, goliath dehumanizing media sources are using inclusive and comprehensive sexual health education as a weapon to destroy the current governing administration. The actual recipients of unbelievable hate campaigns are students and the educators who support them. In addition to constantly having to advocate for Health Education as one of the most crucial courses in which students can participate, Health Educators now have to defend our life saving and affirming service to youth against the sharpened inaccurate swords of fear conglomerates. These panic generators instigate droids who only ingest its fallacious message with certainty and attack anyone trying to champion for youth. If you don’t believe me, just look at the parrotted comments quoted from “he who shall not be named” on AMAZE’s social media (@amazeorg) accounts or learn about the journey of Justine Ang Fonte, M.Ed, MPH (@ImJustineAF). Inevitably, you will have families gaslighted by this vitriol, demanding an explanation for their nonsensical reality. “Are you going to teach everyone together”? 

Of course I am. What you do as a Health Educator saves lives, so stay the course, persist. I recently participated in a workshop on inclusive puberty education with a presenter who was born intersex but now uses he/his pronouns. Inclusive sexual health education and the teacher who taught it saved his life. 

Inclusive sex ed has been politicized. If you haven’t felt the burn, you will. This conflict is like fire. Its flames will reach you as long as these disruptors of kindness spend their time trolling anyone who tries to fight for the human rights of children. Why are they adding fuel to the fire? Is it a diversion tactic away from the real issues? Fear seems to ignite actions. We as a profession need to do better. Let’s defend the organizations that support us so they don’t have to waste their resources on dementors with too much time on their hands. I am overwhelmed and furiously sad. For the sake of our students, I hope this ends. Students, especially gender expansive ones who have higher rates of depression and anxiety (GLSEN), deserve to be happy.

Here are some shields for your armor when teaching all genders, all genders equally and inclusively. Much of this was taken from Gender Spectrum’s (@GenderSpectrum) Principles of Gender-Inclusive Puberty and Health Education

Promote the supportive climate you have created in your classroom. Assure parents that you have created an environment where students feel safe by:

  • Displaying group norms developed by the students
  • Enforcing those rules and addressing disrespectful behavior
  • Instituting an anonymous question box with rules. 
    • I “predict” what questions will be asked or “plant” certain questions that have been asked in the past. 
    • I have shifted mine online using an anonymous form

Prepare students and families beforehand by:

  • Arranging times for students to meet with you in smaller groups to ask questions. 
    • I used to invite smaller groups of students to attend mini-puberty workshops weeks before we all started learning about it together. They signed up with their friends. I played puberty games, showed and discussed Amaze videos of their choice from my puberty playlists, and gave time for questions and answers.
  • Encouraging students and families to read your recommended puberty books before 5th grade or when you first teach about puberty
  • Empowering parenting adults to embrace their role as the primary sexual health educator in their child’s life
  • Inviting parenting adults to share their concerns. They like being heard. 

Address the discomfort. Some students will be uncomfortable learning about all the changes a person may go through during puberty, some will not. Discussing why there may be discomfort surrounding the topic is important.Without a doubt, you will need to revisit your class contract or group norms before puberty education.Embracing the awkwardness could lead to an enriching discussion on any of the following:

  • What can we do as a group to move forward and learn about this as a team? (Re-establish group norms)
  • How can we respect boundaries of someone who may be uncomfortable discussing this topic? (Consent!)
  • Why is it important to recognize and understand what makes us uncomfortable? (Emotions matter!)
  • Tell me about a time when you were uncomfortable with something that isn’t dangerous to your health and then learned or gained something by embracing that discomfort?

Stop defining the binary.  Separating students sends the message that bodies come in two categories and that students only need to know their own, leaving anything else taboo or mysterious. This furthers the divide between people rather than bringing people together. Every body is unique to each individual. There are a lot of similarities as well. There are a wide variety of genitals (read @emilynagoski Emily Nagoski’s “Come As You Are”). According to Gender Spectrum, the effect of separating instruction “stigmatizes bodies that are different. Separating instruction based on assumed physiology also serves to reinforce notions of a rigid binary based solely on genitals” (Gender Spectrum). It also strengthens those gender stereotypical boundaries that students force themselves and others into. 

Build Empathy and Communication Skills. Remind families that Health Educators are building empathy by guiding students as they practice interpersonal communication skills (National Health Education Standard #4). We are awarded the opportunity to facilitate conversations about challenging topics that may not be something students would be able to do otherwise. This prepares them for future relationships and broadens their understanding for others. Rather than avoid topics and stay confused, students learn in Health Education how to respectfully ask questions and communicate boundaries. Instead of criticizing or making fun of what is unfamiliar, they learn and increase awareness. “Without carefully structured spaces in which students can hear firsthand about the diversity of experiences individuals have, they miss an opportunity to build knowledge and develop empathy across differences. The net result not only leaves them unprepared for important interactions, it also reinforces many of the stereotypes they will carry into adulthood” (Gender Spectrum).

Validating all humans is good for everyone’s mental health

  • The gender expansive students feel seen and heard
  • From teacher modeling, the cisgender students see everyone as valued humans in the classroom.
  • A safer learning environment is beneficial for all students 

There’s no evidence that separating by gender is best practice or that teaching inclusively is harmful.

  • Remind families of the success you or other teachers have had for years teaching all students inclusively. 
  • Just because a student is uncomfortable, does not mean they are in an unsafe atmosphere.
  • Gender norms are shifting, rapidly
  • Student awareness of these shifts can be more in depth than adults. 
  • In other words, adults can be more uncomfortable than the students

Teaching inclusively reduces period stigma and increases menstrual justice. People with uteruses should not be embarrassed to go to a classroom to get a tampon. Students should feel comfortable seeing open boxes of menstrual pads on my bookshelf. They should be able to tell a nurse that they have cramps. They should feel comfortable to learn what’s happening to their body even if their genitals do not “fit” their gender identity.

This microblog post was a featured post in #slowchathealth’s #microblogmonth event. You can search for all of the featured posts here. Please do follow each of the outstanding contributors on social media (including Michelle Rawcliffe, the author of this post) and consider writing a microblog post of your own to be shared with the global audience of slowchathealth.com

Pair this blog post with the following:

Life-Affirming for All, Life-Saving for Some by Gender Spectrum

Sex Ed Needs You by Christopher Pepper

The Truth about Attacks on Our Kids, Schools, and Diversity via Siecus

Mind Your Language by Andy Milne

Period Poverty and Menstrual Equity by Sophie Draluck

In Support of Comprehensive Sexuality Education by Andy Milne

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