Commentary Human Rights

Schools: Stop Forcing Kids to Conform to Gender Norms

Martha Kempner

In the last few weeks, there have been a couple of instances across the country in which schools asked students to change their appearance to match gender norms and threatened to punish them for not doing so.

We all know that marketers push gender conformity on kids from day one. Everything made for babies comes in “boy blue” or “girl pink,” (with the occasional shades of light green and yellow). Toys “R” Us and other national toy stores have pretty much drawn a line down the center of the store and told boys to shop on the left for trains, light sabers, and erector sets, while girls are sent right for Barbies, dollhouses, and toy kitchens. They can meet in the middle to buy a bicycle, but be sure that those are color-coded as well. Clothing retailers have much the same set-up, with whole chains catering to just one gender.

Unfortunately, the next frontier of conformity appears to be schools. In the last few weeks, there have been a couple of instances across the country in which schools asked students to change their appearance to match gender norms and threatened to punish them for not doing so.

Earlier this month, national media picked up the story of a 9-year-old boy, Grayson Bruce, who says he was pushed, punched, and called names because of his My Little Pony lunchbox. His classmates at an elementary school in North Carolina told him the cartoon was for girls. In an interview with a local television station, Bruce acknowledged that most of the characters on the show are girls and it does seem to be aimed at girls, but he said he’s a fan nonetheless.

When the bullying got too much, his mother intervened and was shocked that the school counselor’s proposed solution was for Bruce to hide his lunchbox when he walked into school. She was even more shocked when the principal later informed her that Bruce was no longer allowed to bring his lunchbox to school. She told a local television station, “My son is being called awful names and has even been told to ‘go home and kill himself’! Now on top of everything he can’t bring a lunchbox he really likes, and I feel like is being sent the message that this is his fault.”

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The school claims not to tolerate bullying in any form, but its solution—to blame and punish the victim—is ridiculous. Unfortunately, schools do not seem to be as sensitive to bending gender rules as one would hope.

Just ask 8-year-old Sunnie Kahle, a third-grader in Virginia who was recently told by staff at her Christian elementary school that she had to start appearing more feminine. Apparently Kahle’s short hair and outfit choices have them concerned about her gender identity. The school told her grandparents in a letter, “We believe that unless Sunnie as well as her family clearly understand that God has made her female and her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity, that TCS [Timberlake Christian School] is not the best place for her future education.”

The letter went on to say that unless she started looking more like a girl she would not be invited back. Not surprisingly, Kahle’s grandparents have decided that this is not the right environment for her and are looking for a new school.

(Another case about hair made headlines this week when a 9-year-old girl was sent home from school for having shaved her head in solidarity with a friend who was undergoing chemo. Though some media reports suggested that this was also a case of required gender conformity, the very strict dress code for the charter school is actual nearly identical for boys and girls; no one is allowed to attend school with a shaved head.)

The decisions that Bruce and Kahle had to deal with are predicated on a number of false premises and send some pretty bad messages, not just to these two but to all of their peers as well. They tell young people that gender rules are strict, that there is no room for expression that falls outside of these rules, and that one breaks the rules at his or her own risk.

Young people should be given space to experiment with gender expression, in how they dress, what toys they want to play with, or how they cut their hair. Adults in their life need to show understanding both of the pressure to conform and of any decisions to go one’s own way. We should acknowledge that going against norms can be difficult but that taking the path of least resistance is often not a good choice either. In fact, in my mind young people who are able to look at what is expected of them and say “thanks but no thanks” ought to be applauded for having the courage of their convictions.

It’s sad that instead of pride and protection, Bruce was essentially told it was his own damn fault he was being bullied. This sounds an awful lot like telling a rape victim “What were you thinking dressing like that?” I had hoped we’d gotten beyond this blame-the-victim mentality. School officials should instead have supported Bruce and worked on changing the minds and behaviors of his tormentors.

The letter from Kahle’s school also suggests that administrators are making an assumption that all kids who choose clothes, accessories, activities, or hairstyles that fall outside of gender norms are transgender or somehow questioning their gender. While some might be—and if so, they should be supported for who they are—most probably are not. We do not have to read something into every wardrobe decision or trip the barber shop.

Kahle’s grandmother told a local television station that her granddaughter likes to wear pants so she can go out and play in the mud. This does not mean, as her school seemed to fear, that Kahle doesn’t understand that she is a girl or that she wishes she were not or anything else about her gender—though again, if any of those things are true, they are legitimate feelings. But when adults see a young person who is not conforming to gender roles, they should take a deep breath, calm down, and not automatically assume there are other things going on.

Of course, some young people will question their gender identity, and these kids really need the support of adults in their lives as they figure out who they are. The more we fear that every short-haired girl and nail-polish-loving boy is transgender, the more we send a message to transgender kids that there is something really and truly wrong with them.

Our job as adults is to support all young people as they figure out what is expected of them and whether or not following the “rules” feels right. Maureen Kelly, vice president for programming and communications at Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes, who works with transgender young people, spoke to Rewire about these stories. “Here’s what we know: Kids who get love and support to express themselves through words, clothing, books, play, or simply, how they exists in the world do better in almost every single realm,” she said. “This is not just for gender expansive kids. It’s for all kids. When kids have trusted adults they can talk to and when they feel listened to and respected, they have better physical and mental health, they feel more grounded, and—regardless of their gender identity or expression—they get along better in the messy and complicated world we send them out into every day.”

Meanwhile, kids who are transgender or gender nonconforming often face tremendous violence and harassment, and need all the support from the adults in their lives that they can get.

The good news for Bruce and Kahle is that despite their encounters with ignorant and insensitive school administrators, both had parents or guardians who respected their choices and fought to support and protect them. We can only hope that schools administrators learn a good lesson from these families as well as from the outpouring of support both kids have gotten as their stories went public.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly noted that Sunnie Kahle lives in West Virginia. The third grader lives in Virginia. We regret the error.

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