Tag Archives: Education

Beyond the Signage

In the great cultural debate across the USA and beyond over who should pee where, one common fact we can agree on is that everyone must do so. Everyone needs toilet access. This seems obvious enough that I won’t justify it here. But why are some people so focused on “gender-neutral” or “all gender” signage? Why can’t we just let people use whichever restroom they prefer and be done with it? The answer is both simple and complicated.

According to a 2016 Reuters article, in a 2015 survey of 27,715 transgender Americans, “Thirty-two percent of transgender people said they limited the amount they ate or drank at least once in the previous year so they did not need to use a public restroom. Eight percent reported having a kidney or urinary tract infection, or another kidney-related medical issue, because they avoided restrooms.” This avoidance of public restrooms shows that they do not meet the needs of transgender people as the facilities currently exist.

Why go to such extremes to avoid public restrooms? Contrary to certain public narratives, it is transgender people in restrooms, not the other people present, who are in danger of violence. Verbal harassment, physical attack, being falsely reported for public indecency or lewd behavior (which is saying something, considering how rarely such accusations are false), and so-called corrective rape are things transgender people risk if they enter a restroom where other people think they do not belong. These risks are increased (both in and out of restrooms) in places where people are required to use restrooms that match their sex at birth.

Let’s start with the part of the transgender community that more people are familiar with: Binary transgender people. These are trans women and trans men. They identify with a binary gender (man or woman) that is not the binary sex (male or female) that they were assigned at birth. Some transgender people transition medically with hormones and/or surgery and/or other interventions. Some do not. Those who do use medical intervention may or may not reach a stage where they appear to strangers to be the sex that matches their gender identity in their lifetimes. We already know that appearing to be a sex other than what strangers expect in a given restroom leads to violence against transgender people. It is then no mystery why so many transgender people avoid public binary restrooms, even when they themselves are binary in identity.

“But wait,” you may be wondering, “why not just use the restroom that matches the sex a person appears to be, if that’s all it takes to avoid threats, harassment, and violence?”

This may avoid the more immediate violence, but it also reinforces the wrong ideas others have about a person’s gender. Transgender people spend a lot of time and energy trying to be seen for who they really are despite the false ideas of those around them. To use the wrong restroom is to give that up, to give people a reason to justify misgendering them, to undo huge amounts of work and effort with one single action. It leads to the verbal and psychological violence of being treated as the wrong gender, something that contributes to the elevated nature of transgender suicide rates.

People who are one of the many nonbinary genders, agender, or otherwise aren’t men or women experience the same long-term risks of misgendering described above no matter which restroom they enter. Some choose medical transition intervention and others do not, but they all face the same risks of violence that binary transgender people do if they enter a restroom which people perceive as being linked to a different sex than the one they think the person happens to be. My personal experience suggests that most cisgender people are extremely bad at guessing correctly about what is in a transgender or nonbinary person’s pants. It doesn’t matter which binary restroom I use; at least one person will do a wide-eyed double take and look ready to flight/fight.

This brings us back to the topic of signage. By using gender-neutral or all-gender signage, we change the expectations in the minds of the people who enter it. The expectations become “anyone can be in this room,” and that means the underlying reason for restroom violence against transgender and nonbinary people is removed. If there is no longer a reason to control who may be present, then there is no longer a reason to abuse transgender and nonbinary people for being present. It also changes the concept in peoples mind of what it means when they witness someone entering a specific restroom, thereby nixing the secondary misgendering problem. And let’s face it, changing some restroom signs is a lot faster and easier than changing our culture to end transphobia, binarism, and cissexism.

That was the complicated answer to “Why can’t we just let people use whichever restroom they prefer and be done with it?” The short answer is: There is no good option when both options available can and do lead to harassment and violence.

It is worth noting here that there is fervent debate within the transgender community about restroom signage. Some advocate for the phrase “all gender,” as they enjoy the emphasis and inclusivity of “all.” Others advocate for “gender neutral,” as a nod to the people who do not have gender and are thus not included in “all gender.” And that’s just the words. The debates about the symbols can be thousands of comments long with piles of hurt feelings on multiple sides.

So please, dear reader, advocate for gender-neutral or all-gender restrooms at your place of work and at your child’s school even if you and your child do not need them personally. Our voices often go unheard, and are often silenced by our own fear of the repercussions for speaking up in the first place. If there are single occupancy restrooms available, they are the easiest of all restrooms to update because they merely require sign changes. Please seek them out, and ask for the signs to be changed. While you’re at it, please ask for waste bins to be added to men’s room stalls for menstrual products. Nobody likes carrying a dirty pad or tampon in their pocket in search of a trash can.

The Power of Unconventional Freedoms

Among other hats, one of mine is “teacher.” I teach workshops to adults, art to children in after school programs, and more. One of the most powerful tools I have found I have as a teacher is the choice to allow what I call unconventional freedoms.

Kids in my class can talk about controversial subjects, go to the bathroom whenever they wish, and choose whether to sit or stand. These freedoms are allowed by some teachers, denied by others. What I mean when I say unconventional freedoms goes beyond this.

My kids can cry in class if they want to. They can walk away from their projects and go lay down on the floor. They can stim (engage in repeated body motions that cause no harm to themselves or others). They can do things considered strange or inappropriate by adults in larger society so long as they are not interrupting me, distracting other students from their work, or causing harm.

These unconventional freedoms allow children the space to grow as people and to explore who they are and how to exist peacefully with others.

Dr. Carol Dweck‘s research about the growth mindset (a mindset which involves believing in one’s own ability to grow in terms of skills) tells us that when children have the support to build a growth mindset, they are able to grow more than children who have a fixed mindset (the belief that they cannot grow in terms of skills). This doesn’t just apply to academic topics, Dweck tells us. It also applies to behavior.

Dweck’s research supports treating behavior like another subject students learn right along with English and math. This means supporting them through conversations meant to help give them the tools to grow and do better rather than tearing them down with punishments. Besides, as most teachers or parents can tell you, when children feel supported, they act out less to begin with.

In most of my art classes for children, there are one or two kids who are easily and vocally frustrated with projects. “I can’t do this” is a common refrain among them, indicative of Dweck’s framing of the fixed mind set. “It’s too hard, do it for me?” they ask. “I can’t do it right,” they pout, staring at the project, either dejected after a single attempt or afraid to even start.

To “I can’t do this,” I say, “Yes you can. It’s just hard. You have to try a bunch of times before it will work. This stuff isn’t easy.”

To “It’s too hard, will you do it for me?” I say, “Of course it’s hard. It’s something new. It’s only easy for me because I’ve done it a lot of times. Unless you do it a lot of times too, it will always be hard for you. Try again, okay?”

To “I can’t do it right,” I say, “That’s okay. It’s okay to mess up. It’s okay to make mistakes. That’s part of learning, and that is valuable. Besides, sometimes in art our mistakes take is in new and interesting directions, and that can be exciting!”

By the time they are done working with me for the semester, they try. They attempt. They give themselves the space to fail and try again, just like the other kids. I see them go from a fixed mindset to a mixed or growth mindset. Of course, it helps that it’s an ungraded after-school art class. I have a lot of freedom in my class compared to the daytime teachers.

Which brings us back to the point: Freedoms. How do unconventional freedoms play in to all this stuff about transforming young minds from fixed mindsets to growth mindsets? I consider them to be a highly useful tool set. Here’s an example of why:

On the first day of class one term, a child sat staring silently at the project on the table. Everyone else happily worked away. This child remained still. I checked in with the kid, who then began bawling. “I can’t do this,” the kid wailed. “It’s too hard!” We had the same talk I always have with kids who say these things, but this kid was having a huge emotional response to the situation. The kid understood what I was saying and accepted it, but first needed to cry to get all that emotion out of the way. I let the kid cry on the carpet at the other end of the room, but not before making sure to say, “Come back whenever you’re ready, okay? Take as long as you need.”

Weeks passed and that kid continued to struggle. “It’s too hard,” and “I can’t do this,” came out every single class session at first. One day the kid even moaned, “Don’t you have anything I can do that is perfectly easy for me to do on the very first try?!” Talk about an explicit fixed mindset! I didn’t give up. The more I encouraged that kid to try anyway, the easier it got. Eventually the trips to the carpet to cry without distracting others from their projects stopped. By the end of the semester, the moment that would have prompted “I can’t do it” instead inspired mere hesitation, and a glance at me for encouragement.

None of this would have been possible if I had told this kid not to cry in class. Or not to lay on the floor. Or not to do both at the same time. The unconventional freedom of crying on the floor without shame allowed this child the emotional space to develop a necessary life skill, and it harmed no one.

Speaking of harming no one, that is one of the major lines I draw. Boundaries are necessary after all. In my art classes, there are three main types of rules that everything else I list to my kids as rules comes down to:

  1. Consent. Do not touch other students or their projects, or me or my bins of project supplies, without first asking for and receiving consent.
  2. Class Focus. Do not distract other students from their projects or from me when I am talking. No yelling or other loud noises unless it is an emergency.
  3. Do No Harm. Do not harm others or their projects, or any other property.

These underlying foundations mean that when I ever do stop a child from doing something, I have a really good reason. I will explain it if asked, or sometimes without prompting. The kids appreciate this. After all, kids are people, and people do not like being controlled arbitrarily. Kids just don’t have enough world experience yet to guess at my reasons sometimes without it being explained. On that note, children also thrive when given genuine connection and discourse in lieu of punishment, just like adults do. Here is an example of that:

Two kids in one of my classes were friends outside of class. They always picked the same colors on purpose and got along really well. One day, one of them kept grabbing the other’s arm and pushing and shoving. After the second time I verbally reminded this kid about the relevant rule, and heard it broken a third time, I said, “Hey [name], why don’t you come over here with me? Let’s have a little talk.”

As we walked, the kid looked troubled and closed off. Away from the class, at the other end of the room, I knelt down to be on the same level of the kid.

“What can I do to support you?” I asked. “What do you need to follow this rule?”

By the time I finished the first question and began asking the second, the kid was bawling. The moment this poor kiddo realized I wanted to provide support, all the walls went down and the tears came out. We talked about it through the tears, and I learned that this first-grader wanted the other kid to stop engaging in conversation. “Does [name] know you don’t want [pronoun] to talk to you?” I asked. Turns out this kid had never even thought to use words to establish a boundary line. Skills like that are things people have to learn. Heck, I know adults who still need to learn that one! Anyway, by engaging this kid in conversation with the same amount of respect we give adults instead of giving in to frustration over broken rules or conventional punishment systems, I was able to use the unconventional freedom of “have a discussion instead of a time out” to help this kid learn a valuable life skill. This kid went on to employ that skill in the classroom.

When kids actually do cause harm, they need to be stopped and educated so that they do not continue to do harm. However, much of what adults stop children from doing does not constitute harm. How much harm does that do, especially when we remember that children are people too? What is the point in curtailing freedom when no harm is being done to any person or any thing, if firm boundaries are in place around those very important lines?