WORTHINGTON - Educators and other professionals gathered Friday in satellite locations throughout Minnesota to discuss a subject that is considered a new frontier for some and one that is often taken for granted. 

The Minnesota Council on Family Relations and the University of Minnesota paired together to discuss gender in schools, work and family. The conference covered topics such as how society views the concept of gender, how it can differ from one’s sex and how transgendered people are received in society.

Gender roles are seen across all facets of society. Traditionally, women are more frequently expected to be more nurturing, more emotional and perhaps weaker than their male counterparts, while men are often expected to be less emotional, stronger and perhaps more athletic. When a person steps out of those stereotypical roles, they can be met with negative responses.

Jenifer McGuire, associate professor of family social science, said gender is not binary. In fact, McGuire said many people fall somewhere in between the polar opposites men and women are expected to be.

For example, a woman may choose to participate in athletics or pursue a career in a more male-dominated field such as mechanics and still maintain feminine aspects. A man, meanwhile, may move into a more female-dominated field such as nursing or teaching.

If gender can be a minefield to navigate for those who identify with gender roles that matches their sex, it can be argued that someone who is transgendered has more difficulty. Though celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox have introduced the topic to many, there is often much confusion for people not part of the transgendered community.

The conference offered attendees, among other things, a long list of vocabulary associated with gender. Many participants expressed concern with how to make classrooms more inclusive and safe for a student who may be transgendered, particularly in rural areas. One teacher questioned how to open dialogue with students about gender - particularly transgender people - without pointing fingers at any particular transgendered person.

In a small town, some suggested, there is a fear that beginning such a discussion could backfire and cause greater distress for transgendered students in terms of bullying and harassment than by educating fellow classmates.

Another question that arose was how to directly address a transgendered student. The conference suggested asking transgendered students which pronoun they want used to define them, as well as asking if they would like others to know they are transgendered.

While gender equality and understanding gender is not something that will be solved in a day, educators attending the conference were given a few tools to take back to their classrooms to begin heading in that direction.

A few of the tips are:

  • Help students expand their possibilities - academically, artistically, emotionally - and see that there are many ways to be a boy or a girl. 
  • Use inclusive phrases to address classes as a whole, like, “Good morning, everyone” instead of, “Good morning, boys and girls.”
  • Provide role models for all children that show a wide range of achievements and emotions for all people. Have students write biographies on people who have moved beyond traditional roles and have excelled in their chosen fields. 

Gayla Aljets, a paraprofessional at Worthington High School, attended the conference in order to learn more about what it means to be transgendered in an effort to help students going through the process.

“It (the conference) opened up a new world to me and I think I am going to look into it a little more,” Aljets commented.

Transgender terminology

Transgender: A term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. Transgender is a broad term and is good for non-transgender people to use. “Trans” is shorthand for “transgender.” (Note: Transgender is correctly used as an adjective, not a noun. Thus, “transgender people” is appropriate, but “transgenders” is often viewed as disrespectful.)

Gender Identity: An individual’s internal sense of being male, female, or something else. Since gender identity is internal, one’s gender identity is not necessarily visible to others.

Gender Expression: How a person represents or expresses one’s gender identity to others, often through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, voice or body characteristics.

Gender Non-conforming: A term for individuals whose gender expression is different from societal expectations related to gender.

Two-Spirit: A contemporary term that refers to the historical and current First Nations people whose individuals spirits were a blend of male and female spirits. This term has been reclaimed by some in Native American LGBT communities in order to honor their heritage and provide an alternative to the Western labels of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

FTM: A person who transitions from “female-to-male,” meaning a person who was assigned female at birth, but identifies and lives as a male. Also known as a “transgender man.”

MTF: A person who transitions from “male-to-female,” meaning a person who was assigned male at birth, but identifies and lives as a female. Also known as a “transgender woman.”

Transition: The time when a person begins to living as the gender with which they identify rather than the gender they were assigned at birth, which often includes changing one’s first name and dressing and grooming differently. Transitioning may or may not also include medical and legal aspects, including taking hormones, having surgery, or changing identity documents (e.g. driver’s license, Social Security record) to reflect one’s gender identity. Medical and legal steps are often difficult for people to afford.

Source: National Center for Transgender Equality