Banned Books Week 2017 is September 24 through 30, 2017.
Since 2014, I have participated in the Banned Books Week Virtual Readout (which, by the way, can be done anytime — not just during BBW). In 2016, I read from Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out (here’s the recording). In 2015, I read from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (here’s the recording). In 2014, I read from Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy (here’s the recording).
This year, I am reading from I Am Jazz. The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom recorded 323 book challenges in 2016. Of the top ten, this book was number four. The ALA says, “This children’s picture book memoir was challenged and removed because it portrays a transgender child and because of language, sex education, and offensive viewpoints.”
Here’s my readout:
I ordered I Am Jazz on September 7, because I had decided to use it for my read out, but events here in Tallahassee that occurred between the time I placed the order and now brought the topic of how people want to be addressed (i.e., what pronoun is used) front and center.
A local fifth-grade teacher, Chloe Bressack, wrote an introductory message to parents and students in which Chloe requested to be addressed by the pronouns “they,” “them,” and “their,” in addition to “Mx.” (pronounced “mix”).
Two articles appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat about this, one explaining that parents objected to the use of gender neutral pronouns by a teacher and another after the teacher apologized for confusion related to the situation. This story made national and international news.
The Real Issue
The teacher explained in an introductory letter that they prefer the use of gender neutral pronouns when being addressed.
Although the teacher did not tell students what to do (the teacher stated that the teacher uses gender neutral pronouns) and said, “We’re not going for perfection, just making an effort!” …. the internet mob had other interpretations.
“Teaching children gender neutrality or gender fluidity or whatever the term is these days amounts to psychological and/or emotional child abuse.” (Tallahassee Democrat comment)
“Sad when you have to deprogram your kids when they come home from a public school.” (Facebook group comment)
“I would try my best to get my kid away from this teacher. Would she fail or demerit those that did not follow her instruction? This is absolutely wrong. Our language does not change at the whim of one teacher.” (Fox News comment thread)
And then there are the teachers in students’ “crouches” (yes, I do advocate upright posture, actually).
The Evolution of Pronouns
Chloe Bressack asked to be addressed with gender-neutral pronouns. I can’t imagine this is the first time in the history of education that a teacher’s form of address has been questioned/criticized.
Bressack is not the first teacher to face criticism for being different from the majority of teachers
The American Federation of Teachers lists adversities teachers have faced over the years:
- “teachers whose beliefs were being investigated by political committees during the “Red scare” hysteria following WWI.”
- “female teachers [who] found themselves faced with “contracts which still stipulated that an employed teacher must wear skirts of certain lengths, keep her galoshes buckled, not receive gentleman callers more than three times a week and teach a Sunday School class”
The AFT also took a stand early on in civil rights issues: they moved their 1938 convention venue because the original venue forced black people to ride in the freight elevators.
I have to believe these teachers, in one way or another, faced parents who thought they would not be the ideal teachers for their students … and said so (although without the fuel of social media).
What must the 70s have been like?
I was a public school student (roughly 2nd grade through 9th) in the 70s but I don’t recall any kerfuffle over teachers wanting to be called “Ms.” instead of “Mrs.” or “Miss,” but this seems like another one of those types of situations that could have created consternation.
“Ms.” was officially approved by the Government Accounting Office in 1972 but actually first appeared almost 70 years prior, in 1901. Change does, indeed, take time.
About the singular “they” and other gender neutral pronouns
Many of the comments about the Bressack situation were some iteration or another of “it isn’t even correct grammar to address an individual person as ‘they'”! I made several comments as recently as five days ago that, as a grammar “purist,” it was hard for me to stomach such an awkward construction, but a little research prompted me to reframe.
While Merriam-Webster hasn’t qualified “the singular they” as an entry yet, they did say this when describing it as a “word to watch”:
There have always been people who didn’t conform to an expected gender expression, or who seemed to be neither male nor female. But we’ve struggled to find the right language to describe these people—and in particular, the right pronouns. In the 17th century, English laws concerning inheritance sometimes referred to people who didn’t fit a gender binary using the pronoun it, which, while
dehumanizing, was conceived of as being the most grammatically fit answer to gendered pronouns around then. Adopting the already-singular they is vastly preferable. It’s not quite as newfangled as it seems: we have evidence in our files of the nonbinary they dating back to 1950, and it’s likely that there are earlier uses of the nonbinary pronoun they out there.
“Mx.” was one of the “Words That Explain 2015” as chosen by Vox. Vox noted that the Oxford English Dictionary added it as an official word that year.
Also in 2015, The American Dialect Society defined “the singular they” as its word of the year, noting “While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.”
Enough about language lessons, what about our kids?
I really can’t overstate how much this situation has weighed on my heart and mind this week. I wrote about it on September 21, when the Five Minute Friday prompt was “accept.”
I wrote about how appalled I am that the responses to Bressack’s choice are so hateful and ugly. One thing I wrote, though, is slightly misrepresentative of how I actually feel, but in the spirit of Five Minute Friday, I did not edit it. It is this passage:
“…I am frightened of a world where people, frankly, show such un-Christian behavior toward an educator, a fellow human being, a person who reiterated that they intend to address students by their chosen pronouns (I am sure at that school that means 100% “he” and “she”).”
It was inaccurate for me to assume, since the school is relatively high in socioeconomic standards, that “100% of the kids there prefer ‘he’ and ‘she’.” Life experience has taught me that even among fifth graders, typically 9 and 10 years old, their chosen pronouns may not be so rigidly defined, especially in their own psyches.
Childhood is hard enough, but the challenges grow for transgender children, who have “a gender identity or gender expression that differs from their assigned sex” (definition: Wikipedia).
According to Science News:
Nearly half (46.5 percent) of young transgender adults have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, a recent survey of over 2,000 people found. Nearly half. For comparison, the attempted suicide rate among the general U.S. population is estimated to be about 4.6 percent.
What’s more, a 2015 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that transgender youth are two to three times as likely as their peers to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders, or to attempt suicide or harm themselves.
Although many commenters have said “9 or 10 years old” is too young to have to deal with gender pronouns that depart from traditional masculine and feminine references, the more I learn, the more I realize that people who are transgender or non-gender conforming start coming to terms with it as they begin to develop their gender identities (and deal with societal gender expectations) … which is far earlier than nine in many cases.
I think of my friends who face critical reactions when they give their little boys the princess parties they want. I think of my friend who, when he came out as gay in a small town where he taught art, had numerous students express gratitude that there was someone else who was publicly out.
And, of course, I think of all the legislative activity this year around who can go to the bathroom where.
My Wish For Mx. Bressack’s School Year
I hope Mx. Bressack and the fifth graders in their class have an incredible school year. And I hope there aren’t any parents (or any people among the multitudes who have seen their introductory letter) who are offended by giraffes (noted by Mx. Bressack as a favorite), who have been known to stick their necks out for what they need..
Mx. Bressack already stuck their neck out for something that matters.
(Editor’s Note 9/26/17 Mx. Bressack was, according to the Tallahassee Democrat, transferred to the Adult Education department, which is housed at a different campus. This is Superintendent Hanna’s statement:
“This afternoon I had an open conversation with Teacher Bressack. Given the complexity of the issue, we both agreed a different environment would be best for Teacher Bressack’s educational career and for the young students at Canopy Oaks,” Superintendent Rocky Hanna said in a statement.
I supported Superintendent Hanna in the recent election, I consider him a friend (and still will), but I am tremendously disappointed in this decision, and whatever extent our School Board failed to support this educator.)
Here is the article: Gender-neutral teacher being transferred to adult ed after pronoun controversy
Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many. My pronouns are she/her/hers.
Life is not simple and pushing a child to depression and suicide is not what school is all about. Broadening a vocabulary and opening minds is what school is about!
Paula Kiger says
I agree, Haralee — but I believe we may be in the minority in many ways. I know there is much debate about what age this type of information should be explained — but our “real life” outside the classroom is peopled by so many different types of individuals — different races, nationalities, physical abilities, gender expressions — the list goes on and on. And enough people I care about have told me, or written, or in some other way expressed the fact that their journeys as it relates to gender started before they could even define it in their heads. I don’t know the answer, but I know this kind of ugliness doesn’t seem to be a productive way to reach common ground.
Shared shared shared. This is perfect.
Paula Kiger says
I admit that I have trouble with the gender neutral pronouns because they sound – and read – as incorrect. But it’s up to me to suck it up because, in the end, it’s the right thing to do for the gender-fluid of the next generation.
Paula Kiger says
A great book I read recently was “Words on the Move … Why English Won’t – and Can’t — Sit Still (Like, Literally).” It was a great reminder that our language is dynamic. It’s all an adjustment for me too.