The New Gender Discussion in Schools

This week the Eau Claire Area School District (ECASD) gave preliminary consideration to a policy change to accommodate gender identity in its anti-discrimination policy, and will vote on the policy in April.

This comes as gender identity occupies a prominent place on the statewide stage, though Republican lawmakers failed to pass their measure to require students to use school bathrooms based on birth gender. Nationally, at least one municipality made the news in recent months when it proposed, then withdrew, a policy to make all public municipal restrooms gender-neutral.

Relevant language from the proposed ECASD change is:

No person shall be denied admission to any public school or be denied participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be discriminated against in any curricular, extracurricular, pupil services, recreational or other activity because of the student’s … sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

Given recent significant changes in cultural sentiment and governmental ruling, gender policies like this will likely be under consideration in many places. And rather than ending the discussion about varying views on marriage, family and gender, events will likely serve as catalysts for further, more involved discussion.

As we face increasing opportunities to express differing opinions, questions naturally arise for Christian and non-Christian alike.

  • Why should the Christian care about this?
  • What should the Christian do about it?
  • Why should the non-Christian care about the Christian view?

These questions will continue to underlie every issue about which we disagree, and are not subject to resolution in one article, blog post, or discussion. Consequently, I focus here on the specific policy change under consideration, though it shares aspects with the broader topics of marriage, family and gender.

Christians and non-Christians should have the same interest in government: for it to be “good,” that is, for it to function well in its primary mission to serve the interests of all people subject to its authority. And it is the nature of participatory government for us to persuade one another about how government is to do that.

Similarly, both Christians and non-Christians can agree with the stated purpose of the school board’s anti-discrimination policy: “to maintain an educational environment that supports the inclusion, safety and privacy of all students.” In coming days we will be persuading one another about the best way for it to accomplish that goal. I maintain that the policy under consideration by the ECASD is not the best way, for several reasons.

Prematurely Broad Discretion

Given likely action by the state legislature, or by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, it might be premature for local school districts to begin addressing the issue. Additionally, the district superintendent is given broad discretion to specifically apply the general policy goals of preventing discrimination related to gender. Normally, it is appropriate for officials such as the superintendent to have discretion in order to function efficiently, but in an issue such as this, it seems the wiser course to permit public input on these specifics.

Prevent Discrimination, not Distinction

Education, schools, and even the apprehension and discussion of truth itself depend upon making distinctions. Algebra class is for those students who have met the prerequisites and enrolled for that course, with that teacher, at that time. Debate team is for those taking the debate course. Latin club is for those with (at least some) Latin skills.

Even defining which group of “students” is entitled to walk on to campus, ride the school bus, or sit for exams depends upon making distinctions. Visitors, after all, must register at the office.

The laudable goal of preventing illegitimate discrimination might have the unintended and unwelcome result of eliminating all legitimate distinction. In order to prevent inappropriate discrimination, one must make appropriate distinctions. We should not discriminate against girls in favor of boys by assigning them a separate cafeteria, but we should distinguish them from boys when pointing them to a restroom. We should not discriminate against girls by keeping them from the pool, but we should distinguish them when distributing swimsuits.

The policy proscribes discrimination based upon “sex, race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, creed, pregnancy, marital or parental status … disability … or sexual orientation …”, all of which are legitimate objective distinctions that may be made by anyone (male/female, Catholic/Protestant, married/single distinctions). Even sexual orientation preserves a distinct idea of gender, in that sexuality is expressed in terms of preference for the opposite gender, same gender, or either gender (hetero-, homo-, or bi-sexuality, respectively).

The addition of “gender identity or gender expression” as protected interests, however, blurs appropriate distinctions, if it doesn’t eliminate them altogether. Where sex and sexuality were once objective distinctions, now they are subjective inclinations. Consider the effect upon the student, coach, chaperon, and P.E. instructor called on to perform their educational duties without distinguishing between male and female anatomy, and you begin to see the effect that “gender identity or gender expression” will have on those same duties.

Unclear Effects

Because the policy seeks to prevent gender discrimination in admission, participation, benefits, curricular and extra-curricular activities, pupil services, and recreational activities, several questions remain unanswered:

  • What effect will the policy have on bathroom usage?
  • What effect will the policy have on school locker rooms?
  • What effect with the policy have on the use of gym showers?
  • How will sports teams be affected?
  • What consideration is given to the safety and concerns of other students?
  • How do school officials actually determine a student’s gender identity and gender expression?
  • In light of concerns about bullying, how will the policy effect the rights of students (or teachers) to express opinions about gender and preserve freedom of conscience?

The school board, school administrators and public officials may have considered these questions, and others, but students, parents and citizens, as well, have an interest in working through them.

Conclusion

Christians affirm the inherent dignity of humans, including that of students who orient, identify and express themselves differently. We desire, as members of the community, to serve and minister to students, not see mistreated through illegitimate discrimination.

Yet it is not clear that current and proposed gender policies actually serve and protect all students.

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