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Challenging Gendered Cultures in Childhood to Address School Bullying

This fall, QuERI engaged with several key sociologists who research gender and sexuality in education for conversations on LGBTQ bullying. This is the third of these posts.

Dr. Emma Renold is Professor of Childhood Studies at the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, Wales, UK. She is author of Girls Boys and Junior Sexualities and co-editor of Children, Sexuality and Sexualisation. Emma regularly advises the Welsh government on gender-based and sexual violence in children and young people's peer cultures.

ER: I've been conducting research for over 20 years into how young people cope with pressures of everyday sexism and sexual harassment. One of the overwhelming findings is that kids are living in a world where sexism and sexual violence are not only normalized, but the relationship between sexism and sexual violence is deeply interconnected. This isn't just true of students in high schools, but also in nursery and junior schools.

For example, in one of my studies a key message was how boys who were struggling with conforming to whatever 'dominant' masculinity was circulating in their peer group were using gender based and sexual harassment towards girls (and sometimes other boys) as a way of bolstering their masculinity.

A further finding is that ALL children struggle with pressures of gender conformity, including kids who you think epitomize the ideal 'girl' or 'boy.' This is an important starting point for any policy or pedagogy aimed at addressing 'sexual bullying,' which tend to isolate children into neat victim/perpetrator binaries. While of course some children feel the pressures of gender norms more than others, particularly those who are visibly gender non-conforming: all children struggle, gender expressions are much more fluid than people think, and most children would prefer to live in a world in which they can be who they want to be unconstrained by punishing gender and sexual norms.

EP & MS: Your description of how students navigate gender and sexual norms draws attention to an often-neglected issue in bullying conversations: heterosexist social expectations are everywhere and at all grade levels. Addressing sexual violence is not simply an issue of correcting violent behaviors of a few kids; it is an issue of completely rethinking what children learn about gender and sexuality and how schools can engage in a different kind of gender education -- one where gender norms are recognized and interrogated rather than normalized. This issue of normalization came up in our US research on educators' responses to teaching transgender children. Participants didn't consider gender assumptions or expectations until a child who didn't "fit" into taken-for- granted "boy" and "girl" categories enrolled in their schools. We have since been thinking about educator training as an avenue to increasing schools' engagement with questions such as: What is gender regulation? How does our institution participate in regulating children's gender? How are gender expectations limiting possibilities for inclusive education?

ER: Yes, I too have been trying to find ways to work with both children and educators on how we can explore together the complex ways in which strict gender expectations constrain who we can be and become. One of the challenges I come across in almost every discussion I have with educators who are keen to address sexism and encourage children to 'break the mould' of gender stereotypes is the pedagogy of just how to achieve this. Additionally, some children can more easily step outside gender norms and openly challenge gender discriminations, while others were fearful, even when they want to. A lot of this had to do with a whole intersecting world of social, cultural and historical factors, including race, class, age, dis/ability and locality.

Key here, is creating safe spaces through which children can express their gender, and this can be possible in a number of ways, especially through co-produced arts-based pedagogy. These can be experimental, interactive events to bridge some of the silences between children's gendered worlds and between teacher and children's worlds.

EP and MS: We have also used arts curriculum to open spaces to explore gender and sexual identity through our Theatre for Change and LGBTQ/A Identity Art Project and have found those really rich. Lately, though, we've shifted our focus to opportunities within the school day -- rather than extracurricular -- to support school culture change. For example, we are thinking about how to design literature curriculum that will of course increase representation of queer identities in US curriculum, but also develop students' and teachers' awareness of the relationship between literary representations of idealized binary genders and youth (and adult) interpretations of lines between "normal" and "abnormal" gender. Implementing such a curriculum would be difficult (and possibly contentious) work, so we are also thinking about what kinds of partnerships we could develop to support teachers who are interested in this work.

ER: Working together with young people, educational practitioners, artists and academics is certainly one way forward in developing our knowledge and pedagogy. For example, I am currently supporting a local high school to develop a suite of training events and resources for students and teachers across Wales from Year 1 to Year 12 (age 5-18). A key aim is to encourage teachers to gain confidence and be part of a supportive hub for addressing gender and sexuality issues in their schools. While there are key organizations that offer training and support, I think it's also important that schools are encouraged to adapt what's out there, and develop their own whole education approaches in ways that address the often local and situated complexities of how gender and sexuality shapes the lives of both students and teachers. This brings us back to not second-guessing that educational practitioners already know what the issues are.

EP & MS: The issues we're raising, it seems, in both the US and UK -- learning from young people, educator training, curriculum, school university/partnerships -- are collectively pointing to the need for holistic approaches to creating gender-inclusive school cultures. Gender inclusivity would address not only marginalization of LGBTQ and gender non-conforming students, but sexism, sexual harassment and many other forms of marginalization that intersect with gender. We think this type of approach to change provides more support for reducing bullying behaviors than just intervention in individual incidents.

We've learned so much from your work through the years, Emma, and look forward to learning more about your current school partnerships and projects. Thank you for the conversation.

*Professor Renold would love to hear from readers who have worked with young people on gender activism projects, in school and beyond. No story is too big or too small.
#kids4genderactivism @emmarenold renold@cf.ac.uk