Summer Reading: On Gender and Identity

My summer reading has begun with This Is How It Always Is, by Laurie Frankel. I chose this book for two reasons; I am a parent trying to raise gender-aware and sensitive kids and also an academic, a sociologist who studies gender. These are two roles that often overlap but at times can be difficult to negotiate. I want my children to express gender in whatever ways they see fit and yet I am aware of the constraints of social structures on gendered bodies.  This novel is a wonderful depiction of how and in what ways a family deals with gender. Frankel tells the story of a family, made up of two-heterosexual, cis-gender parents that have four kids, all boys. However, the last child, Claude, struggles with his gender (boy) and sex (male) identity. The story follows how and in what ways the family influences, reacts to, and shapes the transition of the young child.

In both these roles, I feel that reading about this topic is important: as a parent, because we shape and influence the ways our kid’s express gender. From the names we select, to the clothes we buy and language we use to describe our kids; it is all gendered. As a sociologist, I’m keenly aware that gender is a social category as well as a social institution that embodies practices, characteristics, rules, and social norms.  Reading about how this plays out in family life helps me comprehend on a more fundamental level the significant and pervasive role gender has in our lives.

For most of us, that identity is cis-gender (the gender assigned to us at birth), and we live life with gender privilege, not having to think about how others perceive our gender presentation.  But for those that are non-binary and/or trans, gender can be treacherous.  Those that use a non-binary indicator tend to find the gender binary or dichotomy limiting and restrictive. Those that identify as trans have moved across the gender binary to a gender that matches how one sees and thinks about oneself.  A book that does a great job demonstrating the gender transition is titled She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan. Here, Boylan a parent and educator (English) shares how the transition of man to woman impacted her family life.  Like Frankel’s novel, it is both illuminating and engaging, and provides a window into a different experience of gender identity.

In my second role, as an educator, I feel that the more we are equipped with gender knowledge and literacy – meaning we understand that gender is a fluid category and can change – the better we can support our students’ experience of gender. For my teacher friends looking for  great reads this summer on gender, both books – the fictional narrative by Frankel and the memoir by Boylan – provide absorbing examples for the ways that gender matters and shapes our lived experiences. It is very important that we, as educators, stay on top of all the ways diversity can happen in our schools and classrooms, and create inclusive communities where students feel a sense of belonging regardless of gender, sexuality, race or class. Teachers are on the front lines of student engagement and our ability to adjust, acknowledge, and affirm our students’ identities will help with classroom goals, student outcomes, and a love for learning.

Marni A. Brown is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia Gwinnett College. Her areas of research are gender, sexuality and intersectionality.

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