Washington Teachers Might Start Talking To Students About Gender Roles. Conservatives Aren’t Happy.

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Next year, children in Washington state could begin learning about gender expression as early as kindergarten, depending on what their school district decides. Despite the fact that the conversations are not mandated — and that for young children, they will include a basic introduction to gender roles, like how people feel about boys wearing pink — parents and conservative media outlets are worried.

The controversy stems from the fact that, when the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction released its latest learning standards for health and physical education, it included gender expression and identity under “sexual health.”

Some parents have objected to the addition of gender, saying they’re worried their kids will be graded on “ideological differences,” local news outlet King5.com reported. Headlines asserting that the state is going to “teach transgenderism to kindergarteners” don’t help clarify matters.

The conservative Family Policy Institute of Washington says that “parents should be concerned about whether these standards are age-appropriate, as well as whether the manner in which these topics will be taught may undermine the values held by their family.”

The opposition can likely be attributed to a misunderstanding of how the standards would actually work.

The conversation would be is it okay for a boy to wear pink? Is it okay for girls to play basketball?

In each grade, there is progression in students’ understanding of how to respect people’s gender expression. The standards suggest that children could “understand there are many ways to express gender” in kindergarten, could be able to “explain that there are many ways to express gender” by first grade, and be able to “understand the importance of treating others with respect regarding gender identity” by third grade.

Very few of the topics — three out of 36 — are required to be taught, and self-identity isn’t one of them. The word “transgender” doesn’t actually appear in the explanation of the goals of what children would learn in kindergarten or the rest of the grades. It isn’t until third grade that “gender identity” is even mentioned at all.

“The conversation at that level would have nothing to do with talking about sexual orientation or anything else that is age-inappropriate for kindergarteners,” Nathan Olson, the communications manager for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, told ThinkProgress. “The conversation would be is it okay for a boy to wear pink? Is it okay for girls to play basketball? Those sorts of discussions get the kids thinking about, ‘What does gender mean? What does it mean that girls mainly wear pink?’”

Olson noted that even if parents didn’t want to acknowledge the possibility of kids doing things outside of strict gender roles — and eventually the importance of respecting people no matter their expression of gender — they could opt out of the unit for that class.

“These are standards. They are not curriculum. Each of our state’s 295 school districts is going to determine which curricula they are going to use and under that determination, based on their community standards, whether or not these other topics are going to be taught — including self-identity, including hygiene, including social-emotional health,” Olson said.

CREDIT: Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction
CREDIT: Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction

Regardless of what teachers are talking to students about in Washington, a lesson on what being transgender means would probably be helpful to students during a time when people are unnecessarily panicking over trans people using the bathroom that best corresponds to their gender. Conservative lawmakers across the country have considered or passed legislation to stop trans women from using the restroom, claiming these policies will “protect” cisgender women’s privacy and safety, despite a lack of evidence that cisgender women can expect to be attacked by trans women.

It’s not at all rare for parents to oppose comprehensive sex education and health information that begins in kindergarten, even if it is developmentally appropriate. For instance, when Chicago began to consider a new K-12 curricula on sexual health, which acknowledged that living things reproduce — without getting into human reproduction specifically — as well as the importance of recognizing when they didn’t want to be touched — but conservatives argued the age-appropriate curricula would be “sex ed for kindergarteners.”

In 2014, California parents accused Planned Parenthood of pressuring children into sex because the organization partnered with Acalanes Union High School District to provide comprehensive sex education, which included information about gender identity and teaching children about consent to being touched. Last fall, California mandated that all public schools provide information on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Right now, only 13 states require discussion of sexual orientation, according to Guttmacher Institute’s latest information on sex education from March of this year. There was no information provided on total number of states requiring discussion of gender identity.