Getting to the Roots of Gender Inequality and Harassment

By Kelly Huegel Madrone, author of GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens 

Getting to the Roots of Gender Inequality and Harassment Students tracking the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are likely to bring those discussions to school and possibly even identify the gender inequalities around them. And that’s a good thing. But how do educators address these issues—proactively or reactively—in a way that’s helpful and productive?

Of all the issues I’ve researched and written about regarding young people and schools in the 15 years since the first edition of my book GLBTQ came out, many of those issues have surprisingly boiled down to a common root: gender disparities.

These days, more young people than ever are coming out as trans or nonbinary (a gender identity that isn’t exclusively male or female), contributing to overall greater numbers of out LGBTQ youth—many of whom are bullied at school (by both students and staff). Additionally, we have sexual harassment, rape, coercion, and institutionalized discrimination of women. These issues are more closely related than they may at first seem.

As C.J. Pascoe writes in Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, a significant amount of homophobic bullying can be attributed to subscription to the idea that masculinity, as expressed in our culture, is heavily linked to domination. Anything viewed as nonmale or nonmasculine commits the unforgivable infraction of being, by default, feminine and therefore “weak.”

In order to have the dominant, we must also have the dominated.

Being an effeminate gay man is far less socially acceptable than being the gay captain of the boys’ rugby team. A lesbian identity is frequently seen as far less transgressive—especially the “femme” lesbian, who often serves a role in fulfilling male fantasies. Girls who identify as lesbian often report that they experience sexual harassment similar to non-LGBTQ females.

Trans women face the greatest risk among all LGBTQ people of being harassed and even killed because of their identities. The threat is compounded exponentially for trans women of color. Trans men, while still at risk, are less frequently targeted. To some, the explanation lies in the idea that eschewing a “God-given” male identity is the biggest societal transgression of all, whereas seeking a male identity is understandable because of that identity’s superior status.

Now without a doubt, these are broad simplifications of complex issues, and all young people are vulnerable to and can experience harassment. But as educators, parents, and others who interact with kids and teens, we must understand some of the origins of this behavior so we can tease out how our own language and actions, along with institutionalized norms, serve as fertile ground for this kind of behavior to take root.

And if you still don’t think gendered bullying is a big deal, consider this finding from researchers at GLSEN: A study of the 31 mass school shootings between 1995 and 2015 found that “each shooter was male and all experienced challenges to their performance of masculinity through homophobia and other forms of gender policing.”

Gender, Heteronormativity, and Cisnormativity in Schools
One of the challenges middle and high schools face is trying to steer students away from sexist, heteronormative (the implication that heterosexuality is the “normal” sexuality), and cisnormative (the implication that being cisgendered—having a gender identity that matches your birth sex—is the “normal” gender identity) language and behavior. It’s a task that’s made all the more difficult by the fact that many students learned this behavior in school from a young age.

Elementary schools are replete with unnecessarily gendered activities. An overemphasis on the gender binary, heteronormativity, and cisnormativity in elementary school is the starting point for future inequality and harassment of female, LGBTQ (and those who are perceived to be), and other youth who don’t conform in a stereotypically (some use the term toxic) masculine-dominant institutional architecture.

Seemingly harmless activities such as having students line up by boys and girls (instead of counting off as 1s and 2s, for example) tell students early on that these are the two gender options, period. Activities that pit boys against girls can reinforce stereotypes about gendered behavior and needlessly isolate students who don’t identify with the gender stated on their birth certificates.

Having gendered play areas unnecessarily separates students (though they may certainly opt to self-segregate). Having students take parts in a class play exclusively according to gender can reinforce stereotypes about male and female roles. Yes, Abe Lincoln was a man. But why can’t a female-identified student play him?

In high school, what if a male student or a trans female student tried out for the role of Maria in West Side Story and performed best? Isn’t school fulfilling its highest purpose if it can be a safe place to try new things?

Why does the dress code dictate that male-identified students have to wear suits while female-identified students have to wear dresses? Because it’s always been done that way? We know that that logic holds as much water as a leaky bucket does. Is the school going to fall apart if a male-identified student wears a dress to graduation or a female-identified student wears a suit? And what about trans and nonbinary students? What rule decides for them?

Arbitrary distinctions such as these draw lines around gender that don’t need to be there and in the end—in ways both visible and invisible—support dominant and submissive gender roles and identities. And that perpetuates all kinds of bullying and harassment.

Now let me be clear: I’m not trying to degenderize the world.

I think we run the risk of making teachers afraid to even acknowledge someone’s gender. It’s absolutely okay for male and female to be meaningful identities and to talk about them—just not to the exclusion of others and not in ways that establish or reinforce a hierarchy.

The classroom is actually a wonderful place to have meaningful discussions about gender. Let’s talk with kids about the myriad factors that contribute to identity formation; about how what they feel makes them who they are. Let’s talk about what we know scientifically about things like sex, hormones, and brain development; about what we used to think and are now just learning about gender. Any of these discussions can be made age appropriate.

If we have these types of open talks, especially during the younger years, we’re likely to cut off a lot of gender-based discrimination before it can even start.

Calling Out Harassment Productively
It’s important to note that all students can participate in gender-based harassment, regardless of their sexes, gender identities, or sexual orientations, and that it’s critical to call out harassment when you see it. Ignoring gendered bullying supports sexual harassment, the bullying of LGBTQ students, and the teasing of male students who aren’t “masculine” enough.

Calling out discriminatory behaviors doesn’t have to be—and shouldn’t be—about shaming. Everyone remembers a “bad kid” from elementary school. Where was that student by high school? Probably in detention or maybe dropped out of school entirely. Whatever behaviors a student engaged in to earn that title, being shamed and labeled like that is terrifically difficult to recover from.

Instead, let’s look at those behaviors as teachable moments and as conversation starters. Put a pause on the lesson and talk about it. Whether it’s in elementary or secondary school, what better way for young people to learn about rational discourse, empathy, and collaborative problem-solving than by having a chance to practice them?

The reality is that when it comes to gender and identity development, in many ways we’re all learning together. Let’s try to create safe, open, and respectful environments to do that.

The following resources could be helpful as you explore these issues in your classroom:

Kelly Huegel MadroneKelly Huegel Madrone is a freelance writer, editor, and educator. She has worked for the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., chapter of PFLAG where she helped provide support and educational services to LGBT people and their families. The author of two books and more than 100 published articles, Kelly holds a degree in secondary education. She lives in New Mexico with her wife Mala and their daughter. Kelly welcomes readers to follow her on Twitter at @GLBTQguide or visit her website at

GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning TeensKelly is the author of GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens.

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