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Teaching Transgender Issues to 5th Graders

This past school year, parents of 5th graders at our local elementary school — including Adam and me — were invited to a Zoom call wherein we could preview the 5th grade puberty lesson.  The school nurse would be teaching the material at a later date, and parents had the opportunity to see it and decide whether our children would participate.

The information was straightforward: what happens to boys and girls during puberty. Our family had already covered this material at home, with the help of the fabulous books It’s Not the Stork and It’s So Amazing! The one thing that was different in the public school’s version was that instead of saying “boys and girls,” the nurse was saying “people with penises and people with vaginas.” This was a newly-implemented change meant to include trans kids in the lesson, which fits with our district’s emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion (see yesterday’s post about the strategic plan).

My kids know a few trans people and are familiar with the concept. I tried to explain it to them simply, in years past: “Some people are born with a girl’s body but feel like a boy inside; and some people are born with a boy’s body but feel like a girl inside. So they might choose different clothes, or a different name, or want to be called ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘they,’ and you should call them what they want, because that’s respectful.” This was fairly easy for them to grasp and implement.

But the way the nurse phrased it during the Zoom call was “There are some boys with vaginas, and some girls with pensises.” That’s distinct from what I taught my kids at home: I said feel like the opposite sex, but the school is saying are the opposite sex — which is a metaphysical claim, no different than claims about the existence or nature of God.

If the true determinant of being male or female isn’t our bodies — our XX or XY chromosomes, reproductive organs, external genitalia, sex homones, being able to perform one of two roles in sexual reproduction — then what is the true determinant? Where is that “real,” innate, immutable self that is male or female, regardless of body? Are we presupposing that there’s in a conscious self that is separate from the body, some sort of immaterial soul? That’s problematic for me, because traditional Judaism rejects this sort of mind/body dualism. We believe that the body and the soul are one unit, inseparable; the resurrection of the dead is a core tenet of Jewish theology.

To be very clear, I’m not sanctioning discrimination against trans people, nor am I raising a moral objection. I’m asking a metaphysical question: what is the nature of our gendered self if maleness and femaleness do not reside in the sexed body?

In the end, David told me he didn’t feel any desire to attend the lesson, because “You tell me all about that stuff already, Mom.” So we opted out quietly, and I didn’t raise my objections with the school. But as a fairly conservative person raising children in a fairly progressive community, I see these issues on the horizon. And while I’m a lover of freedom, I’m not at all anxious for the fray.

Categories: Curriculum Science

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