I grew up on a Tennessee commune called “The Farm.” My family left this self-enclosed community when I was 17, and I spent the next few years looking for a place to call my religious home. At my first meeting for worship as a new employee at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., I heard the Quaker sayings “Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone” and “Let your life speak.” I found these precepts hopeful, optimistic, and challenging, feelings which have grown over the past 20 years.
Letting your life speak and walking cheerfully over the world are principles without exceptions. There is no caveat for seeking that of God in others: that we need seek only in those who love others that we feel they should love, or those whose expression of gender fits with our experiences. The SPICES mnemonic (simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship) is a commonly used method of teaching Quaker testimonies. The “E” of equality is used in an unqualified and unlimited manner. My reliance as a Friend, educator, and parent is what I believe to be a faith-based mandate to work toward social justice and to empower equality—for all people, at all times, in every way.
The definition of gender is currently expanding. The equality of all sexual orientations has become the law of the land and medical advances are moving gender and sexual orientation to the forefront of societal consciousness. In the early 2000s, I was a school counselor at Sandy Spring Friends School in Maryland and was asked by students to create a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). Faculty responses reflected the range of societal opinions, ranging from “Of course!” to “Will we be known as the ‘gay school’?” and “It is against my religion.” Most faculty members were silent, which our committee chose to interpret as support. The administration supported us in creating the GSA, but we wanted to reach consensus with the faculty. After much discernment, we were able to agree that we wanted students to be physically and emotionally safe, which was a way forward. Soon, the GSA was integrated into the school and a Day of Silence was recognized, organized by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network to stand in unity with those who had been bullied or harassed because of sexual orientation.
Years later, students requested adding “gender identity” to the anti-discrimination statement. Many, including trustees, were eager to do so, but a few of us held back, feeling it was important to be able to walk our walk before talking our talk. We allowed ourselves time for discernment while providing faculty, parent, and student professional development. We leaned into our Quaker heritage and looked for policy models. Finding none, we created our own. We gathered faculty and staff with varying views on the matter and created spaces where comments such as “I do not understand and am not sure how I feel about gender identity, so I need the help of the group” were welcome. In the end, we added gender identity to the school’s anti-discrimination statement.
Friends, like many other groups, are now tasked with answering questions such as, “What exactly does this mean?” In my work as a diversity educator, I have found that these questions are almost always posed by adults; kids just seem to move through to acceptance with remarkable ease.
Change is happening quickly. Even a year ago, “transgender” was a distant term to many, and same-sex marriage was illegal in most states. Children are growing up in a time when gender identity is prominent in the news. In June 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage to be a constitutional right, and President Obama had a transgender bathroom installed in the White House. Kids are growing up with these values, as evidenced by my 11-year-old commenting, “Love the support for all” when she saw rainbow flags and messages of “Believe in Love” at this year’s Super Bowl halftime show.
In spring 2015, the social conversation changed: Caitlin Jenner announced her transition, and a reality television show, I Am Jazz, debuted on TLC, starring a middle schooler who had transitioned as a young child. Within weeks, “transgender” popped up on my phone as an autofill word, and the conversations deepened. Fortunately, Quakers have frameworks for navigating these changes, such as our belief in continuing revelation and the use of queries to explore our truth. Continuing revelation affords us the time to allow for seasoning and resist rushing to the kind of conclusions which would limit the opportunity for truth to reveal itself.
We can support each other by reminding ourselves that committed Quakers throughout history have been at the center of informing responses to inequality. Not long ago the inequality between races and between men and women was legally and functionally mandated. Quakers were deeply involved in speaking truth to power, establishing equal educational opportunities, and serving as leaders in abolition.
My family recently needed to explain to our then six-year-old son that one of his most beloved family members was going to transition from female to male. I struggled to find the words, looked for resources, and found none. I sat next to this challenge, allowing it to play out in different forms and spending far too much time developing responses to possible questions. In the end, I asked, “Do you remember you thought S was more like a boy than a girl?” When he answered yes, I said, “Well, he is going to be a boy instead of a girl.” I was met with, “Ummm, OK. Can I watch SpongeBob?” It was yet another reminder that we can learn from the leadership of children.
Like many of their classmates, our children often went to preschool dressed in costumes. These costumes were often haphazardly composed but significant in meaning and rarely gender normative. Our daughter always wore an article of her brother’s clothing, considered “cute” or “tomboy.” But when a boy wore a costume that fell into a definition of “girlie,” his parents were often nervous, explanatory, and even apologetic. This is just one of many examples of how we adults put our adultism into situations where it is rarely needed. “Adultism,” formally defined as prejudice against young people, refers to the need to have all the answers for young people and the desire to form their beliefs. When we let go of our adultism, we are able to learn from young people and create a space of equality. Kids know what they need when talking to adults. We need to give ourselves room to fumble, to “get raggedy,” and to talk openly in a manner that can allow God to speak through and to us.
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