Boy or a girl

Conversations about gender in elementary classrooms

By Alec Clayton on August 3, 2011

Are you a boy or a girl? It seems like a simple enough question for most people. But what if your gender identity is not so obvious? What if you are transgendered or intersex or a girl with short hair and small breasts who wears gender-neutral clothing? And what if you're an elementary school teacher and it's your students who are asking the question?

Amy Ryken is an educator who has often come face-to-face with this issue. "I've noticed that pre-service teachers are interested in exploring issues of sameness and difference with their students, whether it be gender expression, sexual orientation, race or religion. There are many missed opportunities in public school classrooms to engage young students thinking about identity as it naturally arises in conversation," Ryken says.

Her elementary school students were asking her about her gender, so about a year ago she started recording their conversations, and she turned it into a book titled Are You a Boy or a Girl?: Conversations about Gender in Elementary Classrooms.

Ryken says she is "shooed out of women's restrooms regularly." She says that when she was younger the gender question "really bothered me, now I see it as an educative opportunity. The question can come in very subtle and non-verbal ways - like being stared at up and down, or receiving rolled eye glares, or being given very nervous glances."

Ryken says she wrote the text and sketched out the initial layout for the book in a single weekend and thought she was done. But then she realized there was a lot more to it. She sent the text to colleagues for feedback and consulted with other book artists about pacing and typography. Her partner, artist Holly Senn, took photos of her for inclusion in the book.

One of the hardest parts, she says, is that it feels very personal: "I expose the fact that I'm asked this question all the time and I juxtapose photos of myself with the conversations." 

She had doubts, but the feedback she got along the way kept her going. "Every person with whom I shared drafts thanked me for taking this risk and encouraged me to keep developing it."

It's a small book and very simply designed, with simple, straight-forward questions and answers and small pictures of Ryken with short hair and wearing gender-neutral clothing.

Here's a sample conversation from the book (the author identified as "Me"):

Girl: Are you a girl?

Me: Yes I am.

Girl: You are wearing a suit.

Me Yes I am.

Girl: Girls can wear suits?

Me: Yes they can.

Girl: I did not know that. That's neat.

When asked if she has been harassed or discriminated against due to her gender identity Ryken said, "Every single day ... every time I fill out a form that asks about my gender or marital status, every time I'm addressed as ‘sir,' every time someone says ‘faggot' or ‘that's so gay,' I'm reminded that I don't fit some societal expectations held by some people. All of these experiences are hostile. The assumptive, judgmental stares are hostile as well."

Despite the daily discrimination, she remains hopeful. "What matters most to me is that as a society we work to talk across lines that divide us, to really try to engage other perspectives." 

For more information on the book contact Amy Ryken at