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Z Nicolazzo, an assistant professor in the NIU Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education, recently spoke to K-12 educators about “Expanding Our Approach to Gender-Based Bullying.”
Nicolazzo, who is also a faculty associate with NIU’s Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, took some time after the professional development conference to answer questions on bullying challenges faced by gender-expansive youth.
What are the greatest bullying challenges faced by gender-expansive youth in K-12 schools?
In my estimation, the greatest bullying challenges gender expansive youth face is that they not only are being bullied by fellow peers, but also by teachers and administrators. On top of that, gender expansive youth are facing a hostile climate in educational spaces – which I refer to as the gender binary discourse in my work – that delimits how gender is understood (i.e., through a binary lens in which gender expansive youth’s identities and expressions are deemed incompatible or impossible with how they should exist).
How harmful is bullying to this population?
Completely harmful. There is no denying that bullying creates massive barriers, be it through physical, emotional and/or cyber-bullying. Also, while the gender binary discourse dictates (explicitly and implicitly) who is recognized as worthy of humanity, gender expansive youth will continue to struggle to find possibility models for how they can identify, express, and embody their genders.
Why is the situation improving – or worsening?
I don’t know really if it is getting better or worse. I am hopeful that conferences such as these raise educators’ awareness and knowledge of gender-based bullying, though. And with this increase in knowledge, we can work together to confront and resist the bullying we know has been taking place in our schools for quite some time.
Why must schools help, and how can they best accomplish this?
Gender expansive youth have always been present in our education systems. If we take seriously our jobs to create inclusive environments, and if we are honest about wanting to view education as a practice of freedom – as bell hooks articulates – then we need to be addressing the gender binary discourse and its effects consistently throughout our practice and curricula. I think we are best equipped to do this by starting to unlearn our own investments and socialization regarding gender, which then sets us up to work alongside gender expansive youth to craft educational spaces that work for them and recognize their full humanity as people.
How do you hope to influence change, and how will your research benefit those on the front lines?
My hope is that my research can provide more complex and nuanced understandings of the ways binary notions of gender are built into the very structures of educational systems. I also hope my research can encourage educators to think not just about gender as a single identity, but that we can think along multiple identities to understand how race, class, sexuality and disability influence the life chances for gender expansive youth in schools. If we want to encourage cultural change, we need to have a deep understanding of the complexity and breadth of those individuals’ lives we are trying to make better. This is what I hope my research does. I also hope it serves as a call for educators that we are past the time when we need to be addressing gender as a discourse in educational settings.
In what ways did the K-12 educators who attended the bullying conference encourage you?
This, for me, means there is an interest in recognizing the realities of gender-based bullying, as well as addressing the matter openly. The educators are the conference asked good questions, too, and seemed truly committed to wanting to do the work necessary to make their schools better for gender expansive youth. It won’t happen overnight, but the ability to come together, collaborate openly, and share promising practices was encouraging. I am glad to see this happening, and humbled to have been a part of their ongoing journeys.
How will we know that the bullying of gender-expansive youth has been quashed?
This is the $64,000 question, isn’t it? I am not sure I have a full answer, but I think we will start to know our efforts are working when we as educators begin to unlearn the very ways we have been socialized to think of gender. The way we come to know – and not know, really – gender is the very foundation upon which gender-based bullying occurs. If we can shift our own thinking, then we will be able to liberate our curricula as well as create climates in which gender expansive conceptions of self won’t be seen as “weird” or “abject.” Instead, gender expansive youth will be recognized as full participants in our educational spaces, will be provided possibility models – I am using Laverne Cox’s words here – and will be able to explore who they are and who they want to be as gendered people in comfort and safety. I honestly believe the work starts with us as educators, and we have to be honest about our own complicity in confronting the gender binary discourse present in our lives and work. It’s only from here that we can begin to transform our educational spaces.
Additionally, I talk about a notion called the epistemology of love in my forthcoming book. Echoing the work of bell hooks, I think if we are able to approach each other with loving kindness, and with an openness for who we are and can become, we will proliferate possibilities for gender expansive youth through education. It’s when we foreclose these opportunities, when we do not allow each other the grace, compassion, and love necessary to be ourselves, that gender-based flourishes. This epistemology of love is, in my mind, directly connected to the self-work we have to do, and I think many of the participants at the conference were invested in doing this work.