Despite strides, school fails to accurately represent gender-noncorforming students

Despite strides, school fails to accurately represent gender-noncorforming students

Etta Singer, Staff Writer

When I stepped into Spence Cottage at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year for my first Student Ambassador training, I received an information sheet that listed the important statistics that prospective families may ask about — including a section focusing on gender. According to the sheet, half of the student population “identifies as male” and half of the student population “identifies as female.” This immediately stood out to me as not only problematic but also blatantly incorrect.

There is a large number of nonbinary and gender-nonconforming students at the school that are not represented at all in this statistic. Off the top of my head, I can name at least fifteen nonbinary students who are out at school and who, despite being club leaders, student athletes, actors, upstanding classmates, are not represented in any official capacity. 

Others at the training probably did not think twice when reading this statistic, which leaves Student Ambassadors, the faces of the school, uneducated and uninformed, and pushes away prospective gender-nonconforming students. Not presenting an accurate reading of who is truly in our student body creates the impression that the school is less welcoming than it actually is.

If a nonbinary student who was looking to apply to Horace Mann asked a Student Ambassador about the gender breakdown of the school, a Student Ambassador who did not know better would simply recite the statistics the school gave them. The perspective nonbinary student would be turned off to the school and HM would lose a potentially great addition to the community.

By using the language “identifies as,” the school claims to know how every student internally identifies, which is not the case and is scientifically inaccurate. Using “male” and “female” instead of “girl” or “boy” gives the school a more intelligent and professional appearance. In reality, however, the terms male and female refer to sex assigned at birth, so one does not identify with them as they would with a gender.

Splitting up the statistic by “male” and “female” also erases the 1.7% of the world that is intersex. Intersex means a person was born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not fit in either the “female” or “male” box. This percentage may not seem like a lot, but it is actually roughly the same amount of the population as redheads. Although I have no idea if there are intersex students at the school,  the way the statistics are being reported, there is no space for them to exist in the school at all. 

When I read this statistic from my Student Ambassador information sheet last year, I went straight to the Admissions Office in anger. I was saddened to learn that I was the first person to bring this to their attention but appreciated the concern and understanding I was met with. It was at this meeting that I learned that the school does in fact have a system in place in which parents have the option to change their child’s gender to “other” in their annual enrollment contract. Many parents do not notice this small section on the contracts they routinely sign, and others may make the conscious choice not to identify their child’s gender.

In theory, this option on the contract is a great idea and all of the students who do not fit into the two binary genders would be represented — but obviously the system does not accurately reflect the gender diversity at our school. This is a very small part of the contract that parents often look over. Even my own parents, who have been fighting for transgender students at HM for years, only learned about this option when I told them about it this February. Also, while the school promises to respect every student’s pronouns and name, only a parent can change their gender in the official system. Nonbinary and gender-nonconforming students with unsupportive families cannot be fairly accommodated for in their own homes or at school.

This school year, I walked into Spence Cottage for my first Student Ambassador training of my sophomore year, forgetting entirely about the information sheet debacle of 2020. I was greeted by another statistic-filled packet. The gender section stated that half of the student population “identifies as male,” half of the student population “identifies as female,” and two students “express a different gender identity.” Though seemingly a huge step, in a way, by acknowledging the existence of only some gender-nonconforming students, this is a setback. There are far more than two nonbinary students at the school but by only acknowledging those who are “officially” recognized, the school completely erases those who are not, or cannot be accounted for.

I was happy to see this little step forward, but still unsatisfied with the inaccuracy of the statistic. The school has made no major effort to get an actual idea of the true gender-breakdown of the student population; without students pushing them, it is conceivable that nothing will change. 

To try to combat this, I met with the admissions office in a much calmer manner in February to discuss ways the school can take tangible and productive steps to be more inclusive and representative of its trans and gender-nonconforming students.

In all actuality, the school has actually made outstanding strides in the past 10 years towards appropriate accommodations and representation for trans and gender-nonconforming students, from implementation of gender neutral bathrooms to asking for pronouns on the first day of classes. There is even a clause in every student’s enrollment contract stating that the school will respect and use their preferred name and pronouns, no matter their parents’ opinions.

I believe that there is a very straightforward and simple solution to the issue of the statistical inaccuracy; the school needs to send out a survey or Google Form asking students to self-identify their own gender. Though not everyone answers every survey, nonbinary students who want to be represented will surely respond and the school can utilize this data. Moreover, nonbinary students who do not necessarily want to be fully out have the option not to identify themselves with a gender outside of the binary or complete the survey at all. This survey can give the school a better idea of who is truly in the student body. Also, the publication of this information will attract more nonbinary students to the school and make the institution’s outward presentation reflective of the actual acceptance of gender-nonconforming students.

When I look to the future of HM, I hope that we can be a place that not only supports but also uplifts trans and gender-nonconforming voices in the community. I hope our school can be a safe space where everyone, even cisgender people, default to asking for pronouns instead of assuming, and make an effort to respect and understand everyone’s gender identities. I know this will not be the case by next year and probably not even by the time I graduate in 2024. But I do believe that by pushing the Admissions office, ICIE office, and people in power, the school can continue to make progress toward this goal.