A Teachable Moment on Gender Fluidity

This writer and LGBT advocate spoke to a group of middle school students about being gender fluid. The next day, an unforgettable email showed them the power of open and honest dialogue.


Several months ago, I spoke to a group of students at Metro Montessori Middle School in Portland, Oregon, about my life as a gender-fluid person, an immigrant and a person of color. At first, the youth were shy. After all, it was 8 a.m. and my coffee hadn’t kicked in yet, so I was kind of in the same boat.

But it didn’t take long for us to break the ice and have an amazing conversation.

Many of the youth had never heard the term gender fluid, but that didn’t stop them from asking questions and being engaged. We talked about everything from the umbrella term queer to my own gender expression journey

They asked, “What was it like being gay in Jamaica?” “When did you know you were gender fluid?” “What is the difference between transgender and gender fluid?” And “How did your friends and family respond to you coming out as gender fluid?”

At the end of the session, the students left me with a new sense of purpose and a hope that their generation will have greater understanding for people like me.

The next day, their teacher forwarded me an email from a parent that I will never forget. The email reads:

H. throws backpack into back of car and hops into front seat.

Me: Hi Love, good day? Today was OWL, yes?

H.: Yes, Mom.

Me: How were this week’s guests?

H.: Guest.

Me: I thought there were going to be three transgender guests, each talking about their experience.

H.: Nope, only one.

Me: Who was it?

H.: Giovanni.

Me: Tell me about Giovanni.

H.: He’s from Jamaica but has been living here for a while.

Me: And he’s trans?

H.: No Mom. Giovanni is gender fluid.

Me: OK, how is that different than trans? You might have to explain that to me

H.: (turns up the radio)

Me: (turns down the radio) Seriously, help me here.

H.: Gender fluid means you don’t identify or feel like any one specific gender.

Me: Whereas trans…

H.: You feel a specific gender but your body may not be that.

Me: Got it. Thanks. I’ll stop for now.

H.: (sarcastic) Thank you, Mom.

(Quiet driving moment)

Me: So…can a gender-fluid person be gay, straight or are they also sexually fluid?

H.: (exasperated) MOM!!!! (turns up radio)

Me: (turns down radio) I want to understand.

H.: They are queer.

Me: Isn’t queer, gay?

H.: No. It’s different.

Me: How?

H.: MOM!!! You’re so annoying.

Me: I prefer curious.

(We arrive at practice, H. gets out of car as quick as he can)

Me: (shouting through window) Thanks, H.. I’m glad you can help me here.

H.: (sarcastic, walking away) That’s great Mom. Goodbye.

(Later that night, after dinner…)

H.: (hands me his phone open to Instagram and @iamgiovanni who had posted a photo and a few words about his visit to MMM) This is Giovanni, check it out, he posted his visit today…

Me: Cool. Seems like a nice guy.

H.: Yea.

H. showing me @iamgiovanni was a big deal. It meant that Giovanni connected with him enough that H. sought him out on Instagram. And by sharing it with me, I knew our 7-minute car ride conversation mattered.

I never expected this outcome. Who would know that H. would later become the teacher, educating his parent using his own succinct explanation of gender identity and sexual orientation—not something he got from slideshows or pamphlets, but just from an open and honest dialogue?

In the LGBT advocacy realm, there's a common theme “to change hearts and minds.” Too often, we forget some of the most important hearts and minds we’re shaping belong to youth. There’s a lot they can teach us, and there’s a lot we can teach them.

Resources for Educators

Metro Montessori Middle School fosters a community where students can understand, embrace and celebrate their differences. This space creates the opportunity for students to learn and to take those lessons into the world. For educators wanting to follow Metro’s lead, here are three resources.

A school play for K-5 students, Why Frogs and Snakes Never Play Together, tells a story of friendship. Two groups of young frogs and snakes cross paths and become friends. After sharing the good news with their parents, they were forbidden to ever play together again.

OWL (Our Whole Lives), the resource used by Metro, is a lifespan sexuality education curriculum anchored in respect for differences in gender expression, sexual orientation and culture.

A project of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, Welcoming Schools offers a trans-inclusive set of tools, lessons and resources made to create more welcoming elementary schools.

McKenzie is the founder of Queer Intersections Force and serves as a youth ambassador for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

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