Question: How to handle ignorance/disrespect @ work

Jess asks…

How do you deal with ignorant or disrespectful comments at work? I’m a K-6 substitute teacher, and while I dress professionally, my genderqueerness isn’t something I can completely “tone down.” I get a lot of questions from kids (and occasionally staff) that are sometimes out of genuine curiosity, and sometimes just plain disrespectful. I’d like to assertively educate kids without getting a ton of angry phone calls or letters from parents. But how do I do this? I want to educate but not get into a lecture on human sexuality with a bunch of 11 year olds.

Some of my favorites:

“Look, that’s a LESBIAN! Right here in our school, I guess they do exist!”

“Are you a he or a she?”

“That’s a butch. They hate boys.”

Please post your response in the comments below.

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Posted by on March 9th, 2010 at 08:00 am

Category: questions 13 comments »

13 Responses to “Question: How to handle ignorance/disrespect @ work”

  1. Diane J Standiford

    I live in a large progressive city, so I don’t give a damn what others think. Now I am disabled, in a wheelchair and that seems to bother people more than my dress or behaviour. I was called a dyke in HS, in small town Indiana, and I just don’t care. My aunt who practically raised me as a father figure, was gay, so just not a concern of mine.


  2. Meike

    That’s difficult, since you’re in a professional setting and would run the risk of losing your job if things went sour. I’d say keep dressing how you are, the biggest problem is with people saying things that they should just keep to themselves.

    The he/she question is annoying but inevitable; how you respond to that I guess really depends on how you identify yourself. Your students probably wouldn’t understand if you said “both” or “neither” or something like that, so maybe choosing “he” or “she” if necessary is something you could do. If coworkers say it, you’re probably in a better position to tell them something else, such as “does it matter?” or “my students call me ____, but I prefer ____.” I think for students though it would probably be very difficult to properly educate them about the variability of the supposedly binary gender scale.

    As for butch/lesbian related comments, it might be more important to make sure they stop instead of correcting the wording of the comments. For instance, if a student says one of those things (or something similar) you might want to say something like “That’s not a polite thing to say, and I don’t want to hear any more things like that in school.”

    Basically it comes down to whether they’re asking out of ignorance or disrespect. Disrespect is probably easier to work with as a teacher, but educating children on pretty much anything other than heterosexuality is probably going to set off parents no matter what; as I’m not a teacher (nor employed, I don’t even have my degree yet) I don’t know how much advice I can offer on the subject. I wish you luck, though! Proper education on such topics is something I never received but desperately wish I had.


  3. syd

    I agree with everything from Meike. I work in an elementary school and get a lot of similar comments (they also have picked up “gay” as an insult), which can be disheartening. I’m a fan of the “does it matter?” when they ask if I’m a boy or girl, but aside that I usually try to minimize the comments in general. Especially as a sub I imagine you don’t have much of a chance to get to know the kids which also makes things hard.

    my favorite (for the children I’m female):
    “but she’s not like the other girls”
    “how so?”
    “she doesn’t have boobs”


  4. Meike

    Oh, I forgot to mention–what will really help is if you play it cool. Just rock your gender identity. If you act cool about it, the kids will definitely care a lot less. For example, I had one or two very awesome substitute teachers as a child, and even up through my senior year in high school kid were fine with these teachers. One was a middle-aged woman who definitely wasn’t “girly”, very outspoken and different (kind of like the cool aunt at family reunions), but she acted so cool about everything that kids just loved her. Just be your awesome self and don’t be awkward about it–that will make the kids not awkward about it either.

    Also, while it’s best not to make light of who you are or how you identify, sometimes bringing it down a few levels for the students and making it seem more fun could help. If they ask “he or she?” you could always say, “Oh, that doesn’t matter!” and continue on with whatever you were doing. You could also add that the way you dress doesn’t make you any less of a guy/girl, and you just are who you are. Or say that guy/girl doesn’t matter, what matters is how good of a person you are.


  5. Anonymous

    I work with kids and I think that this is the opportunity for a lot of learning to happen. A lot of times, even kids who say things in a bit of an aggressive way, are actually finding something compelling about what’s going on. I think responses that are clear, firm, respectful, and short are the best way forwards. You might want to prepare some for predictible moments. The most important thing is demonstrating your own self-assurance. This will also help whichever little pre-queer kids are around you . . they will be observing you and learning something about self-respect from the way they see you respond.

    If someone is saying something vicious, I say quickly and firmly: “We don’t talk like that here.” The “we don’t talk like that here” as a firm, quick, and respectful formulation goes a really long ways in covering lots of inappropriate forms of address.

    If it is a moment for education, then I think you can just go for it, but in a very calm, direct, and non-expansive way. Just say the one or two sentences that best describe what you’d like to say with a lot of firmness and respect in your voice, and then move on. When you’re dealing with a group of kids there’s not usually time to give lectures on ANYTHING, things move so fast. So one or two lines delivered with a lot of conviction are what’s needed to get the job done.

    If someone has a problem with cruel language, depending on how old the kid is, you can tell them that those are words of violence, or that they are using that word in a way that has violence in it. The reason these words don’t get used is because for some people, those were the last words they heard before they were murdered. You can tell them “some people get murdered because they are gay. The last thing they heard was someone insulting them in that way. That’s why we don’t talk like that here.” Getting that direct about what’s at stake and insisting on good behavior at all times can get both kids and adults to sit up and listen pretty fast. Especially if you say it in a direct, authoritative, and respectful way.

    About the “are you a he or a she”– I would answer truthfully about your gender identity. If your gender identity is both or neither, I would answer that truthfully. If there were a requirement to explain, I would say “we don’t all identify ourselves in the same way. Some of us identify as one thing or the other and some of us identify as both. It’s just one of those things that happens.” Your own casual self-respect under such scrutiny communicates a LOT.

    About “that’s a butch. They hate boys.” I would first point out that “we don’t talk that way here.” Then I would say “what butch really means is that you are a woman but present yourself on the masculine side of things. It can be fun to be butch.” or whatever a definition of butch is that works for you and is age appropriate. If they harrass you with it, again with the “that’s not how we behave here.” (This is assuming that is a word that in other contexts you would accept about yourself– if not, then I would say “A butch is [fill in your definition.] It can actually be a very fun way to be, but it is not how I identify.” Then if they start harrassing you with it, again with the firm and clear “that’s now how we behave here. In this school/city/whatever, we respect people by talking about them with language that suits them.”)

    The thing about “there’s a lesbian”– unless it’s said meanly– I would just take that as another example of kid’s directness in sorting out this world. And as possibly quite useful. The fact is, there are a great number of little pre-queer kids in that school. Some of them may not have noticed that there’s a lesbian in their midst and may find this statement from their peers actually illuminating. Some of them might be scrutinizing you with some interest that is personally relevant for their own growth. When you work with kids, a lot of who you are becomes scrutinized because they so desperately need the examples of adults around them in order to make sense of growing up.

    I’m waiting for the question of lesbianism to come up with the kids but don’t know if it ever will. I think if anyone ever asks me about a lesbian, I’ll just say: instead of having a boyfriend, I have a girlfriend. And that’s it. There’s nothing to defend.

    One little African American girl that I work with calls another of the white teachers my twin because we both are tall with similar glasses. I often get asked if the man who I work with is my boyfriend. (We care about each other a great deal and it is obvious to the kids.) I say “No he is not. He is my important friend.” Really I get asked all kinds of pretty intimate questions. The kids are fascinated with the identities of their teachers, especially if those are unusual in any way, and approaching that with a lot of calm self-respect helps them do the growth they are there to do.

    The context I’m sure does matter. I work in Texas (hello conservative), but the school is a very supportive school that really helps kids learn good behavior and is well-integrated on racial and class lines so diversity is something we deal with every day. If you could actually be fired on the basis of your sexual orientation, then you do have to be more cautious. But I think the tone and the directness within the limits of what’s possible is key. Your own casual and self-respectful attitude communicates hugely.


  6. Anonymous

    PS– I think the most important thing is to be HONEST. If you can’t mention being a lesbian because you could get fired, then instead of saying “no I’m not” or “that’s a bad word” or whatever just say “that’s not something we talk about at school.” About your gender identity– I would not choose a gender identity just to make things understandable for them. Kids are desperately trying to figure things out and they need us to tell them the truth about things. Responding with a truthful statement about how you interpret gender identity is much more useful than punting the question or getting coy or being false. We need to understand that kids are real people with real questions even though it can make us uncomfortable or be handled gracelessly. Your gender identity may be the most significant gift you end up bringing to those kids, if you handle it well.


  7. Avery

    Talk with the people at


  8. Bliz

    I echo the comments about being cool. I’m a college student but I’m also a student teacher and a camp counselor and I get a lot of the same questions. Play it cool, be their best buddy, and they’ll care a lot less.

    Also if it’s appropriate, turn the tables. Ask the guys: if it were “allowed”, would you be curious about what it’s like to wear a dress? Yes, not a totally accurate depiction of genderqueer, but when you’re young, that could do the trick. Open their minds to questioning and put them in the shoes of those who aren’t sure or who like it both ways. Echoing above, making butch seem like the coolest thing ever–or one of a number of cool things–will calm them down. As them how they’d call themself if they could choose anything. Turn the tables, get them talking, and they’ll understand you better.


  9. Kate

    I agree completely with the people above, except for a comment or two that can be taken with a pinch of salt. Anonymous above said to tell viscious children that “The last thing they heard was someone insulting them in that way. That’s why we don’t talk like that here,” referring to those who were murdered for their identity. Although I understand the idea, in my experience one should refrain from talking about atrocities when dealing with kids; it’s entirely true that they are curious and impressionable, and you won’t want them remembering you as the sub who explained homicide. Additionally, be careful with Bliz’s suggestion for a thought-provoking class activity. You are dealing with a group of very self-aware youngsters, and should understand that by asking these questions you will divide that group into the star bellied Sneeches and Sneeches with none upon thars. That said, I’m proud of a humanity tht includes a person confident enough to be so open with kids.


  10. Gold.

    I feel a little jealous of the kids in your class. Wish I’d had a butch role model to look up to when I was their age. Just remember for every future asshole, there’s a future queer shifting uncomfortably in her girls’ jeans (or his boys’ jeans) who really needs to see you as a strong adult.

    I don’t have much advice for you except what I learned from when I taught at a summer camp for teens who were 13-18. I’m a lot closer to their age than you are to your kids’ ages (I’m in my earlier twenties, so it was only a two or three year difference in some cases), so our dialog was without a lot of the boundaries that you probably have to maintain.

    The thing I held onto when I was choosing how to react to their comments and questions was that they’re so malleable (and yours are even moreso). The conceptions they have about queer people at this point probably don’t come from their own experience, but from others around them. You might be the first time they’ve ever knowingly interacted with a queer person, so you have this sort of influence on their development and world view that’s really an opportunity for you to shape them. Even if it seems like they aren’t absorbing anything you do, they are. And even if they act like they already have fully formed opinions about gay people, they don’t. In the future their frame of reference when they hear anything about lesbians will be “Oh yeah, I had a lesbian teacher when I was in grade school and she was really [insert your personality here]. This one time she [insert random anecdote about you that you probably don’t even remember].”

    …And that thought sort of kept me being dismissive or condemning of their comments.

    No pressure or anything :P


  11. Jessica

    We all have to find a way of coping with our special circumstances. I’m not very demonstrative about my genderqueerness – it’s not the most important fact abut me and not one I want to make strangers deal with. I get upset with people more for racist comments. With young people, most often I’ll ask them if they mean to be hurtful? Because often they’re not. They’re just trying to have some fun and don’t intend to be harmful. Ignorance is bad enough, but more and more I run into people who are professing hate as a tenet of their religion and that is just plain frightening.


  12. Em

    I’m also a teacher, and one tactic I like to use, especially with my middle school and high school students, is to turn their questions back around to them, or use questions to help them consider their language instead of just telling them it’s bad or inappropriate.

    So, for instance, if you get the “are you a boy or a girl?” question, you could answer as honestly as you can at the time, and then follow up with questions like “what do you think? what makes you think so? what did you observe or hear that prompted you to ask that question, or come to that conclusion?” For me personally, one goal of performing gender in the ways that I do is specifically to open up a dialogue about gender in general–and one of the best ways to engage students in that is to model HOW one participates in such discussions.

    As for the misinformed stereotypes about butches (or any other group), I’d approach it the same way–what makes you say that? Where did you get that information from? Do you think that’s true? What experiences have led you believe so?

    One last thing I will say is that it’s okay to be personally hurt by students’ remarks, and that even teachers can’t just “stay above it” all the time. I think in some cases, it is even okay to let students know that they hurt your feelings–in one case where a student used a gay slur in my classroom, I responded that not only was his language unacceptable in our school, but it also affected me personally and make me feel unsafe. Sometimes making it personal–instead of abstract–can help the message sink in a little easier. Good luck!


  13. Kira

    I totally just realized this will probably be a problem for me too, as I plan to be a teacher of some sort when I grow up (13 right now). All I can say is good luck ^^;;
    and the “look, there’s a lesbian” and “that’s a butch” comments made me lol.


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