It’s Time to Talk About Gender Identity

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The first news reports stated that a “man in a kilt” was set on fire on a city bus in Oakland on Nov. 5. Later, it turned out that it was a high school student wearing a skirt set on fire by a 16-year-old student. 

More information became available, revealing that Sasha, the student who was attacked, self-identifies as agender, neither man or woman. Sasha, who prefers to go by the pronoun “they,” has parents who accept them. They attend a school that is also accepting and regularly commuted to and from school wearing a skirt on the city bus without incident over the past year.
 
It is strange for me to write with the pronoun “they.” Even Sasha’s parents say they get it wrong sometimes. But as I write with these new pronouns, the power of this horrific event calls upon us to venture into this new territory and seek to create understanding. Sasha had already been an activist, creating and sending a petition with 27,000 online signatures to President Obama with the purpose of seeking recognition for gender non-binary people.
 
The anti-bullying movement has brought to light the continuum of mistreatment of kids who do not conform to gender stereotypes, from continually hearing “That’s so gay” to brutal and relentless teasing. In the extreme, this intolerance manifests in physical violence, including the hate crime murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, and closer to home, the murder of transgender teen Gwen Araujo in California. And now, agender student Sasha Fleischman was lit on fire.
 

The 16-year-old student has been charged with hate crime charges as an adult. But the hate did not begin or end with him, rather his behavior reflects hateful attitudes that abound in our society. Arguments during the marriage debate stated that gay marriage was “not natural” and would lead to “marriage involving animals, siblings, etc.” While these attitudes are slowly changing for many people, the debate around gay marriage made it abundantly clear to many young people that intolerance toward the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) community was still widely accepted. As the case comes forward, the entire community will have to grapple with the complexity of these events, and our collective need to deepen understanding at every level.

The Bay Area is a place that prides itself on being one of the most accepting places on earth and a model for other parts of our planet. And yet it is important to recognize the complexity of this situation to prevent it from becoming divisive, even in this community.

Sasha FleischmanThe entire community will have to grapple with these events and collectively deepen our understanding of the intersection of race, class, and gender at every level. We need to ask, What is needed to bring our community together to end all forms of intolerance, hate, and violence?

Why not focus on ways to educate young people not only about tolerance, but how to move toward acceptance of people who are different from them? We can learn and teach about all forms of gender identity and sexual orientation. We can also find new ways to build bridges across difference and acceptance of people of all races, religions, mental abilities, and physical body types. We can teach students to be upstanders, who speak up and stand up for themselves and others.  

And we can create classrooms, churches, and community spaces where every child belongs and feels a sense of identity safety where his, her, and their identity does not have to be left at the door. Spaces where his, her and their identity is safe and not put in jeopardy and everyone can freely and openly walk in the street and ride on a public bus.

As Karl Fleischman, Sasha’s dad, wrote to the Sequoia School community where he is a kindergarten teacher, “None of us can know the mind of the kid who lit a flame to Sasha’s skirt. But I have a feeling that if he had seen Sasha’s skirt as an expression of another kid’s unique, beautiful self, and had smiled and thought, ‘I hella love Oakland,’ I wouldn’t be writing this now.”

Right: Sasha Fleischman. Click here to leave messages of support for Sasha, family, friends and all who are targeted for their gender identity. 

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