“Tomboys and drag queens go to school just like me and you!” Gabrielle Rivera, a poet, filmmaker and writer, shouted at the auditorium full of students who sat quietly in their soft red seats.
Those who think that is a strange thing to say to a room full of high schoolers must not have been there earlier, when C.J. Pascoe, author of Dude, You’re a Fag, discussed what boys in the weight room say about girls after a particularly eventful weekend. She didn’t mince her words and, a few times, even teachers shook their heads in disbelief and hid their faces in their hands as students giggled uncontrollably.
And before that, students watched Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up, a documentary that about young adult’s views of sexuality, emotion, consumerism and more.
It was One World Day at Riverdale Country School and the theme was gender identity. For the event on Monday, students in grades nine through 12 were encouraged to question gender norms and sexuality by viewing films, attending lectures, having small group discussions and going to the Queer Poetry Slam.
Many of the conversations and subjects would not have seemed out of place in an upper-level college class. But Joel Doerfler, who organized the event, found speakers and subjects that pushed the bounds of what is considered acceptable in a high school and made it work. Students engaged in serious discussion and laughter was kept to a minimum, even when uncomfortable topics were broached.
Still, it’s unlikely that this type of event is coming to a public school near you.
Ms. Pascoe, who lectures at colleges across the country, said this is only her second time at a high school. She said when high schools do explore gender they don’t invite someone like her because she uses explicit language and discusses difficult issues.
“Nobody ever lets people like us talk about the issues,” Ms. Pascoe said. “This is exceedingly unique and I think it says something about the school’s priorities.”
“This is really rare,” agreed Susan Stryker, associate professor of gender studies at Indiana University who lectured at the event.
Some teachers said they thought a more toned-down event exploring gender and sexuality could find its way into the mainstream.
“I think other schools could do it too ... it just might need adjustment and tweaking according to the student population,” Bethany Pitassi, a learning specialist at the RCS middle school, said.
But during a small group discussion after Ms. Pascoe’s lecture, high schoolers at RCS showed that they were well-suited for an event like this.
“At a place like Riverdale ... I don’t think about the way I dress. I wear what I wanna wear,” junior Harry Whitney said when asked whether boys at RCS are singled out for wearing “feminine” clothing.
Harry said once, when he was wearing shorts that were above his knees, a man approached him and asked if he was gay.
“It was just one of those experiences like ‘Wow, this is happening?’” he said.
Junior Cole Dreyfus agreed that the RCS community was an accepting one.
”I wear pink shirts to school but in other areas they think differently of that ... It’s kind of an urban environment. You’re free to express yourself however you want,” he said of RCS.
Tenth grader Elizabeth Couch agreed and, reminding the boys in the room that girls get picked on too, summed up the lessons of the day.
“If you’re a good person and you have good values it shouldn’t matter that you like to do things like play football,” she said.