Gender through the lens of spiritual science
Steiner’s concept of human gender expands far into the distant past as well as the distant future. Steiner posits that in ancient times, all humans were of one gender. In his view, “the human realm did not divide into two genders until Lemurian times.” (1) Prior to that, “the human shape was formed differently, and both sexes were in a way contained within it in an undifferentiated way.”
Steiner explains that gender and its evolution is intrinsically entwined with human spiritual advancement. Initially hermaphroditic, the development of gender helped humans move toward individuality, as they were able to experience self and other. In our current times, as we shift away from the gender binary framework, to view human gender on a continuum, we move toward greater individual freedom, as well as toward an understanding of the non-gendered universal human experience. In the future, gender will become a moot point, physically, socially, and spiritually: “human beings [will] find that which transcends the sexes, then this issue of our time will have been resolved.” (1)
Gender and human development
Just as in Steiner’s view of human evolution, human beings transition from non-gendered, to gendered, back to non-gendered, so too does Steiner find this pattern within the lifecycle of every individual human in modern times. Humans, he claims, are non-gendered until age seven. He states, “people look upon a human being during the first seven years as if it already were male or female; from a higher point of view, this is entirely false.” Up until this point, “the child retains a more general human character, as yet undivided into sexes.” (1) Then, with the second seven-year stage of development, the human does develop gender. As an individual reaches the end of her lifecycle gender becomes a less prominent feature of the physical body.
Working with transgender students in the Waldorf school
Transgender students face a significant challenge in achieving a balanced state between their physical, etheric, and astral bodies. Yet, in addition to this intrinsic challenge, many transgender students also face social, cultural, and political obstacles. Because of these factors, transgender youth represent an extremely at-risk population. As stated in “Safe Is Not Enough: Better Schools for LGBTQ Students”, even among the LGBTQ community, “transgender students are the subgroup that faces the greatest risks physically, psychologically, and academically at school… [T]ransgender students are often the last group under the LGBTQ umbrella to have their needs addressed adequately by educators.” (2) While statistics regarding transgender teens vary, PFLAG NYC provides some reliable statistics regarding LGBTQ youth: LGBTQ teens are 8.5 times more likely to report having attempted suicide and 5.9 times more likely to report depression; about two thirds of LGBTQ students report having been harassed within the last school year; LGBTQ teens are overrepresented in foster care, juvenile detention, and among homeless youth; they are twice as likely to say they do not plan to finish high school. (3)
Some of the social, cultural, and political challenges facing youth are easy to identify. For instance, legislation that mandates students use bathrooms corresponding with their biological gender as assigned at birth (rather than their gender identity), is a direct example of limiting the rights of transgender students. However, many examples are much more subtle. For instance, in the school setting, children may be greeted with, “good morning boys and girls,” or asked to sit up tall in their desks, “like princes and princesses.” From a very young age, the toys, colors, clothing, and countless other items children are presented with are, in some ways, based on gender. These gestures are not intended to be oppressive or unkind! Yet, it is precisely this automatic assumption of a gender binary world which makes the experience of gender dysphoria so alienating. As a final point, we must recognize that when we discuss working with transgender students, we actually mean working with any and all students: it is unrealistic to assume that a teacher would intuit which students might be struggling with gender identity.
With these challenges and statistics in mind, I would like to raise the question, How can we, as educators, guide children through the grades and prepare them for life as healthy individuals? At the same time, as Waldorf educators, we are also the advocates for protected childhood; even as we sympathize with these complicated issues and strive to meet students with reverence and compassion, how can we avoid awakening and intellectualizing these issues at too young an age? For instance, the teacher can work to be increasingly sensitive to gender diversity and refrain from making gendered comments. Yet, to address the situation too directly with children could also be problematic. For instance, to bring a young child’s consciousness to gender distinctions, to ask the child to question, discuss, or analyze his or her gender identity, could very well be confusing or frightening. While overt discussion might be appropriate in a situation in which the child brings up or debates her own gender identity, in most cases, our approach must be a careful balance between acceptance and protection, between the explicit and the implicit.
Indications from Steiner
All the more radical, therefore, was Rudolf Steiner when, in creating the first Waldorf school out of the ashes of World War I, he suggested that girls and boys should share classes for all 12 or 13 years of their elementary and high school education. More radical still was his insistence that both genders learn the same skills: Boys should learn to knit and weave, girls to build engines and survey plots of land. (1)
Steiner’s stance regarding sex education, which he states quite clearly, is that sexuality, specifically anything to do with “lust for power or eroticism” (1), should not be discussed in schools. He believed that these topics “take their course below the surface of conscious life” and are not topics for the classroom. He further states, “The worst possible way of dealing with [sexual impulses], however, is to talk a lot about these things, especially with the children themselves, and to put all kinds of theoretical ideas in their heads.” (1)
What educators should do, Steiner posits, is awaken in the child at a young age a feeling for beauty. He states: “When you lead children to feel the beauty and the glory of sunrise and sunset, to be sensitive to the beauty of flowers and to the majesty of thunder and lightning, when, in short, you develop in them the aesthetic sense, you are doing far more for them than if you were to give them the sex education which it has now become customary to give children at the earliest age and which is often carried to absurd lengths. A feeling for beauty, an aesthetic approach to the world—these are the things that restrain eroticism within its proper limits.” (1)
If we apply these ideas to the issue of gender identity, we find there are ample aspects of the natural world which may aid us in guiding children. For instance, in the fourth grade zoology blocks, it is possible to examine the complex ways in which gender functions in the animal kingdom. Many worms, for instance, are hermaphroditic, while there is a species of frog in which gender is determined not by genes, but by the temperature range at which the egg develops. Similarly, in the fifth grade botany blocks, it is possible to explore the myriad ways in which plants reproduce: some plants have male and female members, but some are asexual. In both the plant and animal kingdom we can find examples of species that transition from one gender to another during the course of their lifetime. To examine this aspect of the natural world, with reverence, is certainly a pedagogically sound way to approach gender identity.
Physical body, self-esteem, wholeness
In the introduction to “Trailing Clouds of Glory: Essays on Human Sexuality and the Education of Youth in Waldorf Schools” (4), Douglas Gerwin asserts that “in terms of the physical body, sexual education is important in preventing pregnancy and disease.” When we consider the types of education needed to support the physical health of transgender students, our attention must focus around habits of self-care and hygiene to counter dysphoria-induced neglect. That is, because teens who experience gender dysphoria may feel disconnected or even repelled by their own physical body, they may need more direct instruction regarding proper physical care and hygiene. Additionally, transgender youth are an at-risk group in terms of inflicting self-harm and substance abuse; educating students on the dangers of these behaviors also requires our attention.
Gerwin also explains why a Waldorf approach to human sexuality needs to take into account the soul, or, more colloquially, self-esteem. He makes a thorough and convincing argument explaining that the arts—from painting, to drama, to horseback riding—are absolutely the right tools for achieving steadfastness of soul.
Finally, as Waldorf teachers, we must also strive to educate the whole. As Gerwin puts it, “the purpose of a program on the teaching of human sexuality is to develop a sense of wholeness” (4). Transgender people often struggle to feel whole: feeling incomplete or malformed is the central issue presented by gender dysphoria. Bringing a picture of humanity as a great whole, within which we all represent a small part of the complete human experience, may be deeply meaningful for the transgender student.
Resources for working with transgender youth
While indications from Steiner, as well as thoughtful commentary by contemporary anthroposophists, do provide a framework for addressing the complexity of gender in a pedagogically sound way, there are also resources outside of Waldorf education that are not to be overlooked. One relevant resource for teachers and administrators is the recent book, Safe is Not Enough: Better Schools for LGBTQ Students (2). In this book, education scholar and author Michael Sadowski offers many practical resources for addressing the question how to work with transgender students in school settings.
Jack Palmer is a class teacher at Portland Waldorf School. Before he worked at the Kona Pacific Waldorf Charter School on the big island of Hawaii. In addition to class teaching, Jack served in many other roles at Kona Pacific, including Faculty Chair, Board member, and part of the Leadership Council. Jack is an Oregon native and received his BA in English Literature from Lewis & Clark College. He went on to receive two teaching credentials, in Louisiana and Hawaii, as well as his Waldorf Teacher Training certificate from Antioch University in New Hampshire. Fun fact – Jack completed a 4,000 mile cross-country solo bicycling trip from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine!
(1) Steiner, Rudolf. (2011). Sexuality, love and partnership: From the perspective of spiritual science. Margaret Jonas (Ed.). London: Rudolf Steiner Press.
(2) Sadowski, Michael. (2016). Safe is not enough: Better schools for LGBTQ students. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
(3) PFLAG NYC. (2016). Statistics you should know about gay and transgender students. Retrieved from www.pflagnyc.org/safeschools/statistics
(4) Gerwin, Douglas J. W. (Ed.). (2014). Trailing clouds of glory: Essays on human sexuality and the education of youth in Waldorf schools. Chatham, NY: Waldorf Publications at the
Research Institute for Waldorf Education.
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