Despite the fact that the children in our care are exposed to a wealth of values through the course of their school careers, some situations continue to present dilemmas that perhaps need not exist. Take, for example, the challenges faced by young people who are, or may be, transgender.
There have been some high profile stories that have hit the press about pupils being misgendered, or parents protesting about a school’s handling of LGBT themes in the classroom; stories which may call into question society’s willingness and ability to honour the requirements of the 2010 Equality Act.
As if it is not hard enough to give young people the support they need, many schools have recently been subject to parent protests for trying to deliver the government's inclusion curriculum. In some cases, school pupils have had to be protected from religious pressure groups targeting schools to express their disagreement with current equality law.
Last week at the National Head Teachers Conference, there was increased demand from teachers for support to teach LGBT inclusivity.
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But what about the young person?
For training, schools are reliant on charities who provide training and signposts to information for schools and colleges so that gender diverse children and young people can be free to explore their gender identity and gender expression in a safe environment. With such training, teachers can feel equipped to deal with any questions or challenges enabling children and young people to both attend and stay in education and achieve their full potential. It is targeted, and seeks to ensure that young people feel supported and respected; just the kind of support that older transgender people wish they had access to.
Sophie Cook transitioned at the age of 48. “I knew when I was seven that I was trans. But this was in the 1970s and there was no help or support at all. No knowledge, no internet, no role models that I knew of. I was isolated and consequently the first time I tried to take my life I was 12.”
Now, the situation is different for young people experiencing similar. “They have access to knowledge now,” Sophie says. “There is no need for young people to feel alone. We are all connected and we have a much greater understanding of diversity and difference. Being different is hugely challenging. But when you find your tribe it’s possible to get a big sense of belonging.”
Sophie often goes into schools to speak to pupils and teachers about being transgender and how best to support others who are. “When I speak to young people, they get it. They understand. Their whole attitude is why shouldn’t people be themselves? They are exposed to a far broader variety of humanity and they know how to respect diversity. I find that with older people, they often have an intellectual understanding, but with young people it is instinctual.”
Social media can be a force for good to this end. “It has democratised information,” Sophie explains. “We can access the world’s thought on so many issues. But that means it is also open to manipulation and subversion.”
And that is clear to see. While there are many sites and organisations that genuinely seek to offer help and advice to young people and their families, there are some with thinly veiled agendas that may be harmful.
“We have to be aware that the anti-trans agenda uses very “reasonable” arguments,” Sophie adds. “They can twist meaning and appeal to a wide audience who may not necessarily realise what lies beneath the rhetoric. I find that a good test of whether something is bigoted is to change the protagonist in a sentence. If you swap “transgender” for, for example, Christian or Muslim, how does the sentence sound?”
Hearing about some of the abuse Sophie and other transgender people have to endure, it is clear that there are many who see the transgender community as the latest group in society to demonise. “This is a divide and conquer tactic,” says Sophie. “But we are stronger together and we need young people in schools to understand that. We do not need forced divisions in society. The rights of one group do not come at the cost of the rights of another group.”
Support with care and dignity
Unless we are serious about furthering the rights of all, we are failing in creating an equal society. So what can we do as educators to ensure that young people who may be grappling with issues around their gender identity are supported with care and dignity? Sophie helped us to draw up these suggestions:
- Respect everyone. All equality rests on this.
- Find out what it means to transition. This will help to protect young people from misinformation. (The links below contain reliable sources of information.)
- Help children to find the space to work out their identity for themselves.
- Celebrate diversity and difference (some schools hold LGBTU lunches – the U stands for undecided – which are a collaboration between staff and pupils and a space in which young people can talk to each other, learn about sources of support and come to understand some of the issues they are grappling with).
- Be proactive rather than reactive. Don’t wait until the first young person or member of staff comes out before making visible your support. This removes fear and uncertainty for young people.
- Consider the cultural shifts that may need to occur. For example, toilet cubicles for everyone remove the need for gendered facilities. Everyone needs privacy.
- Review the curriculum for inclusiveness. For example, one of the ways which helps us to engage with literature and art is to feel represented in it; to see yourself in it and for it to speak to you.
- Safety first. There must be zero tolerance for all forms of abuse.
“A person’s gender identity is not up for debate,” explains Sophie. “The idea that you can attempt to rationalise or pass judgement on any aspect of a person’s gender identity is deeply arrogant and insulting. Respect everyone. This is not a complicated issue. It is not remotely complicated.”
Find out more…
- Sophie Cook gives talks and also advises schools on trans issues. sophiecook.me.uk, @sophiecooktalks. Her book, Not Today: How I Choose Life is available via her website.
- Educate and Celebrate is a charity dedicated to supporting nurseries, primaries, secondaries, colleges and universities to be LGBT+Friendly. Take a look here for a wealth of resources and information.
- NSPCC Guidance - Gillick Competency and Fraser Guidelines
- Solicitors BenHoareBell - Trans legal information regarding name change and competence
- 'No outsiders in our school' - Andrew Moffat
- Equality Act 2010 – advice for schools: Guidance to help schools understand how the Equality Act affects them and how to fulfil their duties under the act.
- Supporting transgender young people: Guidance for schools in Scotland
- Trans Inclusion Schools Toolkit (Brighton and Hove Guidance)
- Lancashire County Council Transgender Guidance
- Valuing All God’s Children - Guidance for Church of England schools on challenging homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying
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About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for eTeach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.