Defying every label: the Gender Recognition Act and change in British schools

Yesterday 10 lesbians took the opening of the Pride parade to protest the Gender Recognition Act claiming that “transactivism erases lesbians” and distributing leaflets with a range of claims on them, many of them eye-wateringly transphobic in content. It was disappointing that these protestors were allowed to march along the front of the parade but it raised some interesting questions for debates around the event- here were members of the community using Pride to protest and being booed at by the same people rightly frustrated at the corporate overload at Pride and passionate about returning Pride to protest. It made me wonder- if Pride did return to protest over celebration we might just all end up protesting against each other…

I did, however, find one claim particularly interesting on this leaflet (although it in no way supports the conclusions the group would like to draw from it):

“Having short hair and disliking pink is not a sign of having a male brain and does not mean one requires transition. The trans movement is a conservative movement which reinforces sexist sex stereotypes.”

Ignoring the hilarious 1990s style use of ‘disliking pink’ as a robust indicator of gender non-conformity, and ignoring most of the second sentence about the trans movement, I have to say they have a point. It is obviously not a point most people in the trans movement would disagree with either: the demeaning simplification of what it means to transition is part of the constant battle. However, from my experiences this year it is understandable to be worried that the fight for trans equality, coupled with the dire state of LGBT education in schools and the continued reinforcement of gender stereotypes in society as a whole, has led to a place where young women who do not present as typically masculine feel increased pressure to reach for the category of ‘trans’ as a way of squaring their identity. This is definitely a concern.

I want to be clear: it is not the trans community that is creating this pressure. It is the woeful lack of understanding of gender and sexuality in society that is.

Children tend to be rubbish at using labels. Schools struggle with effectively stopping them using labels- because it is really hard. But children need supportive places to grow and play around with labels; and, with the advent of gender self-labeling (a good thing), schools need to get much better at providing that space.

I’m going to reach into my own childhood to illustrate this one. I would run about in a tux, would never wear a dress, didn’t like playing female roles in school plays and had short hair. I, however, never once questioned my gender and never once felt I had been born into the wrong body. I was never really aware of the category of trans and none of the children I played with were aware of the category either. There were many other factors that supported me as a child: my parents, my liberal primary school, the fact I lived in a diverse borough in a diverse city.

However, as we move into a world in which self-declaration of gender is the norm (I repeat: a good thing) we need to be aware that many gender non-conforming children do not have these privileges. The problems are not new: I’ve worked with children who are told they should transition because they like sports. I’ve worked with children who are told they are trans because they don’t have a boyfriend. If a child has shorter than average hair suddenly they are being asked to reflect on their gender (not by the trans community, mind). I’ve known colleagues in other school speak to parents concerned about ‘un-masculine’ or ‘unfeminine’ traits in their children and reflect that a medical procedure might be in order. As a teacher, I have worked in a school where I was routinely labeled ‘Sir’ (deliberately, and with malice) as a way of disrupting lessons. I don’t particularly worry about the effect on me: I worry about the child who is sitting there looking at me and thinking- really, if I wear a suit when I’m older, is that what everyone is going to think? I’ve had conversations with children in which they have claimed they are ‘not sure’ whether I was a man or a women. Children have asked me if I want a sex change- and not with the intent to offend, they just don’t understand. This is not because the trans movement is reinforcing sex stereotypes. This is because homophobia and transphobia is reinforcing sex stereotypes. Society finds increasingly complex ways to shame those that are different from the norm, and schools don’t do enough to delve into this. We need to be aware of the implications that self-declaration of gender identify may have for children who experience this kind of shaming.

Now I wouldn’t have a problem with this if I thought schools were in a good place to cope with the Gender Recognition Act in a sensitive and appropriate way, but sadly I don’t. There are still huge misconceptions about, and some downright aggression towards, the LGBT agenda in schools. Just like the students, some of it comes from malice and some from ignorance. In conversations I have with educators this ranges from the smaller stuff- questions whether particular statements are ‘really homophobia’- to slightly more worrying stuff- such as denying there is any homophobia in a school- to this corker of a sentence I got from a school leader: “What happens in the bedroom should stay in the bedroom” as a result of poster positioning a mere matter of days after one of the most high profile LGBT activists in the country had just visited the school. Again, it is not always clear whether the above comes from misunderstanding or malice, but whatever the origins, if people really don’t understand that being a lesbian does not imply a desire to share the intricacies of your sex life with people and, worse, small children, we have a real a problem on our hands. I know many teachers who have come across such sentiments and are left wondering if addressing homophobia and transphobia in schools involves an inappropriate blurring of the personal/professional distinction. If I see a bottle thrown at a child’s head I never stop to think: am I only intervening here because I too had bottles thrown at my head? Yet, LGBT teachers are all too often left with this thought about homophobia and transphobia.

The added problem is that the charities meant to be campaigning on this area are also hopelessly naive. Teachers are being told to approach homophobia with “kind eyes” and accreditation such as ‘Stonewall Champion Status’ are being handed out like confetti in schools where Stonewall posters are being taken down. Even where this isn’t happening, the approaches that schools are being asked to take are simply not robust enough in terms of identifiable outcomes for children. An assembly is not an outcome- it is a strategy; an outcome is knowing the difference between the category ‘female’ and the category ‘woman’. An outcome is every child in a school knowing the difference between being trans and being lesbian and that being gender non-conforming in terms of appearance implies neither of the former categories. An outcome is children really understanding what it means to self-declare your gender, that it isn’t a box ticking exercise or a way of coping with heteronormativity in general. An outcome is developing empathy for people in society who have to go through countless personal interactions feeling undermined because what is written on their driving license doesn’t reflect who they are as a person.

Campaigning organisations lowering our expectations here and asking for “kind eyes” and telling teachers to “advocate a whole school policy” (normally pretty vague) leaves LGBT educators exposed. We look silly for asking for more. Teachers are left asking for strategies- “let’s have an LGBT group”- which are easy to quash, rather than commitments to real improvement. To think that a teacher can enter an SLT meeting and propose a change of policy, and then task someone else with doing it, displays a pretty shocking understanding of how power relations in a school work. Union groups can’t even achieve this on a plethora of issues and yet this is what teachers are being asked to do. Then, in the absence of real action from leadership, these organisations become far too reliant on LGBT teachers taking on all the work in the form of informal teacher leadership. I’ve personally avoided being involved in these efforts. I’ve focused on curriculum, on assessment, on your traditional teaching and learning, for the simple reason that is all to easy to find yourself being professionally defined by your sexuality rather than your interests as an educator. What I’ve realised this year (and I wish someone had told me this when I entered teaching) is that it doesn’t matter if you try to avoid it, somehow, in some way this issue is going to come back and be dumped right in front of you again.

So what has all this got to do with those 10 protestors at Pride? Here is where we need to tie these two threads together: The Gender Recognition Act is a great thing, a massive step forward for our country. However, moving forward legislatively is no good when the provision for children in our schools is so poor. It is no good for campaigners have all the tools to affect legislative change but a poor understanding of what robust change in an educational setting might look like. They need to be aware of that.

We need to stop preaching to the converted and dumping it on the LGBT teacher’s door. Schools also can’t expect to cover all this stuff in sex ed- that actually only reinforces many of the stereotypes about LGBT people. You don’t cover sexism and racism in sex ed; you have to be dealing with it all the time and in different ways. The same goes for homophobia and transphobia. In fact, all closed-mindedness towards simply being young and hard to label. This is why a purely governmental approach is not going to work: schools need to engage in change not be forced from Whitehall to do so (I think is well understood by campaigners), and we need the leaders in those schools need to do it.

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