How and why schools must support trans rights

Claire Birkenshaw

I began my Secondary school teaching in 1991 after graduating from Hull University with a degree in Geography and a postgraduate Certificate in Education. I have taught in a number of Secondary schools across the city of Hull during my 26-year teaching career, culminating in the role of principal at an Alternative Provision Academy. In September 2015, I began my transition and am recognised by the TES as the first known headteacher (principal) in the UK to transition in-post.

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Claire and the NUT at Hull Pride 2017 // Claire and the NUT at Hull Pride 2017 //

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Daily Mirror’s front page headline grabbing declaration which stated very boldly ’50 kids a week sent to Sex Change clinics’ with a subheading ‘Record number of referrals as parents seek help for children as young as four’ (23rd October 2017). It certainly wasn’t the most sensitive headline, but it did highlight the fact young people are accessing the Gender Identity Development Service in increasing numbers.

If these young people replicate my emotions, they too will feel anxious as to what other people think of them. Perhaps they are fearful, anticipating transphobic behaviours. I should imagine there are times when they feel like they don’t belong in society because that is what other people tell either through their words or actions. I certainly know how that feels, because I too am trans.

For me, November’s Transgender Day of Remembrance brings into sharp focus the suffering and violence that many trans and gender-diverse people across our globe face on a daily basis. Transgender Europe reports that worldwide, in the past 12 months, 325 trans and gender diverse people have been recorded to have lost their lives through the violence of others. Since January 2008 to September 2017, a total of 2,609 trans and gender-diverse people have been killed in 71 countries. It is clear that the life of a trans person in some parts of the world is fraught with danger. What these sad statistics do not show is the number of trans and gender diverse people that have been rejected by their families, friends and workplace, and as such are now homeless, lonely or unemployed. Neither does the data reveal the self-inflicted harm, the suicide attempts or loss of life through their own hands.

The reality is trans and gender-diverse identities are stigmatised and as such it can feel like the whole of society rejects us. That is why Theresa May’s comments at the Pink News Awards this October brought me to tears. Mrs May, the British prime minister no less, announced for the whole world to hear that “being trans is not an illness, and it shouldn’t be treated as such.”

I was ecstatic. She broadened her clear support of trans and gender diverse people by recognising that “trans people still face indignities and prejudice”. Her thinking was not just restricted to adults, but acknowledged that “bullying in schools and on social media is still a daily reality for young LGBT people and has to stop.”

Mrs May made it quite clear that her government is determined to “eradicate homophobic and transphobic bullying” and “making sure that LGBT issues are taught well.” I am certain that many school leaders across the country will have read her statement and possibly determined that there will be a closure scrutiny from the Department for Education and Ofsted on such matters. As a former school leader, that certainly was my interpretation.

Further support for transgender children has also come from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) too. Just recently it was announced (The Sunday Times, 5th November 2017) that national guidelines on transgender children would be published for schools in March 2018. The chair of the EHRC, David Isaac, said that transgender children were being “failed by the system” which, for me, is deeply upsetting to read particularly when he said, “an unprecedented amount of self-harm and suicide attempts.” It’s little wonder why Mrs May spoke with such conviction on LGBT issues in October 2017.

It is clear that school leaders must be prepared to educate transgender and gender-diverse young people. Whilst some leaders may decide to wait for the proposed ‘Transgender Children National Guidelines’ to arrive in March 2018, I would urge action to take place now. So what can schools do? I have outlined a small number of actions below which I believe could be implemented quickly and without fuss, but could be life-changing for a young person.

First, TDoR is an opportunity to state quite clearly to the school community that it cares about the welfare of trans and gender diverse people, as well as to state unequivocally that the school will not tolerate transphobic bullying or behaviours which are indicative of transphobia. School leaders must ensure this message is clear and strong: violence, victimisation, prejudice and harassment directed at trans and gender diverse people has to stop – it has no place in our society. Obviously, this message must be delivered in a sensitive and age-appropriate way, aligning itself with ‘Fundamental British Values’ and those of the school as well.

Second, create space on a prominent notice board for LGBT+ inclusion. Notice boards give insight into the school’s ethos and values. Therefore, seeing a sign, poster or a statement about trans inclusion demonstrates that the school cares about us. It really does make a difference. For example, this summer whilst in London for a Gender Identity Clinic appointment, I spotted a series of LGBT symbols which were incorporated into Pelican Crossing lights by Trafalgar Square. I was surprised as to how this made me feel. I had never seen such lights before. It created a sense of belonging because it showed me that society cares about my safety. I can assure you it was a significant moment.

Third, display the transgender flag on the head’s office door for all to see. Other gender diverse flags could join this too. This will send out a powerful message to everyone especially if it is included on the school website.

Fourth, ensure that school policies and procedures are transgender inclusive. If in doubt, cross-reference with the Equality Act 2010 particularly Section 149 otherwise known as Public Sector Equality Duty.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help from a trans and gender diverse person if you are unsure as to what to do. This would advance opportunity and encourage participation in public life. It certainly would give an authentic viewpoint. I am sure young people would welcome the opportunity to meet and listen about our unique gender journey. Indeed, I have found young people to be more accepting of my transition than other age groups. So, encourage discussion and if mistakes are made, apologise.

Sometimes, young people interpret silence as being indicative of transphobia.

I would like to think these actions are straightforward and not problematic. I recognise schools are incredibly busy places – in my own experience, unbelievably so. I am all too aware it can be challenging to create space for a seemingly new action when there is so much competition for the school’s time, effort and cost. With so much day-to-day pressure it is all too easy to default to a ‘deal with it when we need to’ attitude. November’s TDoR is a timely reminder that this approach is already too late.

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