Report: The Schools OUT conference 2012 (part one)
The first in a two-part report of the 2012 Schools OUT conference, Educating OUT Prejudice through the LGBT Lens.
In schools, LGBT pupils are routinely excluded from school and college curricula. Stonewall’s survey (PDF) in 2006 provided a sobering reminder of the misery faced by gay youth in schools when it was revealed that 65 percent of gay pupils had experienced bullying. While the awareness of bullying and homophobia has been raised thanks to celebrity campaigns such as Ben Cohen’s ‘Stand Out’ and a handful of sports personalities coming out, a Times Educational Supplement survey found that homophobic attitudes and language are rife in Britain’s schools today.
The key challenge is that in many cases, teachers have insufficient training, confidence, understanding or guidance to tackle homophobic bullying. Some teachers are too afraid to bring up the subject of homophobia or transphobia, for fear of a backlash from pupils and parents. Furthermore, autonomous academies have greater freedom to set their own curriculum, and consider diversity as a low priority. And some – though by no means all – faith schools expose pupils to homophobic teachings in the name of ‘teaching sexuality according to religious ethos,’ as the law allows them to do. As for transphobia – a term not even recognised by the notebook with which this article is written – ignorance of the condition is institutionalised.
SchoolsOUT, which has been campaigning to create a culture of inclusiveness for LGBT people since 1974, is determined to tackle these issues head-on. Central to the organisation’s campaign is its eighth annual LGBT History Month, in which participating schools in Britain counter the legacy of silence by celebrating the achievements of sexual minorities. The group has met the demand for teacher resources with a new website, The Classroom, which has had over 22,000 hits since its November launch. The SchoolsOUT conference, held at the RADA Studios in Central London on February 4th, provided an opportunity to hear about the state of progress in promoting inclusiveness.
The first session examined the issues surrounding transgenderism. Terry Reid O.B.E., founder of GIRES (Gender Identity Research and Education Society), which provides transgender-related policy advice to the public sector, explained the prevalence of and scientific explanations for gender variance.
Statistics show that a school of 1,000 pupils will have six pupils who have to deal with transgenderism throughout their lives. Recent estimates suggest nearly 7,500 people have undergone for treatment of gender dysphoria, at a rate of 1,500 per year, and growing at fifteen percent. More trans youngsters are having the confidence to come out because they talk to each other and on the internet and learn that they feel the same way as others do.
Rooted in the brain
The evidence that gender identification is rooted in the brain, determined in the womb and largely stable thereafter, is extensive. Variations may result from additional hormones in the pregnant mother’s system, or unusual X/Y chromosomal patterns. There is a spectrum of variance, from undetected cases, to Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, in which a person grows up with the brain wiring and external appearance of a woman, yet shortened female genitalia with undescended testes. Furthermore, research by Professor Milton Diamond has shown a raised incidence of gender and sexual orientation variance among twins, who are vulnerable to different inputs of hormones. Unlike those with atypical sexual orientation, pupils with gender variance need medical attention. Trans people may experience stress at the onset of puberty, when their bodies become increasingly discordant with their gender identities. At this point, after careful screening, hormone blocking treatment may be given, so children can have more time to decide their gender role.
But while nature loves variance, society hates it. One only has to look in a children’s toy or clothes store to see how boys and girls are straitjacketed into gender specific roles, almost from birth. Those who don’t fit the mould often face rejection and abuse.
The Leveson inquiry this week showed that while the press have by and large moved on from depicting LGB people as objects of ridicule, trans people are still fair game (PDF). The Tavistock and Portman Clinic in North London, the only gender clinic for young transgender people, reports that 23 percent of its patients have attempted self-harm.
The challenge, says Reid, is to help people understand that gender is not a choice but like sexual orientation, it is who you are. Ignorance about causality of gender prevails even in the medical community. Eighty-four percent of NHS doctors believe public money shouldn’t be spent on gender reassignment because it was a ‘lifestyle choice’.
Reid also highlighted the need for educating the teachers themselves. Twenty-five percent of trans people experienced bullying from teachers, often because they don’t understand how hurtful it can be to address the child by the wrong pronoun (for that matter, even when mistakes are made by well-intentioned people, the ignorance can be hurtful, as a cringeworthy moment in the 2009 series of BBC1’s Apprentice reminded us). A gender variant child might approach a teacher for help because they may be unable to approach their parents. It is essential therefore that teachers be supportive without expressing horror or surprise. The Home Office has commissioned the charity to develop a toolkit for fighting transphobic bullying.
Susie Green from Mermaids, a support group formed by parents of children who are affected by longstanding gender issues. Gender variance describes people who have a different identity and/or expression than the sex they were assigned with at birth. Within this spectrum are children who have the external appearance of one sex, but may have determined they are another on the inside, or children who exhibit non-conformity in the type of toys or clothes they play with. Mermaids brings these people and their families together to talk about the issues in a safe environment.
Susie’s motivation for setting up Mermaids sprang from the experience of the trauma suffered by her 18 year-old daughter, Jackie, who was born as a boy and faced daily abuse from peers and isolation in a school that rigidly enforced sex segregation.
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It’s important not to fit children into boxes and to be told that it’s OK to be different. The best time to introduce diversity is at primary school, when children first come across peers of other social groups that they don’t see within their home. Prejudices are strongly diminished when children at this age get in touch with real people or even learn through storytelling. This helps them to empathise and understand that people from different ethnic or sexual groups are real people, not the lazy stereotypes portrayed in the media.
She takes inspiration from a primary school teacher from America, Melissa Bollow Tempel, who pioneered ways of expanding her class’s idea of the ‘norm,’ after having a gender-variant child in her class. Bollow Tempel’s essay, ‘It’s OK to be neither’ has numerous practical ideas. Line-ups can be formed on different, fun personal preferences, such as ‘milk or juice’, for example, rather than gender. AN effective way of countering ideas of stereotypes was a class discussion about things that were supposedly girlish or boyish. Class members discovered among their poeers girls who played with Lego and skateboards, while boys identified with pop artists who used nail varnish and make-up.
Empowering transgender people through the arts
Jay Stewart, co-founder of Gendered Intelligence, believes that the creative arts are a way into discussion and debate about gender issues, and opening up opportunities for gender expression, to empower them and enable their voices to be heard. They facilitate workshops to all young people in school or youth settings, to think about how everyone can contribute to debates in which trans people’s voices are embedded. A crucial objective is to create spaces for young trans people to really feel confident and strong in their own identities that they can go out and challenge exclusion.
Stewart notes the superficial school objectives around gender or sexual orientation, relate to bullying and not to the underlying causes. It is not enough that children don’t feel afraid to go to school; the only way to challenge prejudice and raise the self esteem of its targets is to challenge the preconceptions that underpin it.
GI has plenty of experience of working with schools where a pupil is transitioning, and ensure that person is thriving. For a student at an Oxfordshire school, GI created an action plan, to gather the core staff team, including the heads of year, with the young person. They informed the staff and created a peer group of friendship where the trans status of the person was disclosed among friends. This created a wall of protection, and they felt proud to be included. The idea was to make a safe network among the group, so they understood what it meant to embark on this transition from male to female. At the end of the session, the year head led an assembly pledging the school’s support for the student and encouraging the year-groups support for the peers. The student had put together a video to express her feelings and hopes about how she would like to be treated.
Read part two of this report.