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Breaking the Mould: Navigating Gender Non-Conformity and being Transgender in School

We have come an incredibly long way in the last decade with how we talk about identities in schools, with teachers, parents and pupils being more educated in these areas than ever before. One of the aspects that is the focus of a lot of conversation is how to support pupils with gender identities. However, in the media and particularly on social media, there are concerns that out of good intentions, concepts around gender are being confused, and children are being labelled as transgender before they fully understand this terminology. Social media has become an incredibly toxic place, with increasingly divided accusations flying around, and is less helpful than ever in this area, but it's important that we're not afraid of discussing these concepts so that our pupils are supported and safeguarded.


In this post I will look at the concepts and vocabulary around transgender and gender non-conformity, and considerations that schools should make to ensure that while they support all pupils explore their gender, they do not undo the progress that we have made in tackling gender stereotypes. The relationship between and gender is incredibly complex and there are many viewpoints and so throughout the article, there are references that can be found at the end of the article.


Sex and gender

To understand the complexity of these concepts, it's important to understand the difference between sex and gender. Sex refers to the physical characteristics of an individual; namely their genitals, chromosomes and hormones (although it can be more complicated than this). [1] Sex is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 and refers to someone who is a man or a woman [4] There are some arguments over language here, where groups disagree on whether we are assigned our sex or it is observed. Even medical organisations do not agree on this, and in the grand scheme of inclusion there are far more important issues to be concerned with,


Gender can be viewed as either a passive part of someone's identity that they are not necessarily aware of, or as a core part of their identity.


Passive gender

For many people, their gender is not something that they think of and is a 'passive' part of their identity. In this instance, gender can be seen as how closely they align with the socially constructed roles and characteristics that we associate with various identities. For example, how they reflect the stereotypical views of what men and women act like, wear and present as etc. In this instance, it's not something that people are aware of and does not necessarily form part of their identity. Very few if any people completely align with the complete stereotypical view of gender, but it does inform what society says that men and women 'should' present as.


Gender as part of identity

Others use gender to refer to part of their deeply-held sense of their own identity. It is how someone perceives themselves and what they know to be true about their gender. This can include terms such as boy, girl, male, female or non-binary. For most people who talk about their gender identity, this identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth, which is typically categorised as male or female, and we would describe them as cisgender.


However, for some individuals, their gender identity may not correspond with the sex they were assigned. This difference between gender identity and assigned sex at birth is what leads to terms such as transgender, trans+, non-binary, and genderqueer. 


Although gender is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act (2010), transgender people are protected under the Gender Reassignment category. In a case in 2017, a claimant won a case that they were discriminated against under the Gender Reassignment category, partially because they were non-binary. However, they were also transitioning and so it is not clear whether someone who is non-binary and not transitioning would be covered. [5] But regardless of the legal standpoint, our ethical responsibility should tell us that all people should be respected and not discriminated against, regardless of their identity.


There is often a misunderstanding that believing in gender invalidates or diminishes sex; this is not the case. A person’s gender identity does not affect their sex and people who identify with a specific gender still have a physical sex.


Gender Critical

Someone who is  'cender critical', generally describes gender as being based on archaic stereotypes, or not existing at all, and that 'gender ideology' is damaging to society. Gender critical people are generally opposed to any discussions of gender in schools and are concerned about their perceived regressive nature of gender. Someone who is gender critical may also be referred to as Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERF), but this is often viewed as a pejorative term.


Gender Non-Conformity

Gender non-conformity refers to the expression of one's gender in ways that do not conform to societal expectations or norms associated with their assigned sex. For instance, stereotypical gender would suggest that men wear trousers, play with 'boys' toys, and like 'masculine' colours. We are all in fact gender non-confirming in some way as none of us completely adhere to the stereotype of gender. Gender non-confirmity is not a new concept and history is filled with examples of people who have challenged societal ‘norms’ [7]

As with gender, many people's gender non-conformity is passive and they do not consciously think about it, whereas others consider it a core part of their identity and some use it as to entirely describe their gender or alongside other terms such as man, woman, or non-binary.


A person who describes part of their identity as gender non-conforming may consciously express themselves in a manner that is different from what society traditionally considers masculine or feminine. This expression can manifest through clothing, hairstyles, behaviour, or interests that are not aligned with stereotypical gender roles. Schools and parts of society have worked tirelessly to challenge gender stereotypes and so it could be said that the goal is that we are all gender non-conforming and that we live as individuals. After all, what are girls' and boys' toys?


Non-binary is a collective term for identities that don’t fit into the binary of ‘male’ and ‘female’ or ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Although there are a number of identities with this group, most either consider that they don’t identify as male or female, or may move between them. It’s important to note that just because non-binary people exist, this does not invalidate those who are a man or a woman. Whilst there are disagreements over the terminology, those with a non-binary gender still have a legal sex, which is important especially when considering healthcare and in the UK, is recorded on birth certificate and other governmental documents such as passports. Non-binary people may use the pronouns ‘they and them’ as they do not identify with he/him or she/her pronoun. They may face challenges when grouped into genders that they do not identify with, and so it’s important that we consider all people when organising groupings and the structure of schools events and facilities.

Although there is an overlap with people who are gender non-conforming and those who are transgender, the first does not necessarily signify the second. Someone who is transgender cannot necessarily be identified by someone not adhering to gender stereotypes, such as wearing the opposite gender's clothes (which again, what does this actually mean?) and so we need to be careful about labelling children as transgender based on their external appearances.


Transgender

https://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2344&context=masters_theses_2

Transgender individuals are those whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. [2] For example, someone assigned male at birth who identifies as a woman is a transgender woman. Likewise, someone assigned female at birth who identifies as a man is a transgender man. Being transgender is a deeply personal experience, and it often involves transitioning, which can include social, medical, or legal steps to align one's life with their gender identity.


When people transition, we often only see the surface changes, which includes aspects of their identity such as their name, pronouns, clothes and for adults on gender affirming treatments, their physical appearance. This can lead to a misconception that being transgender is just about appearance; but being transgender is far more than that. This feeling can be described as 'gender dysphoria' and is a recognised medical condition, but is not a mental illness [6]. Transgender people often need additional support and are one of the most marginalised groups in society.


Evolution and devolution of language

Our language around sexuality and gender is constantly changing and evolving as our society changes and our understanding of these concepts deepens. The interesting thing about the language of transgender is the speed in which particular words have changed, been replaced, or been removed from our societal lexicon entirely. Words such as transexual and cross-dresser have fallen out of use and been replaced with transgender. One of the challenges that we are seeing is people labelling anyone who is gender non-conforming as transgender. For example, a man who dresses using female norms is often labelled by society as transgender, however, this person may just be gender non-conforming, or enjoy the clothing, and not transgender as they do not have gender dysphoria. It is important that we respect the labels that people choose for themselves, as only they know how they truly identify.


Recently we have seen the evolution of Trans+, which is a more inclusive label and includes a broad range of terms including transgender, non-binary, agender and anyone who falls outside of the traditional gender binary. This would include people who wear clothing or create their appearance which challenge gender norms, but does not necessarily mean that they have gender dysphoria and identify as transgender. Trans+ is a helpful term, but it's important to note that this includes transgender, but is not the only identity in it. As language grows and develops, we should aim to educate ourselves on these new terms, so that we understand and respect how people describe their identity.


The situation in schools

Given the lack of guidance from central governments, schools are concerned about what is considered best practice and what are their responsibilities for supporting pupils. With the increased focus on gender in schools, particularly in the media, this is a time of great anxiety for many people in the education system. But it is important that we do not lose focus on ensuring that a child-centred approach is important in allowing all pupils to live as their authentic selves.


From sources such as TikTok and Snapchat, young people are more aware than ever before about gender identities. Many are more confident without using specific labels for themselves or acknowledge that their labels change over time. Many young people are experimenting with their image, names and pronouns, challenging the gender binary that has been so prevalent in much of recent history. It's important that schools are keeping up to date with the vocabulary and terms that young people use, so that they are able to have discussions with them about what they need.


Anecdotally, I have heard from schools where pupils are starting school being labelled as transgender at age 3. Many transgender people explain that they were aware that they were transgender from this age and so it's important that we do not diminish their experiences. However, there are instances where parents have labelled their child based on stereotypical traits such as toys they play with or clothes that they like to wear. This is problematic in several ways. Firstly, it does not acknowledge what transgender is and reduces it to appearances, rather than an internal sense of self. Secondly, it is based on archaic stereotypes, which schools and wider society have been fighting for decades. Finally, if pupils are being labelled as transgender rather than gender non-confirming or Trans+, then there is a risk that those with gender dysphoria who need support are 'lost' in the crowd and there is increasing potential that the school will face accusations of grooming or indoctrination. The final problem here is who is the person deciding that the child is transgender? Where is the voice of the child? It is unlikely that a child this young would be able to articulate gender dysphoria and so this label may be coming from external sources, rather than the child articulating their own identity.


What schools can do

Challenging gender stereotypes is of paramount importance as it dismantles deeply ingrained biases, fosters a more inclusive and equitable society, and empowers individuals to break free from limiting gender norms. Schools play a pivotal role in this essential endeavour and can challenge gender stereotypes by actively promoting a culture of inclusivity and equality. This can be achieved through a multifaceted approach that involves revising curriculum materials to showcase diverse role models and achievements, encouraging gender-neutral language and respect for all gender identities, and fostering an environment where students are free to explore a wide range of interests and activities, unconstrained by traditional gender norms. [3] By addressing bullying and harassment related to gender stereotypes and offering support to LGBTQ+ students, schools can ensure a safe and welcoming atmosphere for all. Moreover, promoting critical thinking skills and open dialogues about gender stereotypes empowers students to challenge and break down these harmful preconceptions, fostering a more equitable and enlightened generation.

By removing stereotypes and expectations around gender, pupils can be free to express themselves in any way that they wish, and all could then be described as gender non-conforming, whether they consider this as part of their identity or not. It also removes barriers for pupils who identify as non-binary or gender fluid as their gender expression is individual to them. If pupils are criticising others for being non-confirming, for example a boy playing with dolls, it's vital that we challenge this behaviour of those being critical, and allow for all pupils to be themselves.


When considering groupings and language, we should avoid grouping children by sex or gender, unless absolutely necessary. These artificial groupings can continue to create division and compound stereotypes that may be present. Referring to a group by their class name e.g. Form 6, rather than boys and girls, is an easy way to avoid this. But we also need to not think that the words boys and girls are banned. Boys and girls still exist, but enhancing our language can make it more inclusive. 


There are other considerations with pupils who transition, or are non-binary, such as which toilets and changing rooms they use. Government guidance is expected to support schools in this area as current guidance is unclear and laws and rules that govern adult-only environments do not always make sense in schools. To make schools more inclusive, many schools have converted to or built unisex toilets. There are positives and negatives to all kinds of toilets but schools should consider the impact on all pupils and take on board their views. The data on the effectiveness of approaches is scarce, but speaking to many schools, the most successful approaches is where schools have provided single sex facilities, in addition to unisex ones.


As with any label of identity, the label should come from the person themselves. We need to provide an education where at an age-appropriate time, we introduce terminology so that pupils can find words for an identity that fits with how they feel. It is not for us to tell someone what their identity is, even if we are confident of it, as they need to take the journey to discover themselves in their own time. When we decide when to introduce this language, we need to be clear on our motivations for introducing it, but also reflecting on whether they are developmentally ready to understand the terms entirely. Especially in primary schools, the most important thing is representation, where children see a variety of families and stereotypes are challenged so all pupils feel accepted for who they are. If we decided to introduce the vocabulary of gender, it’s important that we are secure in our reasoning for this and are not doing it because others are, or just to appear inclusive. 


If parents say that their child is trans, have a conversation about what they mean by this term as there is an opportunity to educate ourselves and parents on the vocabulary that can describe identity. This may mean exploring what they mean if they are enforcing gender stereotypes, or if there are suggestions that someone can only do certain things if they are a particular sex/gender. These conversations will help us ensure that all pupils get the support that they need and they are given the support and space to explore their own identity.


Without government guidance on these matters, schools need to do what they know is right for the child and family, and create an environment where pupils are free to express themselves in a way that they feel comfortable. Labels can be useful for talking about our identity and finding allies, but the most important thing is the inclusive environment that we create.


This article may be updated or an additional article written once guidance from the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments is released.


References




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