Schools urged to open their eyes to trans pupils

Schools are being told to open their eyes to the presence of transgender students and to listen to their ideas on how to support them.

“Even if you don’t think there isn’t a trans student in your school, believe me there is,” said Jay Pope, 18.

He helped design a training programme for teachers and principals on ways to make their schools more inclusive to trans young people.

While bullying and harassment continue to be major issues for one in five LGBTI young people, it is not just among their peers that they can feel worried.

While many schools are doing their best to be helpful to young people coming out as transgender, or thinking about it, a 2015 forum flagged many of the barriers to young people being themselves and feeling included.

Transgender refers to people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were given at birth, and includes non-binary people whose gender identity is not exclusively male or female.

A lack of flexibility on uniform policies and problems about recognising young people’s names or pronouns (he/him, she/her, they/them) are among the more significant issues raised by young people regarding schools.

The report of the National Trans Youth Forum details, for example, that a student who does not identify as female was required to sit the Leaving Certificate wearing a skirt.

With most participants reporting that their school or college would not change official records unless a young person obtained a deed poll, it should be little surprise that barely a quarter felt their education institutions respected their preferred name and pronoun.

Jay’s experience, then, is probably an exception as he was able to talk to staff at Mount Temple Comprehensive School about coming out as transgender before doing so to his parents while he was in third year. 

He was also confident enough and felt adequately supported to do so to the wider school community by the start of fourth year.

Now in Leaving Certificate at Mount Temple, he initiated legal steps to ensure all his documents said “male” and began other transition measures, soon after coming out.

Jay is now proudly to the fore in promoting transgender awareness. If there is one key message he would like school staff and managers to hear, it is the importance of listening.

“Schools can tend to get in a tizzy about deciding what the best thing to do is. But it doesn’t occur to them to ask and engage in discussion with students, rather than guessing, and that really bothers people,” he said.

“Often, students will get a seat at the table but nobody really listens to their voice. If a school is concerned about how it can help and support students, the best thing to do is to engage and be aware of what they want.” 

With statistics on the proportion of people who are transgender varying from 0.5% to 2.5%, it is near certain that the issues will relate to at least a handful of students in an average-sized Irish second-level school of 500 students.

Another emerging factor in the forum report is that most schools are unprepared for how to respond when a student comes out as transgender. “Making up rules as they went along” was how one person described their school’s response to them coming out.

<a rel="nofollow" target="_blank" href="http://www.belongto.org/">BeLonG To, the LGBTI youth services organisation</a>, is including a focus on transgender inclusion in its annual Stand Up awareness week that started yesterday in second-level schools. Last year, over a third of the country’s 730 second-level schools took part, with posters and other resources sent in advance to support activities and awareness.

It is also intended to combat the bullying, harassment, and name-calling that contributes to LGBTI young people being three times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide and twice as likely to self-harm.

BeLong To youth worker Lisa McKenny said educating schools on transgender issues helps to raise awareness within the school environment. But there has been an increased awareness of gender identity issues in recent years already.

Over the last three years, it has accounted for most of her work, which entails a high level of contact with schools.

“On a day-to-day basis, I’m in touch by phone or email with teachers, guidance counsellors, and principals to support them on working with young people. They contact us if a student has come out to them in school as transgender,” said Ms McKenny.

In response to this level of uncertainty from school staff, one of BeLonG To’s workshops for teachers this year involved 17 participants learning specifically about transgender terminology and the common issues that may arise.

Jay said some problems can be greater in single-sex schools, where the boys’ or girls’ uniform that a transgender student wants to wear does not exist, or where toilets and changing rooms pose a bigger challenge.

The forum report highlights how, even when schools facilitate students with access to disability or staff toilets, they still risk legitimising misconceptions about of transgender people being unwell. 

“Gender is not a disability,” said one participant.

The efforts of Jay and his peers, helped by BeLonG To and others, is working to remove those perceptions and make life more positive for young people at schools and colleges around the country.

Nine teens among 300 to change gender

Almost 300 Irish people have officially changed their gender in Ireland — with nine transitioned teenage children among those opting for the legal change.

Under the pioneering laws which allow Irish adults to self-declare their own gender simply by filling out a form, the first gender recognition certificate was issued in 2015.

An Irish person can have their new identity rubber-stamped after declaring their intention to live in their preferred gender for the rest of their life.

Since then one application to a person over 18 has been refused while 277 certificates have been approved by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection — 165 transitioned to female, while 112 transitioned to male.

Nine of these were issued to children between the ages of 16 and 18 by order of the Circuit Family Court.

With a review of the new legislation set to take place in the coming months, Sara Phillips, the interim CEO of the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI), said the process for 16 to 18-year-olds is quite onerous.

“They have to have parental consent, they have to have a medical practitioner, then you have to go court for approval.

“A 16-year-old is currently able to make decisions about their own medical health, they do not need parental consent for health care,” she said.

“There is a silly situation where the legal side of transition is quite onerous but you are able to access the medical side of transition. It should be the other way around.”

She said many children are socially transitioning to a different gender in schools in Ireland but do not have any legal status in the eyes of the State.

There are varying levels of support for the children as “a lot of schools are unsure how to deal with teenagers who transition in schools”.

“For instance, if there is a young teenager in an all-boys school transitioning to female, the principal or board of management may not want this and can use the act to say you don’t have recognition so therefore we can’t recognise you in school.

“We are working with the body of principals and vice principals to work on trying to improve those situations and with the Department of Education to try and bring in some guidelines in how to treat trans children in schools.”

The TENI chair of the board of directors said the peers of children who are transitioning generally tend to be very supportive.

Ms Philips said it was beneficial for a child to have their gender identity legally ironed out before they left school.

“They are starting afresh in college and work and starting that new life without having to wait to go through the process.

“You can move on with your life in the gender that you prefer.”

The review is also expected to delve into the issues around people who identify as non-binary — somebody who identifies as neither male or female or male and female.

“There are a few solutions around the world but different people disagree with how it is and what’s the marker? Instead of ‘M’ or ‘F’ is it ‘X’ or is it ‘MX’ or what?

“We want the discussion. Quite a large part of our community identifies as non-binary.”

Creating trans-inclusive schools

Young people in BeLonG To helped to develop these suggestions for how schools can become more welcoming for trans and non-binary students.

  • Be attentive and respectful around using the name and pronoun a young person chooses
  • Offer flexibility around school uniforms (eg skirts or trousers) and hair length, jewellery, etc
  • Ask the young person what is needed for toilets and changing rooms — it’s great to have a choice between male, female and gender-neutral options (but avoid using disability toilets, if possible)
  • Be flexible about gender inclusion in school sports and PE class
  • Develop school policies that include trans and non-binary students
  • Please don’t ask about or comment (good or bad) on body changes
  • Engage all students in learning about trans issues
  • Show the BeLonG To trans awareness videos to promote understanding and conversation
  • Respect student’s confidentiality on being trans
  • If they ask for it, please support young trans people in talking to their parents
  • Invest in staff training on Trans and LGB issues, especially for school counsellors
  • Challenge transphobic bullying and fully implement school’s anti-bullying policy


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