Secret Diary of an Irish teacher: 'Mirror, mirror on the classroom wall; what is gender after all?'

A friend of mine read an article recently; it was about a group of women who, having transitioned to men, wanted to go back.

Secret Diary of an Irish teacher: 'Mirror, mirror on the classroom wall; what is gender after all?'

A friend of mine read an article recently; it was about a group of women who, having transitioned to men, wanted to go back. It prompted me to think: when did it all start for them? How did their sex and their gender come to feel so mismatched?

As a teacher, this is something I desperately want to understand. Gender is clearly communicated once our kids reach school age; we can tell from their uniforms. Of course, we can stick a bow on a baby girl, but I’ve often peeped into a pram and not known what I’m looking at.

I think we like gender. It’s comfortable and familiar, so we like to separate our kids through colour choice, clothing and yes, schooling. Isn’t it bizarre when you think about it? Not everyone fits the bill.

My daughter refuses to wear skirts or dresses, so it is a huge relief that she can attend a non-uniform school. Maybe I could arrange for her to wear trousers in a girls’ national school, but I don’t want her to fight norms at the age of four.

And I don’t want my already self-conscious girl to feel different. I’ve wondered if she’s a boy. Should she have been a boy? What does that even mean? I was convinced she was a boy in utero. She was going to be Billy, full-haired and doting like my son.

She’s turned out to be beyond independent. She only wears tracksuits. She watches Fireman Sam and Paw Patrol and prefers to play with boys. She wants her hair cut up like her big brother. She has a boy doll.

Is that what a boy is? Is she a boy by gender and a girl by sex? Will she need to right the wrong and transition? But take away gender and it all becomes moot. Doesn’t it? Or is it more than that? Is it way more profound than I can understand or have yet been helped to understand?

I still feel sad for a twelve-year-old student I taught in the past, who asked me to call them ‘they’. I feel sad that what was between their legs meant so much to them at the age of twelve. And I worry that it’s us adults who’ve created the mess by gendering our kids so relentlessly.

And it is a mess. When we put girls in dresses to go to school, we also ask them to sit with their legs together. We ask them to get smaller. We tell them to only do cartwheels in their tracksuits as if the sight of their knickers is a crime.

No wonder my daughter wants to be a boy! She recognises power when she sees it. Nobody comments on the positioning of my son’s legs and nobody ever comments on his underpants. But they might comment if he was to cry over losing a game.

If we got rid of all that nonsense would transitioning ever need to happen at all? We now have gender identity services for kids as young as three. Is that right? Is it transphobic of me to even ask? I trip over pronouns in my classroom, re-arranging sentences so I never have to say ‘he’ or ‘she’.

I manage ‘they’ most of the time but not always, not every time. If a pronoun was just defining of biological sex, then why would one feel the need to change it? Possibly I am being naïve, maybe even offensive. I don’t mean to be.

The strange thing is that I think uniforms work, but only gender-neutral ones. I’ve been in schools with or without them and I think it gives teenagers a healthy boundary to push against, a place from which to explore. I’ve noticed a lot of primary kids spend more time in their tracksuits. Is this the beginning of change?

I’ve also seen the dark side of non-uniforms, on girls mostly. This strange breed of girl power that has young girls self-objectifying in my classroom. I’m deeply uncomfortable with how much they reveal. I want all students to see their bodies as facts, not as weaponry in a war for power or dominance.

I wish my students could just be themselves and I worry that our law allowing students under 18 to legally self-declare their gender with a ‘solemn intention’ is putting a band-aid on a deeper societal stubbornness to recognise gender as too restrictive.

Nothing more than a bunch of made-up rules, based on everyone following a bunch of other made-up rules… The Gender Recognition Act allows 16 year olds, with certain documentation, legally change their gender. Isn’t it strange that we have clear evidence that boy/girl gendering doesn’t work for so many, and yet we maintain same-gender schooling?

My school has a ‘whichever’ toilet which I applaud. I even like the tone of it. It is a tone that says I am not interested in you as ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’, just as a human. Your sex is a physical fact; your gender shouldn’t have to mean anything specific.

Even as I type I realise this genderless world is an unlikely one. In Ireland anyway. But I would at least like to have the conversation. I’d also welcome any change that helps young people feel comfortable in their own skin: boy, girl, whichever.

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