This week I went back to my old school, to chat to the teachers and young people there about my experiences as a transgender person. It was an amazing experience to go back to school, as me, and share with people who had known me in a very different presentation what is really means to be who I am.
When I was at school, I had a pretty difficult time. I felt like an alien because I was so different than everyone else there. I had no idea that it was possible to transition gender, so I thought that I was alone with my feelings. I often skipped classes, just to be by myself. I spent much of my time at school trying to shut everyone out, including myself.
Walking back into Broughton was tricky. Memories of bullying, crippling anxiety, teenage self-loathing and complicated relationships with teachers and peers alike came flooding back, and I felt pretty nervous. I realised how powerful it can be for young people if adults return to school and remind themselves how it can feel to be there.
I think that going back to school was also very healing. Meeting teachers who I had known back when I was at Broughton who respected me and were full of joy at how well I am doing was very affirming. Being able to walk through the corridors confidently gave me a feeling of hope and possibility. Seeing how much better school is for LGBT people now made me remember the importance of this work and the work that is still to be done.
I was able to help out in a lot of different ways during my week at Broughton. I spoke at house assemblies from Tuesday to Friday, helped teach a media class, attended a Gender Sexuality Alliance/Gay Straight Alliance group and was available for a teacher drop in. It was great to see how respectful and interested the young people were, and how keen their teachers are to support them. I learned, though, that there is still a long way to go. From toilets through to names and pronouns, there are still significant challenges for trans young people in school. It is our responsibility to support our young people and get rid of the barriers to their flourishing.
There are lots of different resources and priorities for those working with young people, but my experiences this week have helped me to come up with a few top tips for teachers and young people:
5 Tips for Teachers
- Don’t judge
You might not be entirely comfortable with the idea of transgender identities. You might not understand what it means to be trans. Or you might just think that your pupil is too young to consider transitioning. Try not to judge what you don’t know. Judging creates barriers between you and your pupils and is likely to stop them listening to you. Young trans people who feel judged may simply not tell anyone that they are trans. This can lead to numerous dangers such as unsafe chest binding, self-harm and even self-medicating. Trans people do understand who they are at a very young age, and are increasingly likely to talk to adults, including teachers, about their developing self-understanding.
There are lots of misconceptions about trans identities, particularly about young people. There is an assumption that young people are deciding or being told who they are, and taking huge steps such as hormone treatments and surgeries at a very young age. This is simply not the case. From names to hormones, pronouns to surgeries, toilets to the binary, there is a vast amount to learn about trans identity. Don’t wait until a student comes out to you; learn. And teach. If you are teaching history, find about the trans people involved in the stonewall riots and teach your class about them. In religious education, how about exploring the spiritual identities of two-spirit peoples? In biology, explore the realities of intersex people and the complex ways in which sexed identity develops. Help us to make trans identities visible, so that young people can discover their true selves. Learn, so that you can teach.
As you are learning, you will realise that there are ways in which you can adapt in order to include transgender young people more fully in school life. Make your toilets gender neutral, or at least allow trans young people to access single-stall toilets. Don’t gender activities, or refer to your classes using gendered terms. Teach dance with gender-neutral categories such Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs, rather than men and women/girls and boys. Make sure your school uniform includes gender neutral options. Create opportunities for trans young people to share their identities with you and the rest of the school.
If a young person comes out to you as transgender, don’t teach, listen. Hear their story, and accept it. Don’t try to tell them what to do; just accept who they say that they are. Don’t offer false platitudes, or tell them how brave they are; just be willing to hear their stories. If they say that they need something, consider how it might be achieved. Trans people are used to hearing ‘no’ from society and institutions. Don’t shut them down in school too.
How can you support transgender young people in your school? The most important step is to use the pronouns and names that they ask you to. If you find it hard to remember, make sure you have it written down and check before you speak. Do not disclose their previous name or pronouns to other people. This includes talking about their past. Do ask if they would like you to help them come out to their parents, but don’t disclose their identity without permission. Make sure you have info – Mermaids and Gires are useful sources to look up – so that when a trans student comes out to you you are ready.
5 Tips for Trans Young People
- Don’t judge
Some people might find it difficult to understand when you try to explain your identity to them. Don’t give up. I have learned that shutting down and shutting up is one of the most damaging things you can do – to yourself and to those you care about. You don’t have to go through transition alone. The people who you think will judge you could turn out to be your greatest supporters if you give them some time and carefully and persistently tell them your story.
You might think that you know everything about what if means to be you, but there is always more to learn. Have a good look online for info and stories about being trans, but take everything you read with a pinch of salt. Make sure that the sources of your info are trans people, and double check everything that you read. Don’t rush your learning. Transition can often feel urgent, but it can take us time to work out the best paths for us. Read about the experiences of transgender peoples’ friends and families too. That will enable you to help those who you care about to understand and accept who you are.
People will make mistakes. It is not OK for people to use your old name and pronouns, but they will. You can choose how to react. Give people time to learn, and help them by being respectful and honest. If they say or do something that hurts you, tell them, but try to be as kind and patient you can. If you give people time, they will come around. If you don’t, you may lose them.
Listen to the experiences of those around you. You are not alone. Thousands of people have transitioned before you. Even parents and teachers who aren’t trans will have experienced gender and the world in ways which are interesting and new. You can learn from everyone around you. Listen to people’s feelings as well; feelings are valid even if they are difficult. Don’t invalidate how they people around you feel.
Everyone around you is hopefully also trying not to judge, to learn, to adapt and to listen. It is not your responsibility to
live their processes for them, but it is your responsibility to support the people you care about. Find them info and resources, be honest with them, give them time, and help others t to explore who they are. No matter what your experiences or skills are, your story is valuable. Tell it. Support others by supporting yourself. Be you, and help others to see you.