A case reached the Royal Courts of Justice in London this week which will have repercussions for future school policies across the whole of the UK. The parents of a teenage girl who identifies as a boy are suing the school for discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 for not allowing her to wear the boys’ uniform and telling her it is ‘just a phase.’ In our view the question of girls being allowed to wear trousers at school is long overdue, but the issue here is whether the court will set a precedent obliging teachers to collude in the affirmation of all pupils’ ‘gender identities’ without question. All teachers will be affected by the decision of the judge in this case.
How does a teacher in a UK school reconcile the teaching and affirmation of ‘gender identity’ with their school’s work to challenge the restrictive gender and sex-role stereotypes children are bombarded with every day by the media and the toy industry? As playing with those very toys (the ‘wrong’ ones) is cited as evidence that a child is really the opposite sex, gender ideology is incompatible with the excellent NUT teaching resources on stereotypes. It makes biology lessons, by definition, transphobic.
For any teacher experienced in working with adolescents it becomes even more complicated. Understanding the problems and issues of identity that teenagers typically go through, together with knowledge of individual pupils’ vulnerabilities, how can a teacher in all conscience unquestioningly support an ‘identity’ which can very quickly lead to irreversible hormone treatment at this age? Any teacher who is concerned about the mental health of teenagers in their charge will be prevented from exploring further or offering sensitive support, instead they would be compelled to pretend to believe in a doctrine.
Parents know that ‘trans’ identification can be ‘just a phase’ and that an adolescent can move through different identities with no harm done, even if it is a time fraught with anxiety for parents who are watching their child getting hooked into online identity politics and Tumblr diagnoses. ‘Watchful waiting’ at this age however becomes impossible if the child’s school is compelled to reinforce daily to an adolescent girl that she is really a boy or to a boy that he is indeed a girl.
Teachers who know their pupils and are committed to helping and supporting them are put in the impossible situation of either validating an ideology they don’t believe in, or becoming a ‘bigoted transphobe’ as young people are encouraged by online activists to view anyone who does not ‘affirm’ their trans identity.
Teachers are finding themselves on the frontline of identity politics as it plays out in the real lives of young people. Increasingly they are forced to go against their better judgment, deny their knowledge of reality and collude in the betrayal of trust of teenagers who have a right to expect adults to tell them the truth.
The teachers who are as enthralled by the new gender ideology as their pupils, along with the teachers who just want to be down with the kids, will not have a problem. It is the conscientious teachers, the ones who see it as their duty to investigate and fully understand what is happening to the young people in their charge, who will find they have to compromise their principles in order to go along with it. These are our best teachers, the ones parents hope their children will be lucky enough to encounter in their school lives.
An experienced secondary school teacher who contacted us recently gave us a clear picture of what is happening now in schools even before any judgement is made in this court case and she has sent us this honest account of the reality of how ‘gender identity’ ideology is infecting her pupils and the personal dilemma this creates for her as a pastoral leader. Identifying details have been changed to protect the anonymity of this teacher for whom (as for all teachers) there is no way to speak openly about this issue. We are very grateful to her for sharing her experience with us and allowing us to publish it.
“The greatest threat that I face is ideological”
Teachers have always walked a fine line in the face of allegations and complaints. We’re taught to cover ourselves: don’t meet with students without the door being open and your conversation in clear view; don’t cover windows into the classroom; don’t drive children home unaccompanied. We edge carefully around the truth during parents’ evenings and in writing reports lest we upset or offend. There are the children that we are warned never to touch, even to break up a fight or touch their arm sympathetically as they cry.
I am a teacher of Science and Head of Year in a large secondary school. I am a biologist, but I am first a pastoral leader, a job that I relish, despite daily child protection disclosures and diminishing resources. These are testing times for education: the pressure for our learners to achieve has never been so great; we are facing an exponential rise in mental health issues and we are competing for learners’ attention against the distraction of new technologies. Despite all these challenges, after fifteen years of teaching, the greatest threat that I face is ideological.
I have always been upfront with my students that I don’t know it all but that I want to learn; that I will listen. When the first few young people – all of them born female – came to see me to tell me that they identified as non-binary or transgender, I admitted that they were ahead of me there, but that I would do my absolute best to find out what advice was available for them. I arranged visits from a youth organisation to our school to meet discretely with my students; I found a club in the community that they could attend and organised transport. I amended personal records to reflect their respective gender status; I sorted toilets, set up an LGBT support group and spoke with the management team about staff training. I also sat down and read as much as I possibly could about the issues relating to LGBT and gender. All of the above I consider to be my responsibility within my capacity of Head of Year. As a feminist, I felt that this was the very least that I could do for young people who lack agency.
However, the more that I read and the more that I spoke with the young people in my school, the more uneasy I felt. I recognised that the young people’s identification with gender was little to do with criticism of or liberation from gender; rather their talk of 71 genders felt incredibly regressive. At one point, a young person spoke to me about binding their breasts before listing for me their labels which included non-binary, pan-sexual and aromantic. They talked about cis and ‘pink and blue brains,’ ‘…never having liked girly stuff’ and ‘feeling like a man some days and on others feeling like a woman’. As they did so, I felt deeply uncomfortable; the realisation struck that, in my nodding and smiling and accommodating I had been colluding in a big fat lie, betraying my own intelligence and knowledge as a scientist, my own lived experiences as a woman (who had never really liked that girly stuff either) and the many pioneering women who had battled against constructions of gender, a fight that is so far from being won. Usually I would gently challenge a child if they’d come to me for my advice or opinion but the student seemed so self-assured, empowered by this identity and language and having rejected the person that they were not six months before.
I consider the context of my LGBT group members, all of whom were T. Without exception, every transboy or demiboy in the group had a diagnosis of Aspergers or had experienced sexual abuse. My gut-feeling also suggested that all of these children would probably ‘come out’ as lesbian in the future.
For now, I believe it is lawful to continue to teach the difference between sex and gender in biology and the PSHE lessons that I design as Head of Year to address gender-equality, gender-based violence and human rights. It is during these lessons that I see students relax, many of whom have probably been quite baffled by what they have seen on social media and amongst their peers; we can discuss the history of gender and how contemporary constructions harm people with penises and people with vaginas. Through these lessons, we get to talk about toxic masculinity and male mental health alongside the objectification and subjugation of women. For some young people, it’s the first time they’ve ever pulled any of these things apart, despite having listened to hours and hours of YouTubers state that sex is a social construct and that there are, indeed, 58 genders. No wonder they’re confused.
When I’ve mentioned the lessons that I have been delivering on gender-criticism in network meetings, I have felt as if I am considered to be very closed-minded and transphobic, and yet I do get such a fantastic response from the students in the classroom who are so relieved to have the opportunity to challenge the discourse which is so clearly at odds with what they know to be fact. I really am fearful, however, that there will be conflict between students who identify as ‘trans’ and those who have just had the ‘gender is a social construct’ lesson. Teachers are in an impossible position.
I now wonder how long I’ll be able to have these conversations with my students. I have attended a number of training sessions and conferences which have started to push the gender agenda and I notice the shifting of the language that it is recommended that I use when telling children about puberty or describe how women’s bodies are hurt because they are born female. I’ve noticed also that the resources that are being developed for teacher training and in the classroom depict girls as the enemy of all this, with bullying girls being the enemy of gender progress. I fear legislation and policies which will dictate how I support young people or educate whole classes to understand the difference between sex and gender. I’ve always promised my students and my year group that if I don’t know something I will be upfront and will go away and find out. In this case, however, I’m fearful that honesty might just cost me my job.