transgender

Ticked off

I currently work at Epsom Girls Grammar, a public school with a proud history and one that cannot sit in isolation from our brother school – Auckland Grammar (AGS). After celebrating its centenary last year, EGGS is looking to the future to consider what the next century will ‘look like’ for ‘girls education’ as will AGS for ‘boys’. Perhaps one of the starting points for any educational institution ‘looking to the future’ should be to locate its values and image, particularly ideas of ‘tradition’. By locate I mean what century these are drawn from. Which is why this article about AGS building unisex bathrooms in a bid to be more inclusive of transgender students raised my eyebrows in a way that might have given away my age more than the growing silvering of my hair.

So why the eyebrow raise? AGS has been on a journey toward the rainbow tick. The rainbow tick is a certification process to ensure work places are gender and sexual diversity inclusive. On the surface, this seems ideal and robust, having measurable outcomes sounds like progress. However, I do have some genuine questions for some of the implications of getting diversity ‘ticked off’ as compliance. I am not suggesting bathrooms are a token gesture, but I am a bit cynical about the meaningful impact these will have for becoming more ‘inclusive’. Maybe it raises some pertinent questions about the idea of single sex education.

For a start, why in the 21st century are we holding onto single sex education? The gendered ideas that excluded girls from education then ‘allowed’ them to access seem archaic yet are often still used to justify segregation. I’ve heard it first hand when EGGS staff discuss assumptions about how boys and girls learn differently .

One argument is that parents that want single sex schools and sometimes religious beliefs insist on segregation. I think there will always be a place in the private and special character schools. I wonder if a more accurate statement is one of style and culture. Discipline, hierarchy, power, punishment model and versus relational accountability and mutual respect. Neither is better, and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In their polarity form (sometimes mirrored in single sex schools but not always) they are clearly different models of learning. So I think the question of ‘who is peeing where with what plumbing’ becomes irrelevant in an school that defines it’s character on its ways of relating to other human beings. This paves the way for AGS and EGGS to drop their biological criteria for attendance in the future. These schools could then advertise these more openly and allow parents to choose what model of learning and relationships they would prefer their children-young people to be exposed to rather than ‘you have these bits – you go here’ (let’s not even go there for intersex young people…that would blow the sex/gender binary to bits).

When I discuss the idea of attending an ‘all-boys’ school with young trans guys at EGGS there is a lot of face pulling and shoulder shrugging. They seem unsure of the level of support they would feel and their sense is that the gender fluidity present around them would be lost and they would need to comply with a model of masculinity to be accepted. So providing gender neutral facilities does not ‘tick their boxes’ of an inclusive, safe, school. My suggestion for AGS (for what it’s worth) is ensuring you are providing for current trans AGS student needs. The denial of any current trans students is just as problematic for me and I would rather see energy put into ensuring mtf (male to female) trans students needs being addressed, or is that too challenging for notions of maleness and masculinity?

Yes building bathrooms is a step and I want to be hopeful about AGS’s journey toward being more open and accepting of gender and sexual diversity, and I still think EGGS has work to do (uniform especially). My experience tells me one important step for students is to have a support/social group up and running – supported by the principal, student leaders and to have ongoing, genuine consultation happening of the queer AGS/EGGS community – including parents.

Redefining men and masculinity in the 21st Century is potentially the greatest and most challenging building project – the blueprints are all there but if people are determined to keep with the traditional bricks and mortar approach then those bathrooms will be about as inclusive as saying ‘we have ramps so we are inclusive of disabilities’ and I’m not even sure if AGS has ramps.

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Fabricated fear

I think I have found the impasse of single sex education in New Zealand. There is a piece of fabric that is commonly known as pants that seems to send some single sex (girls) schools into a hysteria over gender. This piece of clothing has been worn by women for a long time, yet girls schools in the 21st century maintain skirts and culottes and tunics (WTF…seriously…) as the only way for young ‘women’ to be recognised in public as belonging to a ‘girls school’.

I have already expressed my frustration with an open letter to secondary principals, but this one is particularly for girls schools. I thought feminism (in all its fraught, contested and colonised ways) enabled women to express a freedom of embodiment that was not reduced to a singular way of being female that is ‘feminine’ via dressing in coded uniforms, effectively cancelling out feminism. All this talk about empowering women while disabling their freedom to be uniquely powerful with their individuality. The paranoia about the public perception of ‘girls in pants’.

If young women are questioning their gender identity or expression at a girls school, are they ‘betraying feminism’? Do trans guys at girls schools represent some sort of confused status of ‘growing strong young women’? Does the public image of a school outweigh the mental health of transguys – who might be experiencing extreme dysphoria, anxiety, depression and possibly feel suicidal? How is that schools can give medical dispensation for students undergoing other forms of medical treatment to wear modified uniforms yet transguys cant wear pants to help them feel safe, secure and relieve the anxiety of the dysphoria that is exacerbated by being forced into femininity!

What is the point of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) if the ‘universe’ it proclaims to design for ignores the margins, or pretends they don’t go out that far here (i.e. but there are no transgender students here).

Seriously – denying young people the right to feel comfortable and safe in their own bodies sickens me. It is an institutional form of abuse I am tired of hearing wrapped up in rhetoric around community consultation, and tradition. I’m tired and fed up with platitudes of caring about student well-being and requiring them to be exposed to a dis-ease infested environment. I sometimes wonder if the 21st century fell out of the spacetime continuum and they had to pick up something to replace it so we got bits of the 20th up until about 1950 because I’m not seeing a lot of shift in schools towards freedom of individuality – but the complete opposite.

So if you are a doctor or medical professional who is supporting a young trans guy attending an all girls school, please write them a medical certificate that reads – ‘administer systemic change to your schools uniform policy, but in the mean time give this student pants’ – wear daily, wash regularly.

Open Letter To Secondary School Principals

Dear school leader,

I have been working in schools for 20 years. I am also a product of the New Zealand school system. I am also proud to work with young people in the 21st century. I’m aware of the challenges of change, of change that is occurring rapidly and the desire to produce the best possible outcomes for those in our institutions.

The desire to move with the times in regard to future oriented/focussed education has seen modern learning environments and the integration of technology to grasp the new and complex ways of working and creating‘ ‘confident, connected, actively involved life-long learners’. Ensuring young people have a strong sense of who they, to be ‘positive in their own identity’. Therefore I ask one simple question. How can young people who are questioning their gender or sexuality experience ‘inclusion’ while they are outrightly denied opportunities to be who they are? How can New Zealand Secondary Schools call themselves ‘non-discriminatory’ when their very practices are designed to enforce discrimination, in order to maintain a sense of school identity? I’m confused, and I don’t think it’s a phase.

While it seems that MLE’s work hard to break down physical and pedagogical barriers there appears to be a counter move to maintain traditional ideas of gender. We have inherited a legacy of ‘single sex education’ from the early 20th century and these are perhaps caught between tradition and historical constructions, but is this a valid reason to maintain policies and practices that deny the existence of transgender or those students who’s sense of self falls outside prescribed normative notions of masculinity and femininity? Schools find ways to respect cultural diversity through inclusion of additions to uniform but refuse to allow students flexible options to express their gender regardless of sexuality.

If I could suggest one thing that might enable a new way of thinking, I’d invite school leaders to see this not as a moral issue, rather an opportunity to bring the concept and representation of diversity into the 21st century, it is actually about accessibility. But not just access to physical space, but to social, emotional, psychological and pedagogical access to knowledge, ideas, and practices that validate their identity. Yes this is a plea to be MORE PC – to Please Consider, Providing Choice.

Please phase in uniform choice and phase out outdated assumptions that require male and female bodies to be clearly identified by separate uniforms. Gender inclusive practices go beyond bathrooms and changing facilities (but these are still needed), staff training around use of language that helps young trans, gender and sexually diverse people (including staff) feel acknowledged needs to be part of ongoing professional development.

There are new sexuality guidelines for school, please do not ignore them or hope that ‘common sense’ will suffice, otherwise, schools rely on sense informed by fear, myths, and misconceptions. Respect for diversity requires ‘unique sense’, careful and thoughtful consideration BUT more important, courageous action. That is, to acknowledge these students exist in your community whether visible or not. Allow groups of young people to form support groups, do not force them ‘underground’ and into the shadows, to slam the closet door shut to protect the reputation of the school, or your own. To me, this is the ultimate indicator of a school that has yet to grasp the value of a more complex, uncertain and flexible concept of diversity. I’m still waiting to see Principals encourage and endorse these groups openly. I hope I don’t have to wait for my own child to get to High School (you have 5 years to get it sorted).

As an ex health teacher and a counsellor I ask that you consider the violence inflicted by denying and invalidating at least 10% of a school population. Then consider the violence that is normalised by society through homophobic and transphobic language and ask yourself if you are satisfied ‘common sense’ is working to make schools safe for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, fa’afafine, and takataapui young people.

Finally a personal reflection question -are you leading your community into the future of diversity or the past?

Close shave

It’s something of a gender marker body hair and I’ve written about it a number of times. Facial hair and grooming is part of that with some services exclusively catering for men. I say men rather than male as in order to pass as a man publicly requires a whole body performance not just what combination of nuts and bolts make up your ‘hardware’. In such places masculinity finds a haven in being shaven. I imagine they enable a sense of relaxation and comfort and comradery. The branding and marketing and product sold is based around a gendered performance of masculinity. Being female and feminine does not fit.

So I suppose what I am wondering is why any woman would claim discrimination for being told she is not able to be employed due to her disrupting the space that is on offer. What if that female employee was previously male as in the case of Dakota Hemmingson? I’m thinking this is not so cut and dry. Transitioning from male to female comes with more than just material changes in morphology or embodied expression of gender, becoming female means to enter a new position in the social order (not withstanding other layers such as race, class, functioning). My reading of this scenario leaves me with a sense of disquiet about the polarising nature of rights and discrimination accusations and the defensive position it invites for employers. Rather than opening discussion on the complexities the standard ‘no comment’ lines or bland dismissive rhetoric passes over what could be a valuable dialogue around diversity.

But being reasonably cis gendered myself I don’t feel well qualified to speak about experiences of ‘being-becoming’ trans. There are plenty of trans men and women writers talking about the changes in social status and ways others relate to them that reveal much more of the ways society affords privilege or denies and excludes people on the basis of gender. In many ways I wish New Zealand had a version of Huffington Post rather than the cut and paste journalism of The New Zealand Herald as some of these stories might gain a bit more traction to tease out the nuances of gender and sexuality, rights and entitlements.

Of course LGBTQI people experience prejudice, harassment, bullying, and feeling accepted, respected and valued are absolutely vital for all young people on any journey on the rainbow spectrum. But while binary gendered roles exist these protected, gender defined, spaces will as well and not meeting the criteria is sometimes simply that. I hope Dakota finds her way into new employment as she clearly has valuable skills that people need not split hairs over.

Vanity (un)Fair

With Caitlyn Jenner splashed all over the news tonight and awkward references to ‘not having had surgery yet’ there seemed to be an unnecessary personalised moment of attachment to the idea of no longer having a particular attachment from one male news reader. I’m not sure what his intentions were. I don’t think he would have even registered that drawing attention to the implications of ‘having surgery’ rendered transgendered identity in that moment to losing or gaining a piece of anatomy. Even mentioning this has yet to happen somehow suggests Caitlin is not a ‘real’ woman yet.

My conversations with trans people over the last few years and especially young people beginning their own questioning and working through making sense of not fitting the pre-set mould they have been assigned, have helped me to see that focusing on the physical changes limits and diminishes the complexity and adds to the invisibility.
There are so many excuses made for not including diverse representations in collecting socially significant data such as a census. When you are not given a box to tick, or have to tick a box you do not fit that is a moment of disavowal that does as much harm as bullying, harassment or hate speech. We can expect extreme religious views to take a particular stance – that shouldn’t shock anyone really. But to be quietly denied your existence or forced to pretend that you are something you are not that is a form of identity cleansing or gendercide.

It might not seem like a big deal changing pro-nouns for those of us trucking along with the same old same old, but for the young trans people I know – asking and then using their preferred name and pronoun is like being re-cognised and real-ised. They become, they matter and when someone matters they can find a foothold on the precarious landscape of validation.

Caitlyn Jenner has done more than gain a foothold, she has thrown pointed passion and bounded with track spikes of truth over many hurdles. Well she did have a bit of a head start, who is going to ‘keep up with’ her now?