What we know for sure is, with soaring hate crime rates, especially transphobic ones, across the western world fuelled by relentlessly negative press and a government in thrall to a vocal minority of ‘gender criticals,’ the real danger is not from treating trans people the way they wish to be treated.
The conclusion of the Brianna Ghey trial is a sombre end to a particularly demoralising month for trans people and allies in the UK. It followed news that the Scottish Government has confirmed it will not appeal the court ruling that said the UK Government acted lawfully in blocking the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, just short of a year after the Scottish Parliament passed it. A year after our elected politicians gave us hope and cause for celebration, passing a Bill within their competence, we’ve been hit with the stark reality that any progress made can be torpedoed at will by a hard-right UK Government hellbent on making life more difficult for minorities in their desperation to appease their base and appeal to propaganda-addled bigots.
Indeed, while Scottish trans people and allies will be feeling utterly let down by the Scottish Government’s decision not to appeal, their English counterparts have been hit, just in time for Christmas, by a more explicit attack on their dignity and safety in the form of the UK Government’s draft guidance for schools and colleges on ‘Gender Questioning children’ published by the Department for Education. Such guidance has been promised for years and the Scottish Government beat them to it in 2021 with their own ‘Supporting transgender young people in schools: guidance for Scottish schools.’ Both sets of guidance are non-statutory and both are related to how trans young people are treated at school but, other than that, they couldn’t be more different.
While there has been much criticism focusing on the legality of this guidance, including from the DfE’s own lawyers, my focus is how the language used in it frames young trans people as a problem to be handled or coped with. The difference in approach by the two governments is signalled immediately in the titles, with the Scottish Government’s centering the intent to ‘support’ and the UK’s using the euphemism of ‘gender questioning’. This may be an appropriate term if not all ‘gender questioning’ people are trans, but the document later states a general refusal to use the term ‘transgender,’ explaining that children can’t get Gender Recognition Certificates (the implication being that anyone without a GRC is not really transgender).
The bias of this guidance is further reiterated early in the foreword with reference to ‘gender identity ideology’ – a dog whistle term used by anti-trans activists to reduce the idea of treating trans people with dignity to a political belief. The foreword goes on to frame transitioning as some mysterious process, with this guidance aiming to ‘provide clarity’ to schools and colleges (rather than supporting young people).
The Cass Review (a review of gender identity services for young people, the interim report of which is used by transphobes frequently to ‘prove’ anti-trans points it doesn’t actually prove) is invoked to justify schools taking a ‘cautious approach,’ an idea that it will return to repeatedly and which erroneously implies that social transition is dangerous. In fact, we’re repeatedly told that school staff should know their pupils’ ‘biological sex’ for ‘safeguarding’ reasons which remain unclear by the end of the document. What we know for sure is, with soaring hate crime rates, especially transphobic ones, across the western world fuelled by relentlessly negative press and a government in thrall to a vocal minority of ‘gender criticals,’ the real danger is not from treating trans people the way they wish to be treated.
This twisted interpretation of ‘safeguarding’ is one of five principles the guidance is based on, two of which focus on ‘biological sex,’ the other referring to ‘legal sex’ which is a concept I fail to see the relevance of when it comes to children and young people at all, let alone how they are treated in school. One of the principles asserts there is no duty to support social transition and, while it is not stated, this seems to be the principle that the entire guidance is intended to complement.
The most tokenistic principle is that which refers to bullying. There’s nothing specific about ‘gender questioning’ children here and we see later that, in fact, this guidance is a bully’s charter. Under the pronouns section of the guidance, the bullying = bad platitude is repeated but this time it’s tempered with instructions that other young people and staff should not be ‘compelled’ to use preferred pronouns. Not only that, but it specifically clarifies that teachers should be free to use ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ to refer to a group which includes a young person who has stated their gender identity is at odds with whichever label. To be clear – this is bullying being sanctioned by the DfE.
There are more examples of the feelings of bullies, and those who disbelieve in a child’s right to their identity, being centred. Anti-trans beliefs are highlighted, needlessly, several times throughout the document. In a glossary section, a comment that many people don’t believe in ‘gender identity’ is tagged on to a definition of the term, similar to the assertion about negative impacts of social transition being included in its definition. We are even told that when a change of pronouns and name has been agreed by the school, staff and pupils should be told this ‘sensitively, without implying contested views around gender identity are fact’ and that religious and other beliefs that conflict with the changes ‘must be respected.’ I have yet to see any religious scripture or set of guiding principles that specifies anything about what we call another person. I do not believe there is any religious belief that is relevant here and the ‘other’ clearly refers to those who might call themselves ‘gender critical’ and those who are just plain transphobes. I fail to see why such beliefs should be prioritised over a young person’s right to be called what they wish but it’s clearly the intent of this document to confirm this.
The other idea, antithetical to supporting LGBT+ youth, that is pushed is that children and young people should be outed to their parents by default. In her tweets introducing the guidance, Kemi Badenoch said, ‘no one loves children more than their parents.’ Of course, for the vast majority this may well be true but, setting aside the fact that a high proportion of LGBT+ young people are disowned and abused by their family, so what? Why should the amount someone loves them dictate how much confidentiality a young person is entitled to? I understand and sympathise with this belief that parents should know everything about their children. I know my brother and sister want to know about anything that might affect my nieces and nephew, and I’d want them to know too. But I also know that it’s important to respect their privacy and trust that they will tell their parents about anything troubling them when they are ready.
A child confiding in a professional, instead of their parents, should not be viewed as a great affront or judgement of parenting. Sometimes it’s just easier for a young person to share something significant with someone that bit removed from their personal life. The default cannot be for this then to be passed on because doing so destroys any trust the young person might have in adults they confide in. We come up against this in relation to other issues. Some of my colleagues in the past have expressed discomfort at, for example, not telling parents about every instance of self-harm even though our training makes clear that confidentiality should be respected unless it would directly put the young person at risk. The rationale is that if trust is lost then, not only will they not share with parents, the young person will simply not talk to anyone.
In the same section, there are some instructions I find baffling and quite concerning. We’re told that if a child comes out to us, we should consult with SENCO or SEND (the English equivalent to Support for Learning) as if being trans is a learning disability. We’re also asked to consider ‘interaction with a child’s sexual orientation’ and I’m not sure how on earth we’re supposed to know that unless we ask them, which would be contradictory to other messages discouraging discussing such matters. The reason for considering sexual orientation is the myth of ‘transing away the gay’ (the idea that gay people are being told they’re actually trans because, laughably, it’s claimed that they might escape homophobia that way).
This notion is based on nothing but a poor taste joke made by a Tavistock Gender Identity Clinic staff member and then bolstered by a wave of confirmation bias from armchair ‘researchers’ to the extent that it’s now presumed fact among anti-trans activists and repeated in government guidance. The Cass Review is cited again as if it backs up the theory. However, Cass simply states that some people claim it’s happening and, conversely, some claim trans people are encouraged to identify as gay instead. Neither of these claims was investigated further for the Interim Cass Review.
The most ridiculous section of guidance is that on uniform, in which the lawfulness of discrimination by sex in this respect is reiterated. In common with the spirit of the entire document, the point of this section is that ‘gender questioning’ children can still be forced to wear items of clothing that others don’t have to wear, or are not allowed to wear items of clothing that others are. I think this is particularly cruel. Almost a decade ago, I worked in a school with a very traditional attitude towards uniform where girls had to wear skirts all year round, while boys wore trousers with the option of shorts in summer. One young person, who this DfE guidance would have seen forced to wear a skirt, told staff about the severe psychological impact it had on him to wear a skirt when he did not see himself as a girl. The school realised that this young man should not have had to go to such lengths when he didn’t want to come out at that stage and, subsequently, the uniform policy was changed to allow all pupils to wear trousers without the requirement of special dispensation, a move that this guidance would discourage. The section finishes with the unnecessary statement telling us we shouldn’t assume a child rebelling against expectations of their sex is on a path to transition. Of course that’s true and surely justification for not having gendered uniforms.
There’s more to the guidance with sections on single sex spaces and sports, subjects we’ve heard about ad nauseam from people who don’t actually understand them. I won’t go into detail as it’s more of the same, a particularly salient example is how we are still urged to consider the safety of others in the event that a trans young person might be offered a lockable individual cubicle with an internal washbasin! And that sums up what the whole thing stinks of – pandering to transphobes who have worked tirelessly to persuade us that trans people are a danger.
The ‘musts’ in this document are all already covered by other pieces of legislation and guidance, while the ‘shoulds’ are based on nothing but assertions informed by the opinion of anti-trans groups, which begs the question – who is this for? Schools have been effectively supporting trans youth for years, with the exception of those led by people who simply don’t want to. Those who have supposedly been requesting this advice simply don’t want to support these young people. They want permission to deny transgender reality and prioritise the comfort of others. This document grants it. The tragic reality is aso that it also shows those potential voters who have been taken in by the Tories’ culture war on ‘wokery’ that they mean business. Where the Scottish guidance explains how we ‘support’ trans youth, this cruel, shamefully ill-timed equivalent not only tells us we don’t have to, it encourages us not to.
Damien Donnelly @Mr DDonnelly
Teacher /Trade Unionist