(A co-authored blog to respond to some really weird comments from members of the public following the publication of an article about trans students experiences at EGGS)
So – I checked in with the guys and they were intrigued by some of the online responses to the article. Here is a sample of comments we feel obliged to highlight and offer our thoughts:
“If kids want to be cats, will schools now have to supply kitty litter etc”
If your child does want to be a cat then kitty litter would be appropriate if you are a good cat owner
Actually you are the one with issues (hiss)
“Shortland Street has a lot to answer for”
What is Shortland Street? ….seriously…what is it?
OMG you mean trans people didn’t exist before 1992!
“They are probably gender non-conforming lesbians”
Yes – I am a guy lesbian…not sure how that works but ok
Oooooh but what if we liked boys?….or cats?….(wink wink)
“They should all be in the same class”
Well – that would be a bit smelly
But that might mean allowing students to be with people of different ages – scandalous – year 13’s with year 9’s OMG – actually that doesn’t sound so bad
“I’ve traveled the world and never met a trans person”
Sorry – they should have been wearing their ‘hi I’m transgender’ badge
Because it’s always the first thing we think of telling people when they meet us to make it just that little more uncomfortable for us
Yip – there are a lot of interesting comments out there but to all you other young trans people in schools – hang in there – find your allies and if you are thinking you are a cat then you are just puurrrrrfect.
The media has done a lot of stories about trans students in schools. Usually focussed on bullying, uniforms or bathrooms. So it was great when I was approached by someone wanting to do a positive story. So here is a link to the article but here are some other observations.
I think it is hard for some people (including the media) to understand the complexity of identity, particularly when it come to gender identity in schools. These guys put themselves out there and I know some people will celebrate and respect that – I’ve had heaps of positive feedback already (keep it coming please). There will be some who just don’t get it or even want to try and get it, unfortunately they are the ones that comment online most of the time (why is that?). So I guess the observation here is I hope budding journalists (and maybe more seasoned ones) can think carefully about the ethics of consent and consider the impact of their story telling. There are ripples in communities that might not seem big but are tsunamis for others.
Ultimately it was a privilege to sit and listen and be part of a conversation with some really insightful young guys. If everyone could take a fraction of their humility and understanding the world would be a better place – thanks Alex, Ryan and David for your transparency and courage to tell it how it is. If these ripples become waves, we’ll ride them out together.
I read recently about a Dunedin intermediate that listened to its students when they said everyone should have the option to wear pants. The Principal decided why not ditch all gender rules and just have uniform options for everyone. It’s a great idea to have choice but do students really have ‘free choice’? I get that it gives girls the option to wear pants, that’s great but do guys feel just as excited to wear kilts or culottes? (does anyone get excited about culottes?) It is an important step and great that a school leader listened to students.
My experience of gender norms in schools goes way beyond uniform. I think body hair is the gender marker for most children, especially for girls. If girls have short hair at primary or intermediate they are constantly asked ‘are you a boy or a girl’ – the correct answer is ‘yes’ in case you ever get asked this question. I did all the time when I was at primary school, it never bothered me but it got a bit annoying at times, so I would just tackle harder in bull-rush or soccer and let my actions do the talking.
High schools are a bit tougher on the gender thing. I’m not sure why young adults need to be clothed in gender coded clothes for their education. I still don’t understand why pants are so scary for girls schools or why boys schools panic over guys with long hair. Because a gender ‘neutral’ option is a boys option. This is my point. Society is still basically scared of males being feminine or expressing femininity. Guys have such limited gender expression beyond masculinity in our school cultures and uniforms (including hair regulations) don’t help.
So I hope high schools start following the lead of primary and intermediates but I secretly hope we move away from uniforms completely. There are other ways to express school pride, identity and unity beyond making everyone look the same. That is not valuing diversity, it is fear of difference.
Today I talked with four different young people about some pretty big stuff. Three guys in a row were trying to figure out how to talk to family about what there were going through. One had already tried and had been told they were ‘wrong about themselves’. Another had shared parts and the third was wondering about how to ease Mum and Dad into the bigger picture.
Seeing a counsellor at school can be pretty daunting, so it was really great when one guy said ‘wassup bro’ as he left in a friendly acknowledgement to the other guy waiting to see me. It was a simple transaction of recognition that left me feeling at peace and sad that others might be out there without a support network.
The thing is I’m working at an ‘all girls’ school and these guys are all on their own unique journeys of gender identity but all of them see themselves as male. It is interesting listening to what their main needs and concerns are about school, compared to what I hear teachers and parents sometimes naming as the ‘big issues’. Sometimes they overlap but I’d like to share just a couple of simple things that have come through generally from school students. This is by no means a checklist but might help as a starting point:
- Understand that how someone identifies in terms of gender/sex does not determine their sexuality. Who people are into might change, it might not. There is no ‘formula’ for balancing it all out into some kind of common expression.
- Asking personal questions about people’s bodies and ‘parts’ and whether they are going to have (or have had) surgery is not cool – neither is trying to ‘feel’ what’s down there! Looking up horror stories online and sharing can be traumatic and upsetting. Asking what pronouns or names people prefer is a more respectful and easy way to show acceptance and support. You can also look at supporting someone to talk to a GP about options, for example, getting onto hormones that help the body change gears and become more like the preferred sex/gender.
- Recognise they are the same person so, if they come out as trans*, they do not get some other downloaded identity and show up the next day a completely different person. Keep calm and carry on what you talked about the day before – also respect their privacy – do not tell people unless they have said it’s ok – but I’d still be careful.
- Get some GOOD information – go to the RainbowYOUTH website or check out whatever local LGBT+ support services you have. Remember, if you go to overseas sites for information, it might not apply to New Zealand.
- Finally – for parents: Young people want to protect parents from hurt and upset, but they also want your support and it’s ok to be confused, not understand or not know how to respond. Something I encourage any parent to do is to notice the clues young people give about the sexuality or gender and not to dismiss them. ASK: ‘Are you questioning your sexuality?’ ‘Are you questioning your gender?’ Hugs are a good response and so are tears – hugs also allow you to talk while not looking at the person, a handy and often overlooked benefit. Get support, again RainbowYOUTH has excellent resources. Maintaining privacy is really important. In my role as a counsellor, one of the biggest differences to the well-being of young trans people is parent support, and there IS support for parents.
While big changes like bathrooms and uniform options are important, it is in the daily trans-actions we have with each other that respect and support are generated.
16-year-old transgender student Stefani Rose Muollo-Gray had a pretty rough ride at her school when she tried to use the girls bathroom. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised but I kind of imagined the bathroom policing was for countries like the USA, so I’m a bit shocked it is so close to home. She started a petition which has drawn attention to the issue.
While it’s hard to put it alongside the horrific events in Orlando, this is probably a worse kind of violence, one that society sometimes condones and supports. Policing where you pee these days seems to be the new way to ensure we stick with binary genders based on the most important part of being a human – how you excrete kidney waste. Sorry to get all anatomical but, frankly, that is what is being questioned.
I think the issue is with teacher education actually. Heck, you get one year to become a teacher at a high school – what portion is spent looking at the complexity of diversity, gender, sexuality, culture, functioning? Not much. but Principals could do more to support LGBTQI+ young people. The violence of silence is what bothers me. To not even recognise that a school they will have Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Fa’afafine, Takataapui students and teachers in them.
But Principals could do more to support LGBTQI+ young people. The violence of silence is what bothers me – to not even recognise that a school will have Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Fa’afafine, Takataapui students and teachers in them.
Events like the school ball can be places where schools become more aggressive by asking for proof of gayness. Or for young transgender people trying to attend a school that fits their gender identity having to go through psychological interrogations to prove they are who they are. A serious lack of uniform options for High School students enforces gender norms – it is like wearing a straight jacket (great pun). Schools make life unnecessarily hard for people on the rainbow spectrum. School leaders need to take the lead.
I hope Stefani reaches the 7500 signatures she needs and I hope it starts some hard conversations among other schools about how to genuinely make schools a safe place for everyone.
I’ve played sport all my life. When I push my body it hurts. I feel my muscles burn, I sweat and I breath faster. It’s also known that this is the only way to improve the functioning of some of our bodies systems, especially the cardiovascular. Schools even have subjects like PE and sport-science that focus on the knowledge that explains and teaches how to develop and train the body. Some schools even do tests of physical fitness – you know the ones – like the beep test, 12-minute run, that sort of thing. Not everyone likes being tested, but you can test yourself and get a bit of a comparison if you want to. Some people really go for it and I’ve seen students cheer their classmates on as they get to the line and turn, clearly struggling, then collapsing. Others just bail at the first sign of discomfort, and there are always a few who seem to always miss the test. That is diversity at work and it’s great.
Some schools even do tests of physical fitness – you know the ones – like the beep test, 12-minute run, that sort of thing. Not everyone likes being tested, but you can test yourself and get a bit of a comparison if you want to. Some people really go for it and I’ve seen students cheer their classmates on as they get to the line and turn, clearly struggling, then collapsing. Others just bail at the first sign of discomfort, and there are always a few who seem to always miss the test. That’s diversity at work and it’s great.
But what about ideas, thinking-fitness? How do we know and recognise when we get out of our comfort zone? Do schools provide a variety of ways to do this, develop different kinds of fitness? I’m sure they do to some degree, but sometimes I wonder if the kinds of exercises schools use are ones from the 1950’s. Sure, they’ll get you so far but they’ll mainly work big muscle groups in one way (I’m over generalising).
Similar to physical workouts, it’s also a little bit uncomfortable to go beyond what you know or think you know, or to even think in a new way! Diversity Inquiry conversations are like ‘boot camp for thinking’, but sometimes it is hard to know what your baseline fitness is. On Saturday I “divinqed” with a group of year 13 students who showed incredible determination to stay with really challenging ideas about the history of enlightenment and western thinking, their limits and what has been left in the shadows. How our understanding of identity is limited by labels and language that tends to put things into two sides. And how some of the organisations in society, that we just accept as working in people’s best interest, might not actually work for a lot of people.
Divinqing creates doubt, uncertainty and disorientation. Tt can feel like reality is crumbling. I suppose it is like when Morpheus explains The Matrix to Neo the first time, Neo ‘wants out’ because it’s overwhelming. He hangs in there and recognises that, when he is in The Matrix, he can move through it differently, in a similar way as before but he’s able to resist certain programmmes and see the ‘code’ more and more. He pushes his skills through encounters with agents and others and each time he changes. It’s not ignorance that is bliss anymore – or staying in the dark of the cave (to use Plato’s analogy) – but knowing it is not solid or set in stone is the new bliss.
Maybe divinq is a purple pill. It is certainly flexing more than just the mind. Looking forward to working out with this group again soon.
If you are at student at a secondary school in New Zealand there is a good chance you’ve been taught health. I really like the idea of Hauora – total well-being, our being is more than just our bodies. I remember health when I was at school but sex education will be forever etched in my mind as nothing but awkward and I’m pretty sure I came away with the impression that sex would result in some terrible disease or pregnancy or both. But what I also remember is not much was said about sexuality or gender. I think the words lesbian and gay were mentioned but that was it. But I think I was lucky to even hear that.
So there was nothing for anyone questioning gender, sexuality or even the idea that you might not be entirely sure. But there is now a great resource, it’s called Inside Out and it is free to download and use. It explains and sheds light on all those places some teachers never go, like intersex, transgender, bisexual and does it with simple straight up real people. If your school hasn’t found their way to this fantastic resource send the link to your teacher and ask them to take a look. Or ask rainbow youth to pass it on. Knowledge helps to reduce fear and ignorance and sometimes that is all some people need, a chance to ask questions and get a bit more understanding.
I know many young people who find who they are is never acknowledged or represented. My experience is that while sexuality (lesbian gay and to some extent bisexuality) is talked about transgender and intersex is not and we need to open up the conversations, let’s get this rainbow full spectrum.
Finally if you really want to test your teachers knowledge ask them what a gubernaculum is. It’s also a really great scrabble word.
I read somewhere that ‘movies are like the modern version of the campfire’ and I think what that means is they have become a way of telling stories about ourselves. Books do this of course but the visual aural spectacle of watching something on the big screen (and in 3D if you don’t get motion sick like me) is probably how a lot of people come across powerful themes like dystopia.
If you’re not familiar with the term, dystopia is the opposite of utopia or living in a ‘perfect world’. Typical features of dystopia are totalitarian governments with severe or extreme forms of control that are often dehumanising or degrading in some way, and sometimes include a version of environmental disaster (natural or unnatural). Dystopian themed literature exploded in the 1930’s and 40’s perhaps in response to world events at the time with some real classics emerging such as Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley and my all time favourite 1984 by George Orwell (written in 1949..clearly didn’t predict the true horror of 80’s fashion).
With The Hunger Games, Delirium and Divergent arriving to push dystopic themes into the ‘hearts’ (fluttering?) and minds of young people, it is probably important to look beyond the visuals of these productions to some of the important messages they potentially have.
I saw Divergent recently and putting aside the romantic under/overtones the messages around how societies might re-organise themselves after an apocalypse of some kind follows a familiar pattern. The first is the idea of social structures changing especially government and law. In Divergent society is organised into faction based on roles performed by people. Once you reach a certain age you are tested to see what faction your personal qualities best suit. You then get the choice to go with that or stay with your faction of birth. The risk is if you choose another faction you say goodbye to your family. The second idea is of revolution and where that comes from is resistance. In Divergent, if you are someone who’s skills, qualities and abilities fit multiple factions you get an ‘inconclusive’ result meaning you are divergent and this is a threat to the governing social structure. Divergents hide and do what they can to stay hidden as they are hunted down.
I liked the idea of some following their hearts rather than the test result, breaking free of family tradition. The idea of ‘fitting in’ versus belonging runs strongly through Divergent. It reminded me of schools in many ways and how quickly they test you to see where you fit. The factions in this case could be generalised stereotypes of ‘sporty’ ‘sciency, mathsy (geeky)’ ‘languagy’ ‘arty’ you get the idea. Gradually the lines between the factions appear to strengthen as the expectation to choose your future pathway draws nearer. Psychological tests are beginning to appear in schools as a tool to help young people ‘choose’ where they fit. Teachers and parents sit eagerly awaiting your decision, they know you, your potential but here you are secretly ‘divergent’ screaming on the inside ‘yes I’m good at sport but I love literature and chemistry, why do I have to choose?’ It isn’t an extreme leap to notice as well that families have certain hopes and expectations for where their children should belong. Walking away from that to follow what deep down you know is important to you can feel like being exiled or disowned.
We not only label people by looks we have drawn imaginary lines around knowledge and skills and forced young people to ‘fit’ and for me this resembles a socially acceptable form of dystopia. I like divergent ways of being and want to reassure any others hiding out there that you are not alone and your place is everywhere and anywhere.
Really the only difference between the topias is ‘dys-u’ how strange language is at times.
There are some things you can avoid and some you can’t. If you are in year 11 or above in a New Zealand school it’s likely you’ve experienced exams of some form. In fact parents and older generations will happily give you a version of ‘in my day…’ followed by some seriously exaggerated tale of torture about tests or exams. As a ritual and right of passage they tend to mark the end of innocence with learning. It doesn’t really matter what system you are familiar with exams mean something else. Learning becomes serious business, connected to the future – a life beyond school apparently called ‘the real world’ once the big E makes it’s presence known. In my experience both personally and working both as a teacher and counsellor I’ve noticed a growing trend to define and attach large amounts of personal identity to success (or lack of success) with exam results.
Ok sure I understand that there are things like University Entrance, competition to get into courses and a desire to do well. But I see young people mapping their entire lives out in front of them based on one result. Doing your best doesn’t seem good enough anymore and that is a bit of a worry. I don’t think anyone is to blame but I do wonder at times about a culture of success that is born out of an idea that effort = result and that anyone can be the best creates some fairly unrealistic expectations at times. Exams don’t even really test intelligence in all it’s multiple elements and dimensions. It’s a task, a game that some learn to play really well and some get through while others find the rules just don’t work for them. Ironically if you do your homework you can find plenty of examples of people who have gone onto interesting careers and paths who didn’t do all that well at school.
Getting anxious before an exam is normal and stress does strange things to your ability to remember stuff. You are not your ability to recall. That is a fact that needs to be remembered at all times. Exams do not define you or make you a worthy person. Sure some doors might seem more available if you do well but your life has meaning beyond the criteria of rank scores. You are always Excellence simply by being a unique individual.
Finally I wonder whether exams will exist in 50 years or if they will look different and reflect a new understanding of knowledge, wisdom, individuality and collectiveness. One thing I am sure of, if they are still around once the final one is done it’s time to celebrate hard out.