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 remember my Mum telling me how they used to make the girls at school kneel down to check the length of their skirts. That was in the 1950’s and times have changed – or have they?
When I read about Henderson High School enforcing the knee length uniform rule I was transported back in time for a moment. If skirts are such a problem and knees are such a distraction then why not just get rid of skirts all together?
I suspect schools want to put their fingers in their ears and go ‘nanananana I can’t hear you’ if someone tries to point out the teenagers are sexual beings. So I make a plea to young people in schools of all genders, if your school does not have choice available ask why not? Start a conversation with your health teacher about how guys and girls are similar rather than different. Challenge statements from teachers that say ‘all guys or all girls’ are like that.
Why are schools so determined to keep boys and girls so clearly defined through uniforms? What might happen if students all wore the same thing? What if ALL schools had the same uniform?! Now that is a question schools probably want to skirt around.
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.