If a person attending a single-sex girls school identifies as a transgender boy and wants their teachers and peers to treat them as the boy they feel themselves to be, what happens? What's their experience like, as they try to learn and achieve and create a future for themselves? What's the legal obligation from the school's perspective? How will the other girls at the school react to one of their friends asking to be called Ryan? Will the other kids' parents have anything to say on the matter? How about the press?
These are the questions we talk through with young people, their parents and carers and the staff at the schools and colleges as part of our work at Gendered Intelligence. We work mainly with young people and within or in relation to young people's settings. We also carry out arts projects for a range of ages including some intergenerational work.
When a young person or their family contacts us to ask for advice about how they might raise the issue of the gender identity with the staff at their school, college or university the first thing we do is to explain that unlike the stories that make it to the front pages of the tabloid newspapers, it's highly likely they will have a very positive and supportive experience. We try to minimise the anxiety and fear that young people have around telling other people they want to be treated as the person they feel themselves to be, rather than the girl or boy everyone thinks they are.
We worked with Kai during his first year at university, and although he had registered on day one using his birth name and ticked the 'female' box, he was keen to change his name and wanted everyone to address him using a male pronoun to match his chosen gender.
He had longer term plans to transition from female to male and this was one of the first steps. We worked with the staff at the University to help them develop their own understanding of their legal duties under the Public Sector Equality Duty and again, to help minimise their anxieties.
They were concerned that this disclosure of Kai's transgender status might lead to other students being horrible to him. We said it was more likely that they'd be very supportive. In our experience, the worries about other people's reactions can be almost entirely unfounded. There are people who might voice their prejudice and who might not respond with respect and understanding. Of course those people exist. But they are very much the minority.
When Kai told his peer group on his BA course, with a member of the Gendered Intelligence team beside him, they burst into a round of applause and came over to hug him. He told us later:
It felt amazing. Every hour I was flooded by FB [Facebook] messages, texts, emails and personal comments from people saying how much they respected me for this.
We encourage the young people who participate in our youth group or in our arts projects or to be the people that they feel themselves to be, and to pursue what it is that they wish to become. We are committed to an idea that everyone can be intelligent about gender and we are committed to taking an active role in supporting people - all people - as they develop that intelligence, or understanding of what gender is, in all its forms.
Through our arts projects and our youth group, people engage in structure and creative work in an environment that values and respects diversity and difference. Whether we're making a film, doing life-drawing workshops, devising a piece of theatre to tour to schools, learning different forms of dance or hacking into the Science Museum (click this link to our tumblr site for info on current & future projects), whether we're collaborating with Brook, the Institute of Physics, London Drawing, or Boldface productions we afford young people the respect they deserve. And it works.
I love GI sessions! They're actually what I look forward to most a lot of weeks(Trans guy, 19)
Attending GI has been an invaluable social resource... to belong and feel safe somewhere...this experience has been a huge boost for me. It's really helpful to have somewhere regular to go that focuses on gender-related topics(genderqueer person, 21)
Follow Catherine McNamara on Twitter: www.twitter.com/catherine_mc