In the past week pupils at St Mary Magdalen's Church of England Primary School in Accrington, Lancashire, have learned of the sudden death of their teacher, Miss Meadows. While we do not yet know the cause of death, many believe that Meadows took her own life on Tuesday afternoon. As a trans individual (formerly known as Nathan Upton) she would have been at considerable risk - a 2007 study found that "34% of adult trans people have attempted suicide" in the UK, largely as a result of societal prejudice and non-acceptance.
A Change.org petition has since been established to demand that Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Mail be fired for a heartless attack on Meadows he authored in December, entitled 'He's not only in the wrong body... he's in the wrong job'. Refusing to use her preferred pronoun, Littlejohn alleged that Meadows was selfishly projecting "his personal problems on to impressionable young children." His suggestion, and that of some parents, was that Meadows should have left the stability of a school that supported her and found employment elsewhere so as to hide her "devastating" gender history from children who "aren't equipped to compute this kind of information."
Littlejohn's claim was based on one boy's misunderstanding of transgenderism, as described by his father: "My middle boy thinks that he might wake up with a girl's brain because he was told that Mr Upton, as he got older, got a girl's brains." Kids, and adults, misunderstand things all the time - it's usually a warrant for simple clarification. Here, however, we run into the same tired old argument pedalled out in every discussion of LGBT rights - that gender and sexuality issues are too confusing and difficult for certain individuals to talk about with their kids, which somehow leads to the idea that they have a right to be sheilded from exposure to this diversity.
This father worried in another Daily Mail piece that exposure to gender transitioning in this way would be to introduce children to concepts of sexuality too early: "He's a great teacher, but my kids are too young to be told about the birds and the bees like this." In a similar vein, Littlejohn pleaded with us to "let them enjoy their childhood. They will lose their innocence soon enough."
It's unclear what threat to innocence Littlejohn here perceived. Primary school children are taught that boys and girls are different, and in this situation merely discover that people can change from one to the other. While this might be a novel idea for some, it's certainly no threat to their 'innocence' - at least any more than it is to draw a line between genders in the first place. While adults in this situation might be privately curious about the mechanics of transitioning, there's no reason to suppose their children would be. Meadows choosing to adopt a female name, grow out her hair and wear women's clothing had nothing inherently to do with 'the birds and the bees.'
We might then wonder if it was not Littlejohn 'projecting' his personal fears and prejudices on to these school kids. It seems likely that they would have become quite accustomed to Miss Meadows' new name and appearance in the months since the official transition. After all, we regularly learn to refer to teachers by new names when they marry, and we witness as they change their hairstyles or clothing choices. While an adult changing genders might be somewhat unusual, Meadows and her colleagues seemingly took great care to explain the transition in easily comprehensible and natural terms. In an email to a friend Meadows explained "I suppose the best way for me to do this would be to educate the people around me and children at school - I am a teacher after all!"
Unfortunately since December students at St Mary Magdalen's have had other lessons to learn. While staff and parents admirably treated Meadows' transition with the same weight as another teacher reducing her hours, the media reaction suggested that it was something strange and sinister - a reason for photographers to wait outside the school to catch sight of Meadows and offer to pay parents for photos; a reason to disrespect clear requests for privacy; a reason to write sensationalist articles which ignored the testimony of those parents who reacted positively.
If we are "to think of the devastating effect all this is having on those who really matter," as Littlejohn requests, it becomes clear that any damage done to these students will have been down to this histrionic handwringing. When some of those kids discover that they don't fit with gender or sexuality stereotypes they will have to decide whether they can face being true to themselves. They will look back on these three months and remember the bravery of Miss Meadows, and also what it cost her.