In her groundbreaking work, Histories of the Transgender Child, Jules Gill-Peterson shares the story of Val, a trans woman who grew up in rural America in the 1930s. She lived, went to school and was accepted as a girl from as far back as she could remember.
Sylvia Rivera, who co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) dedicated to supporting homeless queer and trans youth, started wearing makeup at school aged 10 and shortly after, she fled home unhappy with the lack of acceptance of her gender nonconformity offered by her grandmother and her community.
She found kinship in the many trans and queer street youths in New York, including her lifelong friend Marsha P Johnson, many of whom had also been estranged from their families and continued to face transphobic, homophobic, and racist discrimination.
These stories, and many others, show that trans children are not new. While politicians and sections of the media would have you believe being trans is a modern phenomenon, or a “contagion” spreading through schools, stories of what we now would recognise as trans children go back over a century.
And even in the most oppressive circumstances, trans youth have found space to affirm one another and celebrate themselves. It is for this reason that I believe the UK government’s attempts to prevent trans young people from being their authentic selves will fail.
According to leaked plans in The Sun newspaper, schools will be encouraged to only support students to change their name, pronouns or uniform with the explicit consent of their parents, while headteachers will have the power to veto any transition due to the “mental effects” on other children.
It has also been reported that trans youth may be forcibly outed to their parents if they disclose their identity to a teacher and will be banned from participating in competitive sport.
The idea that the mere presence and recognition of trans children in the classroom could harm young people is a stark reminder of the Section 28 legislation introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1988 which banned the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools.
In an infamous speech to Tory conference, Thatcher argued that children must not be “taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay,” mirroring concerns expressed in a recent letter from minister for women and equalities, Kemi Badenoch, who suggested schools should not be teaching “contested” ideas such as a child not identifying with the gender they were assigned at birth.
“This government’s approach to trans children will not stop children from being trans.”
Section 28 unleashed rampant homophobia in classrooms and traumatised a generation of LGBTQ+ people, but it didn’t stop them being LGBTQ+. Similarly, this government’s approach to trans children will not stop children from being trans. What it will do is embolden transphobic attitudes, make teachers fearful of tackling transphobic bullying and could ultimately lead to trans youth missing out on an education. For those schools that enforce the guidance, it risks becoming, in effect, a new Section 28.
A 2017 report by Stonewal found that two-thirds of trans pupils are bullied, while LGBTQ+ youth charity Just Like Us found this year that less than half of UK pupils have had little or no positive messaging about being LGBTQ+ at their school.
In May this year, a member of Mermaids’ Youth Advisory Panel spoke to the UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity about how school was not a safe place for him and other trans youth, experiences reflected in the UN’s report on LGBTQ+ rights in the UK.
Claims this government wants to protect children ring hollow, given their inaction on the multitude of issues putting young people at risk. They appear to be pushing ahead with this dangerous approach when it could be focusing on the many real challenges to the safety of young people – child poverty continues to rise following cuts to benefit payments, chronic underfunding has created a crisis in support for children with special educational needs, and Black students are six times more likely to be subjected to humiliating strip searches.
Teachers and schools need sensitive and empathetic guidance that enables them to support trans students, and create a safe and supportive environment to explore their gender expression, especially when they could risk rejection and in some cases homelessness, should this information be shared with their parents.
Such concerns are particularly profound amongst children from low-income families, trans youth of colour and those with disabilities who rely more heavily on their parent’s care. Sylvia Rivera’s lifelong activism teaches us that the very nature of the struggle against oppression is intersectional, as she fought for the liberation of queer people of colour.
At Mermaids, we work closely with teachers and parents and young people who love and affirm trans youth. Resilience, solidarity and self-knowledge in the face of adversity have always defined the history of the trans community – and nothing the government can do will take that away.
Tammy Hymas (she/her) is the policy and campaign manager at Mermaids.
You can donate to Mermaids, the trans youth charity, here.
Help and support:
- The Gender Trust supports anyone affected by gender identity | 01527 894 838
- Mermaids offers information, support, friendship and shared experiences for young people with gender identity issues | 0208 1234819
- LGBT Youth Scotland is the largest youth and community-based organisation for LGBT people in Scotland. Text 07786 202 370
- Gires provides information for trans people, their families and professionals who care for them | 01372 801554
- Depend provides support, advice and information for anyone who knows, or is related to, a transsexual person in the UK