Monday, April 2, 2012

Transgender students in our schools.

There is a group of students in our schools who don’t fit in. Who are they and what can we do for them? I am talking about transgender, bisexual and gay and lesbian students. Many are given a hard time, sometimes leading to depression and attempts at suicide. They are often below the radar, hiding from their their real selves. Others are more out there, but can’t cope with the attention they draw. It is easy to say that we have a responsibility to these kids, to keep them safe and allow them to learn, along with their classmates. The truth is that we have quite a large number of the above students in our schools who feel isolated and unsupported.
There are schools that have programmes that help (for example, the Peer Sexuality Support Programme) but the nature of the students who would benefit from this, sometimes precludes active involvement.
Try to put yourself for a moment in the shoes of a transgender person. The world is not designed for you. All the messages you have received from a very young age, portray heterosexuality as the norm (well it is if you take a definition that equates the majority as heterosexual). Advertising, culture, religion, fashion, all push an ideal that is far removed from your reality. How do you survive in a world where you do not belong?  Now throw in the battleground that being a teenager represents and you have a pretty powerful mix that alienates you, just at a time when you need reassurance.
By now, you may well have decided it is all a bit much. If that’s how you feel, then once again, take a moment to ‘feel’ what it’s like for a young transgender person. It is hard enough for a teenager struggling with gay or lesbian issues, at a time when the mind and body don’t always follow mainstream patterns. A transgender person will have probably worked out that they are different in a real sense of the word. For gays and lesbians there is a lot more out there, in the way of support, literature and support groups that may help with self-realization. They still have a difficult pathway, but their access to positive role models places them in a slightly less precarious position.
Take the example of ‘what toilet to use.’ I am well aware that for a transgender person, this creates some particularly difficult issues. If they are presenting as a female, then one would think that the girls’ toilets would be the best choice. Not so---- it doesn’t take long for the ‘rumour machine’ to start its nasty machinations and before long, somebody may or will complain. It is not as simple as ignoring such complaints in a school. The same would apply if the person used the boys’ toilets. Can you imagine the implications and possibilities?
We need to take the pressure off the young person. This may well involve a bit of reorganizing the options. One could have the person use the nurses’ toilets, but that is not always possible. There may be other toilets around the school that could be redesignated as ‘unisex’ toilets. As a school, we must find solutions. If this involves finding the finance to achieve this, then so be it.
What about the issue of ‘correct uniform?' Some schools have allowed transgender persons to dress as they see fit, that is as a male or female. minus of course the tendency for some students to go ‘a bit’ overboard with their make-up. That can be sensibly addressed by having policies around make-up generally; that it must be discreet and not ‘scream out at us.’ I trust schools to have the common sense to find solutions to that problem.
Schools must actively build their support structures for all students as part of their ‘school-wide policies.’ For too long however, the issue of transgender, gay, lesbian and bisexual students has been pushed into the background--- a sort of ‘ostrich in the sand approach.’  ‘Try not to think about it and maybe nothing will happen.’ Sorry---- those days should be long gone. We must help all students to reach their full potential and if that means that as institutions we face uncomfortable issue full-on, then do that we will.