Gender-conforming in schools

When Jeremy Bem, aged 4, went to school wearing hair slides, a boy in his class hounded him, saying only girls wear those. His mother, a psychologist, reports that eventually he was driven to show off his penis to prove his maleness. The other said, “Everyone has a penis. Only girls wear barrettes.”

If schools can widen the space in which young people feel comfortable in their non‑conformity, and all gender expressions are accepted then it may become clear that transition is not the only answer for all. So says the Transgender Trend resource pack for schools, condemned by Stonewall as a deeply damaging document, packed with factually inaccurate content. Not only does it fail to reflect the real experiences of trans young people, it actively encourages schools to take steps that risk them falling foul of their legal duties and duty of care to pupils. I agree with Transgender Trend, so far; enforcement of gender in schools tortures pupils, and medical transition with hormones and surgery should not be the only response.

Jeremy was quite sure he was a boy, and possibly did not wear hair clasps ever after. The bullying would restrict his choices; I hope he felt empowered to choose as he wished, hair in clasps or loose, long or short, barrettes pink and sparkly or a rich, restrained maroon- symbols of masculinity or femininity which should both be his birthright, for we are all a rich mix of both. It would be worrying if a boy child one day wore barrettes and the next was told he was trans, but what happens instead is children having to work hard for it to be accepted that they are trans; and then they may be referred to specialists.

Children should be able to play with the signifiers of gender, of both genders if they wish, and play differently on different days. There is no characteristic or quality of one sex which the other does not exhibit, and which is not equally good in both. Moulding into gender harms everyone. I am completely with TT’s aim To create a culture of respect for ‘difference’ which allows children to reject the gender stereotypes for their sex but am unsure of the second half- without feeling they must also reject their bodies in order to be their ‘authentic selves’. Why would an AMAB child say s/he was a girl? Is it just because of gender stereotypes, or is there something else?

Kate, now in her late twenties who acquired testosterone illegally and injected it for a year while at university, writes, I know now that my belief I was transgender was largely due to internalised misogyny and homophobia. Once I realised the truth, my dysphoria all but disappeared and I feel much happier in myself. To me that illustrates the difficulty of believing what gender-variant people say, either those who transition happily or who revert. We are under the pressure of gender. There are many “reasons” we could adopt for transitioning or detransitioning, which are rather verbal formulations or rationalisations. I wanted to, more than anything else in the world. And, I found it did not solve my problems. We want people to be simply trans or not-trans, but we change our minds. Trans is a choice, not a state: we transition because we decide to, not because we are innately, truly trans.

So I am with TT’s set of suggestions for stamping out gender enforcement, “broadening gender expectations and relaxing rules”. Accept children’s non-stereotypical behaviour, praise a girl for being brave, compliment a boy on his gentleness; make uniform and hair length rules unisex; the real challenge comes in this: Encourage questioning and critical thinking around cultural messages and
societal expectations. That frees children to be themselves, but not particularly to fit society. Schools are often more conservative than that.

Encourage questioning, and people will defy crude pigeonholes. A conservative might seamlessly adopt trans into the conservative culture, saying, we have this way to (partial) acceptance for people like you. You adopt the way forward suggested by your elders and betters. Or, trans is liberal, where individuals find our true selves, against social pressure to conform to gender. Can we not agree that the gender stereotypes are harmful to individuals, and should be challenged?

(c) Paisley Museum and Art Galleries, Renfrewshire Council Collections, Including Collections Associated with the Paisley Art Institute; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

7 thoughts on “Gender-conforming in schools

    • I am sorry, Jim, I don’t get your reference.

      I hate the idea of an “opposite” sex. There is an “other” sex, there are two sexes. Not a man does not mean therefore a woman. Fortunately, ability to empathise, or emote, or co-operate rather than dominate does not mean not a man.


    • I did not say that she was surprised, nor did the book where I got the story. There are other details which make the story worth telling, but the one that piqued my interest was that the teaser did not know about anatomy, but still had a definite rule about barrettes, an Americanism which was new to me. I feel children should go, “Oh, OK” when seeing something they are not used to, unless it is clearly threatening.

      Why should a boy not wear hair slides? Is it just practical- he will be teased- or is there some moral reason?


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