Gender is a funny thing. It’s everywhere and it’s pervasive through all of our lives,  but if you’re cisgender (the opposite of transgender, as in,  your gender is the same as you were given at birth) then you’re unlikely to have ever had to think about it. That said, we are living in a time where trans identities are the hot topic and suddenly it seems like everyone is discussing trans athletes or whether trans people should use particular toilets and whether we should be helping trans kids. 

And all of this discussion, and there’s a lot of it, is missing the really important points. We shouldn’t be talking about “whether” we should support trans people but “how”?

How do we support trans children and young people at school?

Small changes can save lives

I can’t stress enough how important this is because shifting that narrative is life saving. Trans people, and especially trans youth, are at risk of harm and are dying at an alarming rate. Stonewall’s School Report (2017) found that 84% of trans young people have self harmed and 45% of trans young people have attempted to take their own life. 

Let me say that again.

Nearly half of all trans young people have attempted to take their own life.

Trans people are estimated to make up around 1% of the population. This means that there are trans people in your school, even if they aren’t out yet. I didn’t even know I was trans when I was at school and I certainly didn’t talk to anyone about the gender incongruence I felt. But even though I wasn’t aware of my gender at that point I was still internalising the messages around me that being LGBT was wrong and that there was something inherently wrong with me. This deeply impacted my mental health and I definitely could have become a statistic. 

This is why having a whole school approach to inclusivity is so important; even if you’re not aware of any young people being out as trans in your school they are still there. I didn’t have the language to know about trans identities (this was before the internet after all!) so I had no clue that I even could be trans, but I was still taking in the world as a young trans boy and not the girl that everyone assumed I was.

Thinking outside the box

Trans identities can seem confusing from the outside but really it’s very simple once you realise that not everything needs to be fixed and unmoving. We are brought up thinking that everyone is either boy or girl, man or woman and that assigned gender when you’re born can determine which box you’ll be in for the rest of your life. In reality, some people were never easy to put into a box (around 1.7% of the world are intersex which means someone whose body doesn’t align within the two binary sexes – this can include chromosomes so many people never realise they are intersex) and others, like me, started in one box but realised it didn’t fit very well. Of those, some choose to move to the other box and others realise that neither or both of the boxes work for them. The latter of these often identify as “nonbinary” because they don’t align with the binary gender boxes.

When I use the word “trans” I am including anyone who’s gender isn’t the same as they were assigned at birth and that includes nonbinary people. 

There’s lots of other words that trans pupils may use to describe their gender identity but the most important thing for staff to recognise is that there is not one right way for someone to be trans and no gender identity is more or less valid than any other and all pupils deserve to be supported in accessing and engaging with the learning environment.

Helping trans pupils access and engage with school

Trans pupils can come up against physical and social barriers to engaging in school. One of the primary physical restrictions is having safe and easy access to toilets and changing rooms. Different settings will have different ways of managing this but as a school it is your responsibility that all pupils have access to facilities and it is vital that trans pupils are supported to use spaces that they feel safe and comfortable in. 

One of the jobs of the adults working with young people, and especially young trans people, is to act as a barrier and a shield against people who are misinformed and who cause harm with their misinformation. Just as we would protect pupils from people who believe corporal punishment is the way to discipline children, we should also protect them from people who believe that pupils shouldn’t be allowed to socially transition in schools. And these things are directly comparable because both cause immediate, lasting and avoidable harm. 

Schools are in a position to not only support the young person but also the adults in their life as they go through the potentially turbulent time of transition, while often facing backlash from family members or community for supporting their child. Helping parents to act as steadfast allies for their children is a complicated role to play but your advocacy and reassurance can be the difference between a pupil having parents who feel able to actively support them or not.

Targeted prevention through flexibility

Social transition is the main component of gender transition for a young person and is the part that schools can have a big impact in. It looks different for everyone but the main aspects of it are often things like changing their name, pronouns and the way they dress and present themselves. The wonderful thing about this is that it is totally fluid and no part of it is something that can’t be undone or changed as the person discovers more about themselves. The best way to facilitate this as a school is to have school level policies in place for how to handle things like name and pronoun changes but also on an individual level being led by the young person about what they want to do and who they want to tell. This is a simple and effective way of providing targeted early prevention.

There is also the possibility of medical support for trans young people, but unlike adults there is no medical transition (hormones and surgeries). Instead there is hormone blockers, a safe medication that pauses puberty and has been used for decades for children who hit puberty too early. Much like social transition, hormone blockers don’t do any lasting changes. Everything that is done to support trans youth is done with flexibility in mind.

Changeable doesn’t mean invalid

One of the defining things about being a young person is that you get to try out different versions of yourself to see what fits. The best gift we can give trans youth is the opportunity to explore freely, without judgement and without expectation.

We live in a world that assumes cis-ness and assumes straight-ness and both of these appear static so it’s easy to assume that that’s how gender and sexuality should be. Fixed and unchanging. 

It annoyed me no end when I first came out as gay at 12 and was told it was a phase. Now, 25 years later, and I’m still annoyed that we’re telling kids that how they feel is potentially temporary and therefore less valid. 

One of the best things I’ve discovered about myself is just how fluid my gender and sexuality are. I’m never straight and never cis, but I’m also never only one thing. And every moment that I exist, every moment that I’m experiencing my gender and sexuality, they’re valid, even if they’re going to change again. 

It can be difficult in education settings to have that fluidity, but if you can find ways of allowing space for it you can literally save lives.

Practical Interventions for Trans Students

Schools or settings can provide peer led interventions such as our Wellbeing Ambassadors programme or targeted intervention such as coaching or programmes of workshops also help trans youth develop self-awareness that support wellbeing and protect against the onset of mental-ll health.

Find out More and Next Steps

As you can probably tell from this article, Jacob is passionate about supporting Trans children and young people and their families and those that work with them.  If you’d like to hear more insights from Jacob or ask specific questions, come along to the discovery workshop on 28th June 2022

All discovery workshops, past and present, are available in the Wellbeing Club content library. Come and see! There’s so much content there – and we’re adding more for you all the time – to help you support the mental health of your pupils and students.

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