Speaking to students and ex-students, a few needs persistently arose:
- The need for a firm, consistent policy that tackled anti-LGBTQIA+ bullying. Ofsted will check with staff and students, as well as asking SLT “whether they are aware of any instances of homophobic or transphobic language in school, whether this is recorded and how it is acted upon”. This should be an extension of the school’s anti-bullying policy. Bullying behaviours should be clearly outlined, as should the sanctions, and the policy should be widely available to staff, students and parents/carers.
- The need for non-gendered uniforms. This may mean being flexible with current guidelines, updating uniform policies, or starting from scratch entirely. Matters as simple as only boys being permitted/made to wear a tie can cause transgender students great distress. The more neutral the uniform, the better, as this allows for students who have not yet disclosed trans status to be comfortable in their attire.
- Gendered toilets and changing rooms. This should be negotiated with the student(s) in question: some students may not feel comfortable in certain bathrooms, whilst others may wish to change alone. Ideally, gender neutral bathrooms should be available, but where this is not feasible, every effort should be made to accommodate students’ needs. Note that disabled access toilets should not be counted as gender neutral for this purpose, as that removes a vital facility from those who need it.
- Gendered groups and teams: typically for PE but sometimes stretching into other subject areas. As above, the individual student(s) should be consulted on this to meet their needs and comfort. There are no laws regarding transgender students playing on single gender sports teams; though the International Olympic guidelines on this are often incorrectly applied to academic settings.
Furthermore, according to the Equalities Act 2010, single gender schools are permitted to have students who have/are undergoing transition without affecting status of school: in much the same way that, for example, a girls’ school offering an engineering GCSE could accept a few boys whose main schools did not provide that subject.
A note of caution from Allie: do not do this grudgingly:
As a student teacher, I went to a school for a pre-interview visit and chat with the head. Whilst there, I heard a conversation about a transgender student: she had requested not to use the boy’s changing rooms or be in boys’ groups for PE. The head and PE teacher were mocking this quite freely in front of me, saying that soon ‘all the boys will be saying they’re t*****s, just to perve on the girls.’ Needless to say, I did not apply to that school!
Whilst many of the above solutions are policy driven, that’s not to say that classroom teachers can’t make an enormous difference through relatively simple measures.
However, cissexism, heteronormativity and non-binary erasure are pervasive. As such, this needs tackling: often through very simple, yet highly effective measures.
- tackle anti-LGBTQIA+ language;
- don’t use boy/girl seating plans;
- don’t address groups as “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen”;
- don’t assume you know the gender or sexual orientation of individuals or groups, including fellow staff, and parents;
- challenge cissexism, heteronormativity and non-binary erasure;
- include LGBTQIA+ people and topics in your lessons;
- use display space to promote LGBTQIA+ inclusion;
- respect names and pronouns, and ensure visiting staff have the resources to do likewise;
- consider setting up peer mentoring and/or supportive, safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ students;
- ensure students have access to diverse and representative reading materials.
Challenge your language
If in doubt as to whether your language is cissexist, heteronormative or non-binary erasing, ask yourself if what you are saying works on the assumptions that:
a. only men and women exist;
b. that all men have a penis and testes, and all women have a vulva, vagina, uterus and ovaries;
c. that all partnerships are (cis) man and (cis) woman.
If the answer to any of the above is ‘yes’, you need to change your language to counteract these assumptions.
A further common error (even seen on LGBTQIA+ Pride websites!) is “LGBTQIA+ or straight” – erasing heterosexual transgender people.
Speaking to trans youth and former students, enforced boy/girl seating plans, pairs or groupings were problematic, in particular for those who are or were not open about their trans status, whose teachers were unsupportive, and non-binary students.
Every time we’re told something like, ‘two boys, two girls’ in a group, I know it means I have to pretend I’m a girl, or else get in trouble.
My school has a rule that everyone must be sat boy/girl, and it just reminds me all the time that people don’t see me right.
Another common issue is the use of binary language: addressing a class as “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen”. This also applies to meetings.
I’ve seen non-binary teens on Twitter joking about how, ‘Homework’s due next week, boys and girls’ must mean they’re exempt from the assignment. It makes me smile in meetings: surely I too must be exempt from tasks when they’re addressed to ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ (I wish!)
This also applies to single-gender schools – addressing an assembly hall as ‘boys’ or ‘gentlemen’ is bound to alienate and misgender any trans students (and remember: it is a statistical certainty that there will be transgender students in your school).
It is also good practice to remember that, in addition to your students, parents/carers may also be in same-gender partnerships – including polyamorous partnerships (simplistically: more than two people in a relationship; a form of relationship structure that can apply to people of all genders and sexual orientations). Do not make assumptions about their gender, sexuality or relationships; leave spaces in the conversation for them to share those details they feel comfortable with, and pick up on those cues.
What’s in a name?
(Quite a lot, actually)
A common misconception is that transgender people will simply go by a differently gendered version of their given name (known as a ‘dead name’ – it should be treated as such, i.e. not used). E.g. Georgina to George, Daniel to Danielle, Nicholas to Nic. Whilst this is true for a handful of trans people, it’s far more common that trans people will choose an entirely new name: be it one their parents would pick out, one with special meaning, or simply one they like the sound of.
It’s also not unusual for trans people to try out a few names until they get one that feels right (similarly, non-binary people might try out a few different pronouns). Be respectful of this, and use the name(s) you are asked to use.
If a student asks to be called a different name? Honour that. Whilst many teachers may worry that students are joking, if that is the case, they will weary of it long before you do – and you are sending an important message, that you will accept students’ names and identities unfailingly.
Non-binary people may use a range of pronouns (Allie, for example, uses xe/xem/xyr, as well as they/them/their). Some you may have heard of; others may be new to you. Ask for the constructs of them, and write them down if you think you might forget.
It’s also useful to keep updated versions of names and pronouns with your seating plans for cover staff. Some registration programmes (e-portal for one) allow you to list students’ preferred names: given that many young trans people may not have had the opportunity to change their names legally, it’s crucial to use this where possible. (It’s also good practice for all students.) This is especially true when providing cover lists (please alert your cover managers).
It’s also good practice to ask students which names and pronouns you need to use on parents’ evenings. Many young people may be out at school, but not at home.
Gender neutral names in lesson activities
Using gender neutral names in lesson examples can also be beneficial. It challenges students’ perceptions of gender and relationships, and can help tackle certain stereotypes of gender and heteronormativity. Using neutral pronouns (they/them/their) can also aid this.
For example, when giving students a scenario, from which they have to write with bias:
Jay and Kel have been best friends since primary school. When they get to secondary school, they are put in different form groups. Jay finds it hard to settle, whilst Kel makes friends easily. One day in October, Kel – distracted by a big party for Sam’s birthday – forgets about Jay’s birthday. Jay is furious, and they have a huge fight.
Write an account from one person’s perspective, showing clear bias.
Providing a list of gender neutral names can also be a useful prompt for students creating their own stories and characters.
Classroom displays are a good way of signposting that your classroom is a safe and inclusive space.
Stonewall have a range of posters to download or order – though do be aware that they currently only have posters focussing on lesbian and gay identities. Alternatively, a google image search will produce a number of apt posters (do check for permissions and common copyrights). You can also get students to create their own displays.
You can have subject-relevant LGBTQIA+ displays or posters, like this pronouns poster taken from our pronouns starter activity.
Suggestions of LGBTQIA+ inclusive fiction on a Recommended Reads display.
Or what about displays of prominent LGBTQIA+ figures relevant to your subject?
Many schools already have existing peer mentoring services: it’s well worth ensuring that they receive training on LGBTQIA+ issues and making this widely known through the school.
Some schools – and particularly FE/HE institutions – may have LGBTQIA+ clubs or societies, whilst others have ‘anyone can join’ LGBTQIA+ and supporters clubs. It’s a contentious issue. Many LGBTQIA+ people may feel that such spaces should be limited to LGBTQIA+ people only, but ‘alliance’ clubs also have certain advantages:
- they allow questioning students to join and explore their sexuality/gender in a safe space;
- they allow students to join without needing to disclose their sexuality/gender.
However, it should be clear that the group’s primary aims are to support LGBTQIA+ students; allies should not speak over LGBTQIA+ individuals or make LGBTQIA+ students feel uncomfortable.
The US based ‘Gay-Straight Alliance Network’ has many helpful guidelines for establishing an alliance club. However, the term ‘Gay-Straight Alliance’ erases non-monosexual and asexual students, as well as intersex and transgender students who wish to discuss matters of gender as well as sexuality.