The gender-neutral issue in education has attracted a fair share of criticism in the media and the community, and provided rich fodder for the country’s cartoonists. We asked Advisory Officer for the Post Primary Teachers Association, Rob Willetts, to explain what it’s all about.
The right person to write the article?
By Rob Willetts
I may be the worst person in the country to be asked to write an article on the guidelines gender-neutral school uniforms and toilets that have caused some excited debate.
I am a husband of 35 years, father of three girls and poppa to 3 grandchildren, none of whom have shown any indication of straying from the traditional gender roles.
I am not a medical health specialist and, in truth, I find myself a bit bemused by GLBTI (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender/Transsexual and Intersexed) thing when I give it any thought (what the hell is cisgender?*).
But when asked the question “What is all this gender-neutral uniform rubbish?” while out with my running group, I thought at least an attempt was worth it.
So, what’s the background?
Well, a while back the Ministry of Education required schools to provide an environment which is inclusive and supportive of all students and that this includes what they call ‘gender diverse’ students.
The PPTA guidelines were written by teachers who volunteered to provide some information and advice to schools that were scratching their heads about how they might do that.
The guidelines were endorsed by organisations like the Ministry of Youth Affairs, the Human Rights Commission, the NZ School Trustees Association, the NZ MentalHealth Foundation, the Office of Commissioner for Children and the NZ Secondary Principals’ Council.
It turned out, when I had a look at the numbers, that we are not talking about one or two children. In a median sized secondary school (which is 610 students) about 7 kids are transgendered and 15 are gender-unsure.
Add in the kids who are not ‘straight’ and you have another 24 or so, and another 12 who don’t know whether they are ‘straight’ or not. That’s a couple of classes worth.
The transgender thing is a bit hard to get your head around – but these kids really are born the wrong gender – they are boys inside but girls on the outside (or vice versa).
Except, it’s more complicated than that. I’m not a doctor as I said, but the medical profession say that this is a very real thing and not something these kids just grow out of.
Just imagine what it must be like to grow up in a body of a girl and be treated as one, but to have the mind of a male! The intersex thing is easier to understand because it is kids who are born with ‘bits’ that are neither male nor female, or some of each, or all of each.
They don’t just grow out of that either. Imagine being an intersex child and being expected to pick a changing room at school and then shower and change in front of others. It hard enough for many shy students or late maturing students to do in front of their peers.
Why make a fuss about a small number of gender diverse kids?
So, we’ve got a couple of classes worth of ‘gender diverse’ kids in a median size school.
But most of the kids in that school (about 550 or so) are what my mum would have called ‘normal’, so what’s the fuss?
Well, a school is supposed to look after all the kids that go there, making them safe and teach them so that they can become well rounded, fulfilled, productive adults.
But the statistics are a shock.
GLTBI students are
~ 3 times more likely to be bullied at schools
~ 50% more likely to have been hit or physically harmed
~ 4 times more likely to show signs of depression
~ twice as likely to have self-harmed
~ 5 times more likely to have attempted suicide
~ 7 times more likely to have required treatment by a doctor or nurse for a suicide attempt.
They are also 2-3 times more likely to be misusing drugs and alcohol and 6 times more likely to have severe problems with emotions, behaviour, socialising, concentration.
One in three lesbian, gay and bisexual secondary school students have had unwanted sexual contact from another person (compared to one in five female secondary school students and one in twenty male secondary school students).
They are twice as likely to experience sexual violence. Unsurprisingly they are more likely to feel unsafe at school.
Transgender kids are
~ 4.5 times more likely to be bullied
~ twice as likely to be hit or physically harmed
~ 6 times more likely to have symptoms of depression
~ 5 times more likely to have attempted suicide
~ twice as likely to be drinking
and by the time they leave school 1 in 8 of them will have been sexually assaulted by other children.
We aren’t told the gender identity of those who commit suicide (and of course, sadly they can no longer tell us) but if the figures we do have, those who try to commit suicide, are a measure of those who ‘succeed’ then about half of the 46 teenage suicides each year may be gender diverse students.
Requiring schools to provide a safe environment for all students
Possibly not a surprise then that the Ministry formally requires schools try to ensure a safe and accepting environment for these at-risk gender-diverse students.
And what was suggested by the guidelines? In the 22 pages, half of which clarify the sources of the legal obligations schools have, there are 5 practical ideas for schools to consider:
~ good role modelling by staff (being accepting of gender diversity)
~ helping the kids network so they know they are not isolated
~ promoting active supervision and inclusive coaching to integrate and protect
~ providing choice in school uniforms
~ ensuring there is an option of safe changing rooms and toilets.
Choice in uniform (which a number of schools already give) means that there are a range of options available and students can choose which they pick: trousers, shorts, culottes, skirts, kilts, blouses, shirts etc.
The choice of uniform items is what is gender neutral – boys aren’t told they must wear ‘these’ and girls that they must wear ‘those’.
The point, as I see it, is that the children choose what they feel most comfortable and happy in. They can emphasize the gender they feel most strongly associate with or they can de-emphasize gender altogether.
Most likely 90% of the kids won’t even think about gender and will just wear what is most practical – girls often pick shorts or trousers because they are easier to run around and be active (and modest) in. Some South Island schools already have a kilt for boys as ‘dress uniform’.
The toilet issue
Providing some toilets and changing areas that are private and not designated just for boys or girls is about safety and privacy. Actually, the majority of toilets and bathrooms in the country are gender neutral.
Your toilet and bathroom at home, if they are like mine, are gender neutral. You can use them (in private) whether you are male or female.
The advice is to provide an option for all students of some private toilets or changing rooms which are not labelled male or female. Most students would be happy to keep using the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ facilities.
But GLBTI students, transgender students can safely and without drawing attention use to these alternative facilities, as could students who are comfortable with the labels but who may be sick of being bullied by other students when they go to the ‘public’ toilet or embarrassed when they change or shower in public.
These kids are different
So, that’s it really. We have a group of kids in every school that through God, genes or nature have been given a gender identity that is different to the majority.
In every other respects they are in the majority – they want to be happy, loved, successful, accepted for who they are and the gifts and talents they have.
If these were our children, grandchildren, or great grandchildren what would we want for them? The choice of what kids wear and a few private toilets, showers and changing rooms to save 20 lives a year doesn’t seem like a lot to suggest to me.
By the way – there aren’t more of these kids than there used to be – they’ve always been there in about the same proportions, gender diversity is part of the human condition. But in the past these kids were just forced to hide (or be hidden). It made the majority feel more comfortable.
* ‘cisgender’ means having the body gender that matches the gender you are inside.