Uniforms, toilets, pronouns: are schools doing enough to support trans students?

Many just beginning to grapple with how to best support transgender students

“Morning, girls. Morning, Jack.”

When Jackson Lennon (20) transitioned from female to male in an all-girls Dublin Catholic secondary school, he received great support from teachers and friends. However, he also says he confronted opposition from some quarters when he asked to dress a way that was consistent with his gender identity.

“The school was strict about uniforms, and everyone had to wear long skirts. They called me out of class a lot,” says Lennon.

“I was very close to one of my teachers and he really fought for me. A few teachers were like that, but he was a teacher representative on the board of management. He was a lovely, lovely man and he saw that I was very unhappy, that I was struggling,” Lennon says.

“He asked them why I couldn’t wear trousers. At the time there was no trouser option in the school [uniform] and he helped make it happen. The other students didn’t mind what I wore.

“Their only complaint was that I got to wear warm, fluffy socks when they had to wear tights through winter. But that became a joke. Nobody cared what I wore in the end.

“My mam stood by me the whole time, taking time off work because she didn’t want me to stop going to school. She wanted me to be happy and comfortable at school. Eventually, I was allowed to wear tracksuit pants, but they looked awful with the rest of the uniform. So, my mam brought me to the shop and we got proper trousers.”

Lennon says individual teachers responded differently: some were happy to use his preferred name; others were not. Some were sensitive and supportive, others came across as petty and unkind. He feels more could have been done by management, such as a training workshop on transgender students for staff.

“They made out like they were protecting me, that I’d get bullied if I stuck out like a sore thumb,” he says.

Lennon’s school did not respond to requests for comment.

Outlier

How to respond to transgender students is an issue many Irish schools are only beginning to grapple with. Ireland is an outlier in its tendency to separate boys and girls in education. Apart from Muslim countries, Ireland has one of the highest instances of single-sex schooling in the world. This mode of organising young people proves problematic for those who don't fall easily into one of two traditional gender categories.

Change is happening, albeit unevenly. We’re more used to seeing many schoolgirls wearing trousers, a seemingly gender-neutral option. Inside school buildings, some students have the option of gender-neutral toilets and changing facilities, but not all.

Other people not accepting a child will not make the child un-trans

Contributors to a 2020 qualitative research project undertaken by University of Limerick’s school of education and Transgender Equality Network Ireland (Teni) recount instances of bullying and intimidation in single-sex toilets.

Esther, the parent of a trans boy, explained how the 15-year-old was subjected to non-physical bullying because he used the male changing room. “I think they’d thrown his stuff on the floor. I was just so upset about that.” Another child reports being physically assaulted in a single-sex toilet.

PE lessons can prove problematic in both mixed and single-sex schools. Research shows many transgender students reported that discrimination prevented them from participating in sports fully and safely.

A further study carried out by Aoife Neary and Ruari-Santiago McBride reveals the limited pre-service and in-service training for school staff around gender diversity. Staff in the study said this left them feeling anxious and ill-prepared to support their transitioning students. A minority of students confided in a staff member only to be met with an invalidating response. One child, Shane, interviewed for the study, explained that even after his parents' intervention, teachers continued to name him incorrectly, causing considerable distress.

Panic

Another child, Esme, recounting a similar experience, reported having panic attacks which led to non-attendance, impacting on her education and development. The study includes examples of indirect bullying and transphobia among staff, in line with international findings.

However, staff are also described as “helpful” and “compassionate” in the report, particularly when school leaders play a key role in educating and training the school community appropriately. Simple steps such as apologising for an error in pronoun usage make a significant difference to children’s wellbeing.

Dr Malie Coyne, a clinical psychologist, says the type of school really matters.

“I know of transgender children who have moved school because there was little inclusivity in their previous school,” she says.

“A gendered uniform is extremely difficult for these children. Having to wear a skirt when you identify as a boy can be humiliating.

“It will have an impact on their mental health and wellbeing; that’s enough of a reason to support the child. This needs to be part of the SPHE [Social Personal and Health Education] programme in schools, where transgender issues are discussed with all children.”

Coyne says it is crucially important to the wellbeing of a young person that his or her gender identity is treated with dignity, respect and fairness.

Practical decisions must be taken to reflect differences within the school community

“Other people not accepting a child will not make the child un-trans. Children [who are trans] growing up will realise they’re not comfortable in their body and it could take years for them to come to terms with that.

“Sometimes the biggest challenge can be for the child to accept it themselves. You put that on top of being a teenager when the brain is under construction and your hormones are flaring, and your body is changing, and you’ve got this fear of your body developing.

“It’s no surprise that their mental health can be impacted, which is the reason we need to support children on their journeys of identity. They have every right to be themselves.”

Voice

Parents' representatives say consultation should happen in schools so everybody has a voice. Áine Lynch of the National Parents Council Primary says: "This isn't just about gender, it's also about cultural inclusivity. Practical decisions must be taken to reflect differences within the school community. These consultations need to happen frequently so that nobody is left out."

John Curtis of the Joint Managerial Board, which supports most voluntary secondary schools, says uniforms rarely pose a problem in the sector.

“Most of the schools we work with are single-sex. Uniforms can play an important role in providing a level playing field.

“Nobody is looking over their shoulder at who has or hasn’t got the latest runners, everyone is the same. If any individual issues arise, they are dealt with and sorted out at local level. We have excellent relationships with all parties involved.”

Changing times: How some schools are adapting their policies

Toilets: Newly-built schools now have the option of gender-neutral toilets. Instead of traditional boys' and girls' toilets with urinals or cubicles in closed-off rooms, the new design is based on private cubicles that open into a public or common washbasin area.

Uniforms: More schools are moving to provide a variation in uniform policy (trousers, skirts, tracksuits, etc). Single-sex schools are increasingly offering gender-neutral options, such as trousers in all-girls' schools.

Pronouns: Schools are advised to discuss with students and their parents how they should refer to a student and day-to-day use of pronouns.

Official registers: Schools may change the name and gender of students on official databases with a gender recognition certificate, while the State Examinations Commission deals with cases individually.