Rural schools ‘present challenges’ for transgender students – report

Gendered nature of schools can cause stress for trans pupils, says youth group

Gendered toilets and PE and the misuse of pronouns are among issues raised by transgender activists. Photograph: iStock

Gendered toilets and PE and the misuse of pronouns are among issues raised by transgender activists. Photograph: iStock

 

Rural schools could be places of welcome and sanctuary for young transgender people and yet they present these students with some of the greatest challenges, according to new research.

A lack of awareness of trans issues among teachers and the gendered way in which school life is organised – from segregated participation in PE to school uniforms and gendered toilets – can make schools stressful for these pupils, the study by Youth Work Ireland (YWI) found.

The organisation, which engages with more than 100,000 young people a week, has used the research to compile a resource, Young and Trans in Rural Ireland, a booklet that will be made available to educators and schools.

Though large-scale research on young trans people’s lives has not been carried out in Ireland, US studies show as many as 75 per cent do not feel safe at school. They are found to be more likely to leave school early than their peers and those that do stay perform less well due to stress and mental health issues.

Ash Knox (17), a trans woman living in Co Laois, was among 15 young people consulted for the Youth Work Ireland project
Ash Knox (17), a trans woman living in Co Laois, was among 15 young people consulted for the Youth Work Ireland project

‘Schools need to improve awareness’

Ash Knox (17) a trans woman living in Co Laois was among 15 young people who were consulted for the YWI project.

She came out to her family last year and says they “could not be more supportive”. However, she said “they felt at first like they were losing a child. They do worry for me because they know life for trans people can be difficult”.

“I’m not out to everyone though and I present myself more as androgynous. I do hope eventually to present as I am, as female, but for now I want to just get my Leaving Certificate done.”

Julie James (20) from Co Kildare also came out to her family as trans when she was 16.

“It took them a while to get used to it but they are totally supportive. At the time I was living in a little village and I was very anxious. I joined an LGBT group in Kildare and I felt very welcome there, gained a lot of confidence.

“I think Ireland is very open-minded but I definitely feel schools need to improve their awareness of transgender issues. There needs to be training for teachers on trans issues and the availability of gender-neutral toilets are so necessary for everyone, not just trans people, to feel safe.”

Transgender activist Julie James (20) from Co Kildare. Photograph: Tommy Clancy
Transgender activist Julie James (20) from Co Kildare. Photograph: Tommy Clancy

Pronouns

Among the issues schools need to grapple with to ensure trans students can thrive are the compulsory nature of some aspects of uniforms, gender segregation in PE, providing gender-neutral toilets in additions to boys’ and girls’ and the sometimes transphobic attitudes – whether conscious or not – of teachers and school administrators.

The other issues raised by the two women is pronouns – whether people are referred to as “he”, “she”, “they”, or “him”, “her” “them” . They both expressed a wish that people would educate themselves on these.

“Don’t make assumptions about a person’s gender based on how they present physically,” the booklet urges. “Be an ally – listen, be open, don’t judge. Remember it’s harder for the trans person than it is for you.”

Terms for trans allies to know

  • Transgender – A person whose gender identity is opposite to the sex assigned to them at birth. They may or may not take hormones or have surgery to transition to their identified gender.
  • Transsexual – This is an older term, largely out of use among young trans people, meaning much the same as transgender, though sometimes used specifically to refer to people who have transitioned through hormones and/or surgery.
  • Trans woman – a person who was assigned male at birth but who identifies as female.
  • Trans man – a person assigned female at birth who identifies as male.
  • Cis, or cis gender – A person who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.
  • Gender fluid – Gender-fluid people experience different gender identities at different times and may switch to multiple genders, or none at all.