Schools Supporting trans kids

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As a child of the seventies, HEATHER GALLAGHER thought she was a ‘woke’ parent. Then her child came out as trans.

On Christmas Day in 2021, our teenager came out as non-binary trans. Our ‘little girl’ henceforth would be known as ‘Odi’ with the pronouns they/them. Thank you very much.

I considered myself a fairly ‘woke’ parent, but Odi’s revelation sent me into a spin. What was non-binary? Trans people were ‘other’ people, i.e. I didn’t know any. I’m ashamed to admit that I quickly found myself thinking: How on earth are we going to tell people? And: What will they think?

Since that memorable day, I’ve educated myself. I watched videos, reached out to the one parent I knew with a trans kid, and joined a Facebook group for Parents of Gender Diverse Children. I’ve learnt that non-binary covers a raft of gender experiences – feeling a mix of male and female or feeling one on some days and another on others or feeling that neither gender applies at all.

Perhaps one of the most enlightening experiences of all was watching the ground-breaking ABC ME drama series First Day. The award-winning show reveals the challenges that trans girl Hannah Bradford, played by trans actor Evie MacDonald, faces at school. The recently released second series shows Hannah starting a Pride club at her school, campaigning for non-gendered uniform choices, and dealing with countless micro-aggressions about her trans status.

I’ve learnt through Odi and their friends that the issues portrayed in the show are live issues faced every day by trans kids in Australian schools.

A recent study found most Australian teachers backed policies supporting gender diverse students but implementation across schools was limited.

Carolyn Tate, the mother of a trans boy in Year 12, says policy changes are crucial to supporting transgender school children. “The changes really need to be systemic, coming from the education department first,” she says. “Changing names and genders in the school system is complex and can be inconsistent. Being ‘dead-named’ and misgendered by teachers and admin because records can’t be changed is traumatic.”

Gender-neutral uniforms and a more proactive response to bullying are also urgently needed, says Carolyn. “We hear stories of bullied children being offered access to the school counsellor, rather than punitive action being taken against the bullies.”

A recent study in the journal Sex Education found most Australian teachers backed policies supporting gender diverse students but implementation across schools was limited. Of particular concern was that homophobic and transphobic bullying was not well addressed.

“Schools require additional support to affirm the diversity of all genders and sexualities consistently,” the study found.

Meanwhile, life for transgender school children has worsened following media coverage of anti-trans sentiment. During the federal election, former liberal candidate Katherine Deves called trans children ‘surgically mutilated’, and the debate about trans women in sport continues.

“There’s no one quick fix. Meaningful, systemic change should be implemented across the curriculum and in the culture of the school. Active help and care are what matters most.”

Transcend, a charity that supports and celebrates transgender children, says the impact has been devastating. “When people in leadership and positions of power make comments to erase our rights or access to essential services or limit our participation in sport, these attitudes filter down to the school yard bullies,” says executive officer Jeremy Wiggins.

“Trans kids have been withdrawing from school and their beloved activities such as sport. Our communities need to be supported and included in the same activities that everyone else enjoys.”

Mr Wiggins says teachers need to set standards for respect, kindness and inclusion. “A few things that a teacher can do is respect the chosen name of a trans student, use the pronouns that the trans student would like to use, and ensure that the culture in the school is supportive towards trans students,” he says.

As for Odi? They’re completing Year 12 this year. After coming out at the start of last year, they say some teachers have been more supportive than others.

“Some teachers get it straight away and support your transition from one identity to another; whereas others are more passive in their assistance,” they say.

“There’s no one quick fix. Meaningful, systemic change should be implemented across the curriculum and in the culture of the school. Active help and care are what matters most.”

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