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16 year old Jamie wanted to attend his school prom in a dress. Openly gay and quite flamboyant, not a day had passed that he’d not been called a freak or faced other verbal bullying in his small Northern mining town. The BBC filmed him in the three month lead up to his first public appearance as a drag queen and produced a surprisingly touching documentary in the form of Jamie: Drag Queen at 16. While the title is somewhat reminiscent of an episode of Jeremy Kyle, the actual show presented an interesting response to Jamie’s gender expression from parents, the school and his peers.
Jamie’s mother came across as the epitome of the accepting parent; she exhibits photos of him as a toddler playing in high heels and explains how the penny dropped when she caught him secretly playing with her dresses. Not unusual behaviour for a young boy, but she obviously had a sense that Jamie’s exploration of gender would be ongoing and not ‘just a phase’. Her parenting skills are clearly and somewhat comically displayed as Jamie rather dramatically complains about his inability to apply make-up successfully, to her stoic, silent, and non-judgmental response. She says about one word to his hundred, although each word is worth a thousand to a kid who is ‘different’: ‘he’s always been like this’ and ‘just be yourself pet’. She acknowledges that she is probably the only person who truly knows Jamie and there aren’t likely to be too many mums who feel the same about their teenage sons.
Unfortunately, Jamie’s dad struggles with accepting his son’s choice to wear a dress to the prom; not exactly surprising and although the ending was a little bleak, one would hope that his dad adjusts in the same manner that many of the community do and puts Jamie’s happiness first. That, along with the school’s refusal to admit Jamie-in-a-dress to the prom, are the most disappointing and sadly, realistic aspects of the show. The downsides are far outweighed by the highlights however, as Jamie’s mum and her friend steal the show with their unwavering acceptance and explosive response to one of the few examples of bigotry. Jamie’s male classmates are also a source of delight as they attend his debut drag show, tell him he makes a ‘good looking woman’ as they gather around him for photos, then argue with the school to allow him entry to the prom. My cynical side wonders whether the cheering, welcoming, completely accepting student body have had a change of heart after learning of the film crew, who would be hard to camouflage in a small town for three months. After all, Jamie had commented that part of his motivation for donning a dress at the prom was to ‘not let them win’, so one would assume there were students sauntering around who echoed the sentiments of a parent who spelt out his disgust to the school. Regardless of how or why these young people arrived at Acceptance Alley, they were there fighting for Jamie’s right to express gender in his own way and that is an achievement in itself.
The most interesting part for us, as a charity who tackle homophobic bullying, was the clear lack of equal opportunities policy at Jamie’s school. They bowed to a parent’s complaint of disgust and banned Jamie, then counter-wise, succumbed to students’ demands to allow him entry. Good senior management teams will respond not to the cries of those who yell the loudest, but to their own pre-defined policies which are in place to protect all students. The school’s reaction to Jamie’s desire to wear a dress was a tad bizarre: ‘we want equal attention for all students on prom night’. If I were a head teacher, how much attention each student received on prom night would be pretty low on my list of priorities. Making sure nobody vomits in front of the governors, loses their virginity on school property or spray paints a giant penis on the tennis courts would be of greater concern. Additionally, it would be my job to provide protection for any young people within the year group who might struggle with a very able bodied, very westernised and very heterosexual event, after all, aren’t we supposed to live in a multi-cultural and inclusive country these days? Instead of waiting for the issue to arise, schools need to be pro-active and ensure that difference is welcomed, by providing education for their students.
Find me one school in the country, where every student conforms to stereotypical expressions of male and female – there are many, many shades of grey when it comes to masculinity and femininity; wherever a student fits along the continuum and however they choose to express themselves shouldn’t allow opportunity for bullying, nor inhibit their learning opportunities. This doesn’t mean students can forgo school uniforms or break jewellery/hair/tattoo rules, this guidance should simply be adjusted to allow for greater levels of comfort for students who don’t conform to gender stereotypes. And to those who suggest it’s political correctness gone mad, please take the time to speak to a transgender person who was forced to wear clothing they dreaded with every ounce of their being for days, months, years on end whilst at school. I hated the flowery handmade dresses my mum forced me into when I was 7, however that was simply a matter of good taste (bless her), it never made my skin crawl nor contributed to a swamp of non-acceptance which made me want to sink slowly under and give up on life.
I questioned a primary head teacher as to what he would say to parents who balked at educating their children about LGBT issues: ‘all families are welcome here and all children must be able to learn. We prevent bullying by educating kids about difference. If the parents don’t like it, they can change schools’. Now that’s what I call leadership.
See some of the work we did with that primary school: