Posts Tagged transgender

School is a drag

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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:






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Sideways Hair and Handbags

After speaking at a staff meeting on the importance of including LGBT topics in primary schools, I was invited to spend a day in one discussing different families. It was a timely reminder, in amongst all the charity red tape & future fundraising, as to how worthwhile all this is.

I visited four classes ranging in age from 6 to 11. The youngest students read ‘Spacegirl Pukes’ and looked at photos of different families, including same sex couples with children – they concluded that your family are ‘the ones that clean up your sick and buy your clothes’. They didn’t think the gender of the parents mattered. With the older classes I talked about being adopted and having two mums and two dads and six siblings; they were fascinated by this and asked both challenging and cute questions (which parents do I like more? Was I ever naughty because they weren’t my real parents?). One class of ten year olds tried to guess whether I was lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or straight. After questioning me about my hobbies and what sports I like, the vote was inconclusive (we used First Past the Post to keep it simple…). I told them I am a lesbian and that it is neither an insult, nor something to feel proud of, no more so than having blue eyes or blonde hair. None of the kids were shocked, they didn’t even giggle when anybody said the words ‘gay, lesbian or transgender’; they just accepted it and wanted to know more about my life.

It’s such an easy way to help children understand that being LGBT is just different and not worth getting worked up about; if primary school kids have honest discussions with real people at that age, our work in secondary schools would be so much easier. Even the tough boys agreed that two men who love each other should be allowed to walk down the street holding hands, just the same as anyone else. Such a heart warming experience and it moved me to tears.

Before I came into class as the ‘adopted lesbian’, the children not only learned what LGB and T stand for and how to pronounce them, but they wrote down and spoke of some of their perceptions of LGBT people. I want to share some of these gems with you:

– “gays put their hair sideways and hold hands”

– “a gay person acts like a lady and their voice changes like, ooooh”

– ‘a trans boy likes to wear girls dresses and have make up’

– ‘bisexual is a woman who likes men and women’

– ‘a gay person dresses like a man and has long hair, short hair or no hair’

– ‘gay men do pole dancing’

– “they look like ordinary people”

– ‘wear skinny jeans and act like girls’

– “lesbians have small hair”

– “if you saw a lesbian couple, one would look more male and one would look more female”

– ‘gay men might wear high hills, scurts and make up (sic)’

– “lesbians have two rings in their nose and pierce their tongues. Gay men just have earrings”

– ‘gay man has a handbag’

– “transgender is a man changing from male to female then being pregnant”

– ‘they would look like you or me. Normal’

And my personal favourite:

– ‘lesbians could have any job they wanted (if they worked hard in school and embraced all possibilities). Maybe a hairdresser’

If you are imagining a middle class, houmous-and-carrots-for-lunch, Montessori school, think again. This is a typical inner city, low socio-economic, multi ethnic school. One 7 year old spoke openly about his uncle beating up a man just for being gay. And a teacher was resistant to my presence as none of her students have LGBT families and she thought we were just ‘encouraging it’. So it’s not all plain sailing. However, with perseverance, we at least present a different point of view and allow children to make an educated decision as to whether to be accepting. My challenge to those moving onto high school was to stand up against homophobic, or in fact any, bullying, when they see it. Being adopted, being LGBT, having a particular talent or a disability are just differences and for that, the world is a richer place.


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Ma Vie en Rose

Late night telly produced a gem recently: the incredible Belgian film, Ma Vie en Rose. It’s the poignant story of a little boy who announces his desire to be a girl and the emotional battles he and his family face as a result. After they are shunned by neighbours and the father loses his job, their initial bemused acceptance turns into anger and despair, much to the pain of 7 year old Ludovic who just wants to marry Jérome (who is, unfortunately, his Dad’s boss’s son – never a good scene). Ludovic tugs at your heart strings; the confusion and mistrust is visible in his eyes as he struggles to understand why his normally loving parents begin to unravel, snarling at him, being violent with each other and worst of all, cutting his long hair as swollen tears roll down his cheeks. He just wants to be a girl. He doesn’t want to be a boy who happens to like other boys, every part of his being wants to be a girl. After triumphantly coming to the conclusion that the additional ‘X’ chromosome accidentally fell to the floor during the Tic Tac Toe game his parents played to create him, he is even more delighted to wake up with a sore tummy, as he knows that sore tummy equals period, which equals being ‘a real lady now’. He is utterly beautiful and as you watch you are willing the parents, who you also feel for, to accept him and be on his side.

It is one of the best films I have seen in terms of transgender issues and would make an ideal film study at secondary school level as it achieves the key aim of the work DRM are doing; it invokes empathy. It doesn’t explain why Ludovic wants to be a girl and nor does the viewer care. We like him and we want him to be ok. If I pitch my workshops with young people accurately, they usually like me and want me to be ok. And when I challenge them even further, perhaps they start to understand that there are others like me, LGB or T, who they don’t understand, but they just might like or at least want to be ok. Children learn empathy at a young age, but if there is none floating around their homes, they harden up; there is no room for understanding or softness when none has been afforded you. However, if teachers and other significant adults can respect, care for and simultaneously push their students’ boundaries, empathy can develop in those who have been labelled ‘no hopers’ or symbolically placed in the ‘too hard basket’. I have seen the most vehemently homophobic student go from shouting abuse to claiming that nobody should have to hide themselves or change and that society needs to be more accepting. All in the space of an hour and all because he had some grease applied to the rusty cogs of empathy which resided within him.

It is too often seen that LGB people disassociate themselves from the transgender element of our community. They come lower in the pecking order, face far worse abuse and the last thing we want to do is have our starting-to-be-socially-accepted ‘gayness’ sullied by their even weirder behaviour. At least, this is what I understand the unspoken thoughts of transphobic homosexuals to be. This is a travesty. We can not expect to take our newly granted rights, our growing social acceptance and freedom to be ourselves, and shut the gate on people whose struggle for acceptance is often greater than ours. We’ve all floundered with identity and fitting in at some point; for transgender people, this is an even greater trial. We need to help and support each other, not turn our backs and scamper off with the emergency food package while others starve behind us.

Dealing with the transgender issue can be a prickly topic in schools. How do teachers talk about this when most of us don’t understand it ourselves? It’s like this: we don’t have to understand, we just have to tolerate each other’s differences. We have to make it clear that difference is fine, in fact it is interesting. We need to encourage students to think critically, to ask why such discrimination exists against people that above all, need understanding and respect. I have taken a transgender F to M rapper into a secondary school in London. A girls faith school in a very low socio-economic area with a wide cultural mix. Although we were more than a little nervous, the outcome could not have been better. He sat on the stage, told the girls his story, answered their questions with dignity and humour, then he rapped. Not my kind of music but the girls couldn’t contain themselves. Literally. After the performance, throngs of them rushed the stage trying to kiss his hands and face – I had to restrain some of them. This was music induced hysteria at its best, but it also provided me with one of the best and most unexpected moments of my career. These girls knew this person used to a be a woman and a lesbian, then became a man and was now heterosexual; a confusing notion for most, but they simply didn’t care. He was hot and he could sing. He was a person before he was a label.

So to those who struggle with the transgender thing; whether you’re straight or LGB, challenge yourselves a little on this topic. Watch Ma Vie en Rose and remember that the person you might disassociate yourself with, or make insensitive comments about to fit in with your mates, that person is just Ludovic, but grown up. Have some empathy.


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