By Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston
Updated / Wednesday, 21 June 2021 12:39
When I deliver workshops for school staff on gender diversity and transgender inclusion in the classroom, I begin with an exercise I call “Unpacking the Gender Backpack.”
I derived the premise for the exercise from an essay titled “My Genderqueer Backpack” by genderqueer activist, writer, and educator Melissa L. Welter (who takes the neo-pronouns “ze/zir”). In this essay, ze discuss zir experience of encountering and embracing the label “genderqueer” and rethinking zir gender identity as a result. To explain this experience, ze outline the contents of zir “Genderqueer Backpack” for the reader, describing all the things ze have acquired, sought out, and discarded in the course of zir “gender journey”:
“I experimented, picking up some gender behaviours and discarding others. As I unpacked what made up gender for me, it allowed me to repack exactly what I wanted to include moving forward. Much of what I’ve packed is from (and for) being a woman. I spent the most time identifying as a woman, so this section is full. Next, there are a few select pieces from manhood, things I’ve shopped for rather carefully. […] Finally, there are some speciality pieces I’ve obtained from being genderqueer.”
Based on this, I ask participants in my workshops what they would find if they were to unpack their own gender backpacks? Which items do they cherish? Which items do they, perhaps, resent? Which would they repack with care? Which might they discard if they could? The items listed in the resulting discussion attest to the diversity of gender identity and the means through we give it expression.
The contents of Welter’s “genderqueer backpack”
As a non-binary trans person, Welter’s description of zir gender journey resonates strongly with my own experience of coming to understand and take ownership of my gender identity (the gender(s) I feel myself to be) and my gender expression (the way I “perform” or present my gender to the world, through language, appearance, clothing, gait, etc). As someone who has worked in both secondary and third-level education, I feel that the “Gender Backpack” is a particularly apt analogy for thinking about the ways in which schools shape young people’s experience, understanding, and knowledge of gender.
We all take our backpack with us to school, and, more than almost any other institution, school determines the contents of our backpack: mandating certain items, banning others, obliging us to pack these items in particular ways, telling us that certain items can only be taken out at certain times. Consciously or unconsciously, schools are where many of us fill our gender backpacks (or have them filled for us) and, as a result, schools play a huge role in determining whether we will experience those backpacks as an enriching resource or an uncomfortable burden as we move through our lives. Being obliged to spend the rest of your life carrying a backpack full of things that you neither want nor need can be exhausting and painful, and can leave you ill-equipped for the challenges and opportunities life presents.
In this sense, as in so many others, school staff are custodians of the possible.
In every classroom, staff-room, corridor, and play-ground they occupy, school staff actively and passively determine the limits of what is thinkable, sayable, and liveable, both within the confines of their school, and in the world for which they are preparing pupils.
If young people are told that there are only two valid genders and that their boundaries are fixed and stable, that certain forms of self-presentation, emotion, or behaviour are only appropriate for people of a particular gender, or that people whose gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth are unnatural, morally suspect, and condemned to lead sad and difficult lives, then their sense of the possible will atrophy and diminish.
If they are told that gender is a rich and varied spectrum which they are free to explore, that a person’s experience of gender and the way they make it legible to the world can fluctuate and change across time, and that the lives of trans and gender-diverse people are as rich, varied, and valuable as anyone else’s, then their sense of the possible will grow and expand.
A less binary model of gender diversity
As custodians of the possible, it is vitally important that school staff be proactive rather than reactive in their approach to trans inclusion and gender diversity. Too often in education we are subject to institutional inertia. In the face of the ever increasing demands on the time, attention, and energy of school staff, it can be easy to adhere uncritically to established policies until a situation presents itself which exposes their deficiencies or lacunae. These moments are often experienced as crises, which generate incoherent responses or result in stop-gap measures that have little lasting impact. When the situation in question is a student coming out as trans, experiencing gender dysphoria, or wishing to explore their gender identity and expression in ways that do not conform to a male/female binary, such a response can leave the student feeling that they are the “problem” and that their desire to live authentically is the source of a “crisis.” As a result, a moment that should bring with it feelings of relief, affirmation, and solidarity instead becomes a moment of distress, stigma, and isolation.
By unthinkingly treating binary, cis-gender identity as an implicit norm from which any form of gender diversity would be a deviation, such institutional inertia actively serves to discourage students who may be uncomfortable with their assigned-at-birth gender from ever discussing those feelings or seeking support. As a result, rather than supporting and encouraging the growth and development of trans and gender-diverse young people, schools become complicit in a process of closeting that obliges those young people to choose between receiving an education and preserving their physical, emotional, and social well-being.
For these reasons, it is absolutely vital for schools and their staff to be proactive and co-ordinated in their effort to support and include trans and gender-diverse young. In their 2020 report on The Post-primary School Experiences of Transgender and Gender Diverse Youth in Ireland, TENI (Transgender Equality Network Ireland) and the University of Limerick make a number of key recommendations about the forms this proactive approach should take:
- Increase the inclusiveness of the curriculum, both by incorporating discussion of gender identity and expression into SPHE and RSE syllabi across junior and senior cycle, and by exploring gender diversity in subjects such as English Literature, History, Society and Politics, Religious Education, and Biology.
- Affirm trans and gender-diverse students’ self-determined names and pronouns, ensure that staff and students are informed of name and pronoun changes (with the student’s consent), and ensure that all administrative records are updated to reflect the change in a timely manner.
- Adopt a non-restrictive uniform policy, limit the overtly gendered dimensions of school uniform, and provide a gender-neutral uniform option.
- Provide gender-neutral facilities, including gender-neutral, single-stall bathrooms at multiple locations across the school, and gender-neutral, single-stall changing rooms close to sports facilities.
- Improve staff education by providing full-staff training around gender diversity (particularly in relation to the importance of pronouns, non-binary identities, and how to engage with trans and gender-diverse students), preferably facilitated by a trans or gender-diverse person, with input from a trans or gender-diverse young person.
- Challenge transphobic bullying, explicitly include transphobic bullying in the school’s anti-bullying policy, respond to transphobic incidents in a robust manner and meaningfully include trans and gender-diverse students in this process, and participate in anti-bullying awareness campaigns, such as Stand Up Awareness Week.
- Establish LGBTQIA+ Schools Clubs, with staff actively involved in supporting and facilitating the group to develop a meaningful programme of activities (e.g. co-ordinating Pride, LGBTQIA+ History Month, and / or Stand Up Awareness Week activities).
- Engage proactively with trans and gender-diverse students and their parents / guardians by meeting periodically to ensure any issues or challenges are dealt with in a timely manner and without the student having to come forward to complain, and by ensuring that the student and their parents / guardians have a designated member of staff with whom the know they can regularly liaise.
By undertaking these changes, and drawing upon the expertise and resources of organisations such as TENI, BeLongTo, and LGBT Ireland, schools can ensure that their pupils will emerge from them with a gender backpack that will never be a burden to them. By picking up some of the texts I recommend below, school staff can ensure that their sense of the possible remains expansive and open. They might even add a few new items to their gender backpack along the way.
These texts offer a fun, friendly, and accessible introduction to trans experience and gender-diversity, and are perfect for young people as well as school staff:
Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele, Gender: A Graphic Guide (London: Icon, 2019).
Juno Dawson, What’s the T? (London: Wren and Rook, 2021).
These texts offer clear, practical information and advice for teachers, support staff, and senior leadership on how to ensure that their school is a welcoming and supportive environment for trans and gender-diverse students:
Elly Barnes and Anna Carlile, How to Transform Your School into an LGBT+ Friendly Place: A Practical Guide for Nursery, Primary, and Secondary Teachers(London: Jessica Kingsley, 2018).
D.M. Maynard, The Reflective Workbook for Teachers and Support Staff of Trans and Non-Binary Students: Your School’s Transition as Your Students Transition (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishing, 2021).
Elijah C. Nealy, Transgender Children and Youth: Cultivating Pride and Joy with Families in Transition (New York: W.W. Norton, 2017).
Daniel Tomlinson-Gray, ed. Big Gay Adventures in Education: Supporting LGBT+ Visibility and Inclusion in Schools (London: Routledge, 2021).
These posters and others like them are available for free from Trans Student Educational Resources:
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.
Dr Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston is a non-binary trans academic, writer, and activist from Holywood in the north of Ireland. They hold a BA, MSt, and DPhil in English literature from the University of Oxford and currently serve as SSHRC – CIHR Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in English at the University of Alberta, where they work on the medicalisation and politicisation of sex in early twentieth-century literary culture. Alongside their academic work they also serve as Communications Officer for the British Association for Irish Studies, and facilitate access and outreach workshops on trans inclusion and gender diversity for schools and other public institutions.