There has been a lot of debate about transgender people and the accessibility of public bathrooms of late. To look for a recent example we need look no further than a few weeks ago, when US President Trump’s administration revoked federal protections that instructed schools to allow transgender students to use a bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. Understandably, transgender advocates have repeatedly asserted the need for all young people to be able to “pee in peace”. While it is important, access to an appropriate bathroom is not the only issue transgender young people negotiate. Living in a world that enforces (sometimes violently) a rigid binary between the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ is where most of the key challenges begin. Such as in sports, where based on assigned sex at birth, a young transgender man was forced into competing against girls (and subsequently won the Texas state title) or in formal records, where with rare exception, sex and gender are considered only in binary (male-man or female-woman) terms. Population-based research has reported that around 1 in 100 young people is transgender (Clarke et al., 2014), which means more people confront these challenges than many might initially think. Unfortunately, despite recent advances in the public visibility of transgender people and stories, experiences of exclusion and mistreatment are sadly enduring.
According to universal human rights principals, all people have the right to an education. But bullying school cultures, where transgender students feel unsafe and unable to learn, pose a major threat to this fundamental right. In 2011, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon identified that sexual orientation and gender identity and expression–based bullying is “not restricted to a few countries but goes on in schools… in all parts of the world,” and then described it as a “moral outrage a grave violation to human rights and a public health crisis ”. Selected regions have been particularly proactive in attempting to address the challenges for transgender young people in schools, such as in the work led by UNESCO in the Asia-Pacific region. This work has included partnerships between academics, schools and UNESCO and these have generated valuable work toward preventing bullying on the basis of gender identity and expression.
Transgender young people, and selected community-based organisations that they are a part of, have also been working hard to improve this situation. For example, in New Zealand the youth-led organisation RainbowYOUTH has been delivering gender diversity workshops for over a dozen years. These types of educational interventions are sometimes referred to as “Trans 101” or “Introduction to Gender Identity” workshops. In general they offer a broad overview of gender identity and expression and offer resources for those who may need them. While we know that these kinds of trainings have been going on for decades across the world, to date we are unaware of any formal evaluations of such interventions in secondary schools. We have recently published the results of a study we conducted in the Journal of LGBT Youth, which has documented and evaluated a workshop conducted in New Zealand.
In summary, 237 secondary school students in Years 9 and 10 (average age 13.7 years) attended 10 gender diversity workshops run by RainbowYOUTH in Auckland. These workshops were short – lasting around one hour – and followed an earlier workshop on sexuality diversity that we have also evaluated. The gender diversity workshop was led by a RainbowYOUTH educator, who explored some of the basic details surrounding categories of gender and sex (including intersex identities). This was followed by a personal testimony from a volunteer storyteller who shared their own experiences of gender transition. Hearing the real-life story of the transgender speaker allowed students to explore connections between gender and sexuality, how they might spot examples of transphobia, and what they could do to make their school a safer and more inclusive space.
Students were asked to complete a questionnaire both before and immediately after the workshop. More than 80% of students thought the gender diversity workshop led by RainbowYOUTH would reduce bullying in schools, and 94% of participants reported that they would recommend the workshop to other youth. Notably, there were statistically significant increases in valuing and understanding gender-diverse people from before and to after the workshop. Unsurprisingly, given the amount of research on the topic of violence towards transgender people, students described their school cultures as being hard and unwelcoming. These hostile school cultures were perceived to be related to experiences of loneliness, embarrassment and sadness for transgender students. While the young people involved in the study identified their schools as tough places to be for transgender young people, many individual students reported that they would like to be more supportive and respectful of their gender diverse peers. Reducing bullying related to gender identity and expression will have a positive impact on the mental wellbeing and educational achievement of young people, specifically transgender youth. Brief diversity workshops, like the ones delivered by RainbowYOUTH, which include skilled transgender storytellers and educators can make a significant difference. They are an important piece in the puzzle of moving us from insults to inclusion.
Veale, J. F. (2008). Prevalence of transsexualism among New Zealand passport holders. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 42(10), 887-889.
Clark, T. C., Lucassen, M. F., Bullen, P., Denny, S. J., Fleming, T. M., Robinson, E. M., & Rossen, F. V. (2014). The health and well-being of transgender high school students: results from the New Zealand adolescent health survey (Youth'12). Journal of Adolescent Health, 55(1), 93-99.