A Story of Empathy, Support, and Education for Anti-Bullying Week and Trans Awareness Week
There are often negative stories about how transgender, non-binary and gender-questioning pupils have bad experiences at school – some of them are bullied by pupils and even told that "being transgender is wrong", or that it’s just “transgender nonsense” by some teachers. But the story of my trans son ‘coming out’ in school and the way the teachers supported him has been a positive experience. This Anti-Bullying Week, which also coincides with Transgender Awareness Week, I wanted to share this story – especially in the hope that other teachers and educators might be inspired and know how beneficial and important it is to support trans, non-binary and gender-questioning young people in schools and classrooms.
The moment it all changed: My child came out as trans
My “daughter” ‘came out’ as a trans to me in the summer between finishing Primary school and starting Secondary school. As any parent will tell you, this is already a stressful time, when you worry about your child fitting in, and making friends, and moving up into ‘big school’. This was compounded by my own anxiety, as I had been bullied as a young person at high school, which had had a significant impact on me for many years, and I was desperate that my child wasn’t going to suffer the same fate. They had already had a difficult time at Primary school as it was clear that they struggled with being ‘different’, were very gender non-conforming and hadn’t really fit into any particular friendship group, leaving them with negative feelings about school, and relief when they left Year 6.
It was against this backdrop that my child texted me several weeks into the school holidays to tell me that they were trans, actually a boy, and wanted to start Secondary school with a new name and pronouns.
My instant reaction was one of prickling fear, as I knew nothing about this ‘trans thing’ except for a couple of films where the trans characters were shunned, bullied and died violently. Yet, I kept my cool, told them I loved them, and started my journey of education, investigation and knowledge-seeking about transgender people and their lives.
Navigating the unknown: A parent's response to a transgender child
While I was shocked and stunned at my child’s announcement, it was also not a surprise to me. But I urged caution and explained that their new school was entirely unprepared for them to march through the gates in September, with an unfamiliar name and pronouns, and all of the questions (and potential bullying) that would trigger. I was acutely aware that I wanted to make sure his new school was fully prepared, so he agreed to use a gender-neutral nickname and I set in a plan to engage the school on the first day of the new term to prepare them and (hopefully) manage the situation.
While the rest of the summer holiday was filled with extensive conversations and questioning my child about their gender identity, and hours of Googling into the wee small hours, he remained steadfast in his decision, and it was clear to me that this was no ‘whim’. I was also assured by his clearly thought-out and well-considered personal scrutiny that he had already been working through in his own mind.
Empathy in action: The Head of Year 7's remarkable support
On the first day of the new school year, the moment after I waved off my child (following the obligatory ‘first day at school’ photo), I was on the phone asking to meet with Miss F, the Head of Year 7. That’s how I found myself in a school meeting room later that day, crying my eyes out as I blurted out everything that was happening, my fears, and concerns about bullying, while also trying to advocate for my child’s wellbeing in an unfamiliar and unknown environment.
I will never forget how Miss F responded and will always be grateful for her calm words of support and reassurance. She explained that while the school had not had much experience with trans pupils, that they were open to learning and would
make it a priority to educate themselves. She reassured me that their priority was to support my child while at school and to ensure the environment was a welcoming and safe one.
Year 7 Diversity Week: Preparing for a pupil to transition at school
Over the coming months, the school accessed staff trans awareness training – which all my child’s teachers attended – and a plan of action was put into place for when my child would ‘officially’ transition at school. It was a strange (and stressful) in-between time, where they were known by a new name and he/him pronouns while at home, but their nickname and she/her pronouns at school.
After much discussion with my child and the school, my son decided that he wanted to make a short video to ‘come out’ to his year group, and that it would be best to make the announcement just before Christmas - based on the theory that the kids at school would be distracted by the Christmas Holidays and it wouldn’t be such a topic of ‘gossip’ by the time they came back to school in the New Year. The school also suggested that they run a ‘Diversity Week’ across the daily tutor times in his year group – this would comprise of a series of half hour sessions focussing on a different topic each day; disability, race, religion, sexuality, and culminating on gender identity – when my child’s video would be played. In doing this, it reminded pupils about the importance of diversity across all intersections and that gender identity was just one of many ways that people are different to each other.
A pivotal moment: Coming out as trans to the school year group
On the day of my son’s ‘coming out’ at school I was an absolute puddle of worry and nerves. My son was also anxious, but mixed with relief that he could finally start living his life as ‘him’ after months of being confronted with questions asking if they were “actually a boy or a girl?” He went into his form room for tutor time – accompanied by an adult ‘mentor’ who had been supporting him – so that he could introduce his ‘coming out’ video in-person. Across his year group, the school had made copies of his short film and set up TVs in each tutor room. At the front of the classroom, they had installed a box and given all pupils slips of paper to write down any questions they wanted to ask him. That way, pupils could have their questions answered without my son having to deal with unexpected in-person questions in school corridors, and Miss F could remove any inappropriate or nasty comments before my son read them.
As it was, when I came to the school later that afternoon, Miss F was there to greet me; “before you go in, I just want you to see this” she said and presented me with a massive stack of the slips of paper. As I read through them, they were full of wonderful messages of kindness, love and support written by the young people in my son’s school year. I cried with relief and gratitude at everything the school had done to generate such a positive response to my son coming out as trans.
Hi Q___, it's R___ from your English class. I just wanted to say your an inspiration to me and I respect you.
- R_____ -
Overcoming challenges: Ongoing support and a strong approach to transphobia
Since that time, I would be lying to say it has been plain sailing. As with any teenager at school, there are ups and downs, fallings-out, mean comments, and even the occasional fight. Being a trans pupil at school is an additional layer of difficulty added on top of an already turbulent time, and he has had to contend with inappropriate comments, and even physical aggression. But I can honestly say that the school has continued to be as supportive as it was in that first term of Secondary school and has dealt with transphobic bulling with a zero-tolerance approach.
Lasting Impact: A Teacher's role in transforming trans pupils lives
While Miss F has remained as Head of Year 7, she has always asked after my son whenever I bump into her at school events – even now, after he has left school with a clutch of A Levels with top grades. I saw Miss F again recently and told her that the way she responded on my son’s first day of high school, and the support teachers at the school gave in that first term, and beyond, categorically changed his life. It could have been so different. I am forever grateful for the compassion, care and support my son’s teachers gave him during his school years, and they will forever be remembered as heroes in my eyes.
A call to action: Fostering trans-inclusive environments in education
Since my son came out as transgender I have talked with many other parents of trans kids and realise how lucky I was with my son’s school. Unfortunately, not all schools or teachers are as supportive, and there are a high number of trans, non-binary and gender-questioning children who end up dropping out of mainstream education, as their schools are an unsupportive, or an outright hostile environment. I wish that they could be more like my son’s school – willing to learn about how to best support trans pupils, and ensuring the inclusion and wellbeing of pupils who may be considered ‘different’. For any teacher, or school, that steps up to support trans pupils, I can tell you that your positive words and actions will mean the world to those young people and their parents, and that you truly will make a difference that will be remembered for a lifetime.
- Written by a parent of a young adult trans man