How should teachers react if a student at their school comes out as transgender? How do they reconcile it with their personal world view? Gender Centre Senior Case Manager Liz Ceissman told IE Journalist Sue Osborne what advice she usually provides in a workshop for school staff.
The Sydney Gender Centre is funded to provide support to transgender people experiencing homelessness rather than as an education and training provider.
However, Liz said keeping children at school until Year 12 lessens their chance of homelessness later in life.
“I see going into schools as very early intervention,” she said.
“If we can make transgender people feel safe and supported and stay in school, they are more likely to be successful and less likely to be homeless.”
Liz presents the workshop to schools at their behest, or when asked to do so by a student who is planning to come out at school, or their parents. The workshops have mainly been run in public schools, but in the nine years that Liz has worked at the centre demand from Catholic school students and families has increased.
She recently presented in a Sydney Catholic school after representations from the family. The student in question was very unhappy presenting as a certain gender but did not want to change schools. The family discussed the matter with the school counsellor and the principal and it was agreed Liz would present to the school staff.
Anecdotal evidence is that the student is now much happier presenting as the new gender and transition has been successful. Liz said when a student attends a single sex school the family generally changes to a co-educational school, and as many non-government schools are single sex this might lower the incidence of students coming out in those schools.
Who are you?
During her presentation, Liz gives teachers a ‘101’ explanation of what transgender actually means.
“I start by asking people how they know who they are and they usually say it’s from what they’ve been told.
“I present a scenario where everyone tells a female teacher that they are now male. They are ridiculed for coming to work dressed as a female, and laughed at by their family at home.
“I ask them how soon they would start dressing as a male and they usually say pretty quickly, to fit in. Then I ask them if they would actually feel like a male, and they say no.
“This is how it is for a transgender person. The anatomy or ‘shell’ does not represent the true identity. Their ‘knowingness’ of themselves is different from what the exterior presents.
“Biology is not the self – is a women who has a double mastectomy less of a woman?”
Liz, who is a practicing Christian, tells teachers to think about tolerance rather than acceptance.
“Many school mottos seem to have the words respect, tolerance and dignity in them and that’s what it’s all about.
‘You have to respect and tolerate cultural diversity of all sorts in our society. While I’m a Christian I respect other religions. If a Muslim woman came to my house I would not ask her to remove her hijab.
“In fact, in the workplace, anti-discrimination laws make it illegal to behave without tolerance and respect.
“This applies to a transgender person as much as anyone else. Even if their situation does not fit in with your world view, you need to treat that person with respect.
‘There has been one case I know of where a teacher ridiculed a transgender student in front of other students, and the students copied the behaviour and all sorts of problems arose.
“Teachers are role models for students. They need to watch the language they use. Use the identified name that the student chooses and the correct pronouns. If I ask someone not to call me Lizzie because I hate it then I expect them to do that.
“The power of language is very strong. Names can be important.”
Liz is aware of one small regional school where they prepared for a transgender student to come out for six months beforethe event.
Every newsletter that went home to the parents would feature information on a different diversity group, be it Aboriginal, refugee, migrant, gay and lesbian or transgender.
When the student finally came out the school community already had the idea that the school culture was one of acceptance.
“The school received two phone calls, one asking if it was ‘catching’, but on the whole the community has been supportive, because of the long preparation.”
Liz said problems often stem from other parents rather than students or staff. She cites the example of one transgender student who had a 16th birthday party which was attended by a group of friends. She had invited the friends back for a sleepover too, but none of them were allowed to attend by their parents.
‘The transgender student’s parents were worried about what sort of messages the other parents were giving to their children.”
Education and information for parents is the key to tackling this, she said.
Liz can provide workshops in Sydney and regional areas of NSW. The Centre can give advice over the phone to anyone in Australia, and has recently employed a former teacher who can help with this. It can provide resources or direct schools to other centres in their area.
Call Liz on 02 9596 2366, email firstname.lastname@example.org or see gendercentre.org.au