What schools should do now to empower their non-binary students

By Mary Lou Rasmussen

The decision this week by the Federal government to pull the Religious Discrimination Bill illustrates that in the current climate it is not actually possible to get such legislation through parliament.  I assumed the Bill might at least make it to the Senate. 

As far as the Morrison government is concerned, I wonder if it’s not necessarily a problem that the bill didn’t succeed. Perhaps it is enough to at least be seen by members, by their base, to be trying to do work in this space. The government obviously perceives that there is enough support for such legislation in the community that they are motivated to be seen trying to uphold religious freedom. What is less clear is how much the base cares about religious freedom, versus how much they want a curtailment of sexual and gender identity attached to religious freedom. Maybe such questions will be tested in the upcoming election. 

Is there still, in our contemporary political context, political capital to be gained from taking that position? We are likely to see more political debate in this space, especially when and if the Australian Law Reform Commission hands down its report about what they think is the way forward for students and teachers on issues related to sexuality and gender. 

When thinking about trans issues in schools it is important to grasp that trans is a broad umbrella that covers a large range of genders such as being non-binary, genderqueer, a Sistergirl or Brotherboy, genderfluid, having a binary gender, and more. Some trans people want to affirm their gender in social and legal ways, like changing their name or wearing new clothes and updating their legal identity, and some affirm their gender in medical ways, like being on hormones or having surgeries, but some trans people don’t affirm their gender in ways that are visible to the outside world at all. Given these different ways of being trans, schools have a lot to think about in working out ways be inclusive of teachers, parents and students who are trans and non-binary 

A good place to start is by asking young people what it is they want rather than having an assumed policy for trans and non-binary students. That isn’t to say we can’t think in advance of some things that might need to be put in place. 

For example, available resources in terms of changerooms and bathrooms people can access. Don’t necessarily assume that because somebody is trans, that they will need a separate space. They might want to be in the same space as the gender to which they’re socially transitioning. They might like to have a say, rather than being told, this is where you have access.

Schools are getting much better at this because it’s much more common. There are a lot of schools really doing a good job nowadays and there are good policies at a state education level, for example, Victoria, the ACT and Tasmania have good guidance in place, around how we can work with trans students to give them a better experience of schooling. 

Schools, at least in some jurisdictions,  have  a  legal  duty  of  care to  protect students  from  risks  of  harm  (that the school should be  able to anticipate)  and to do  what  is  reasonable  to  ensure  students  are safe  at  school. In  spite of  these  obligations, it can still  be  daunting  to  navigate the different gendered  facilities and  activities  at  school. For  example,  wearing  a gendered  school  uniform,  using  gendered bathrooms, going  on school  camps  and participating  in  school  sports  teams. 

In some schools, there’s not much going on but in others there are 

good policies in place because schools have had to develop them. They’ve had pressure and activism from trans students and their parents, and from non-binary students and their families. These groups have demanded to be seen by schools and really doing a lot of great advocacy. 

It’s important to recognise the advocacy that young people are doing in this space to try and create better places for themselves in education. As part of our Queer Generations project we interviewed a young person who was being schooled in Victoria. The first school that they went to wasn’t meeting their needs. They left that school and went to another school which they chose on the basis that it had explicit support programmes for queer youth at the school. 

Clearly, not all young people have the capacity to move schools if they are not welcoming.  This is especially concerning when young people are in school contexts in which they are invisibilized or which are outright hostile and transphobic. Transcend Australia and A Gender Agenda are just two organisations working with young people and their families to help schools improve on the ways that they support young people. But it’s not just students we should be concerned about, it’s also teachers who can feel incredibly sidelined if they don’t toe the line in terms of cisgender norms and also heteronormativity. 

We shouldn’t assume that independent and religious schools, or state schools, are intrinsically supportive or hostile. But research does suggest that LGBTQI+ students experience higher rates of discrimination in religious schools. One interesting aspect of the case of the Queensland school was that the principal put something in writing about school norms, making transphobia and homophobia explicit. A lot of people found that reprehensible – but that type of educational context is not exceptional in Australia. It was only exceptional in this instance because it was made public at a time when these issues were in the news. We know those schools exist, – we often don’t see just how they enforce these particular worldviews. If we are going to continue to allow schools to discriminate against teachers, students and parents who are LGBTQI+ I would like to see more demand from parents and from teachers for schools to publicly make known their stance on such issues. The whole school community are adversely impacted by schools that discriminate. It’s not just about young people, it’s about teachers. It’s about parents. It’s about people who are coming in and delivering sexuality education or other forms of health education in the school context. It can’t just be about one part of that story. We need to think about how all those people who are part of our school communities can bring themselves to the classroom, to school events, to activism at school, and also see themselves being represented across the curriculum, not just in the sexuality education class, but in health, in politics, in religious education. 

I know when I was studying to be a teacher in the nineties and I was going into schools as somebody who has a non normative gender presentation, that it was just really untenable for me to stay in that space. It was incredibly uncomfortable in terms of harassment, especially from the students. That experience is alive and happening for teachers and young people today. Even though there’s an increasing number of sexual and gender diverse people in our community schools can still be very tough places and there’s a lot of recent research that bears that out. It’s not just about young people themselves, it’s about the whole school community feeling like they have a place where they feel valued and seen and respected within our school communities. 

Professor Mary Lou Rasmussen of the Australian National University has undertaken research in the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Her research focuses on building transdisciplinary understanding of sexuality and gender across diverse lifeworlds, taking account of issues related to sexual citizenship, cultural and religious difference and technologies of sexuality, education and health. She is co-editor, with Louisa Allen, of the forthcoming Handbook of Sexuality Education (Palgrave).

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