Campaign to dispel transgender bigotry

Teachers and students targeted in year-long drive to inform

Henry Hepburn

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"Quite a lot of the time teachers do add to the problem - it's an overall lack of understanding and acceptance that we're trying to combat," said Jake Woods, a transgender 18-year-old from Edinburgh.

Jake's distressing time at school has made him one of the driving forces behind the first national campaign to highlight issues faced by transgender children and young people in schools, details of which are revealed by TESS today.

Jake was born a girl biologically, but from as early as he can remember he felt overwhelmingly that he was male. He was bullied from the age of about 7; by secondary school the bullying had become so severe that he left, became suicidal and spent time in a psychiatric hospital when he should have been doing his Highers. "I pretty much decided I was never touching education again because school was so uncomfortable," said Jake, who is now considering studying zoology.

A hard-hitting video and resources for teachers will form the centrepiece of a year-long effort to combat prejudice and ignorance that campaigners fear is rife in schools.

Time for TEA (transgender education awareness), developed by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender National Youth Council, is the first national campaign of its kind in Scotland and will target older secondary students, as well as those at colleges and universities. But it also seeks to increase teachers' awareness of issues around the subject, such as the many ways a person can be transgender.

Campaigners, who offer to visit schools to speak to young people, underline that even sympathetic teachers' attempts to help can be badly undermined by ignorance. Three who spoke to TESS believed that most teachers were broadly sympathetic. But an immediate priority was to help them get to grips with basic terminology and facts, they said.

Nancy Russell, 21, from Edinburgh, said: "My school was fairly liberal and there were some teachers - probably eight or nine out of 10 - that, if they'd had training, could have helped, but they just didn't know what to do."

Sometimes, schools were a last refuge, Nancy said. "You have no idea what's happening to you and it might not be safe to try to get the information you need while you're at home."

Nancy said it was common for local authority internet filters to block any attempt to search public health websites for information, adding that some teachers were "outright transphobic". Sometimes teachers would refuse basic requests such as calling a young person by his or her preferred name, and not consider alternative changing rooms for PE, no matter how uncomfortable the student felt.

In addition, some students may have embarked on the long and difficult process of legally and physically changing their gender. "If that's happening while you're in school, and you don't have support from teachers, it's pretty tough," said Steven Smith, LGBT Youth Scotland's policy and participation officer.

River Song, 18, from Edinburgh, was brought up male but started having "horrible feelings about my body and the way it looked" from about the age of 5, saying she "absolutely hated" school. She argued that a sympathetic teacher could have made a big difference as she struggled to make sense of her feelings.

The campaigners believe that even small adjustments can make a big difference. "If schools want to do one thing to make transgender people feel more comfortable, then that would be unisex toilets and uniforms - or at least having the option to wear whatever you want," Jake said.

"The only thing I ever asked for at school was to wear trousers. The answer was always `No, you're a girl'."

For more details, visit bit.lylgbtYouthTEA

No escape

A recent LGBT Youth Scotland survey found that more than three-quarters of transgender respondents had experienced homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying at school.

Fewer than half would feel confident reporting such bullying.

Nearly nine in 10 young people felt that transphobic bullying had had a negative impact on their education.

Source: Life in Scotland for LGBT Young People: Education Report, 2012, LGBT Youth Scotland.

Photo credit: Alamy

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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