‘Schools should not have to worry about being attacked in the same way as Peter Tatchell’

With almost daily rows over free speech, schools would be right to be worried about falling foul of the 'linguistical correctness' police, writes the director of the Institute of Ideas

Claire Fox

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Another day, another university free speech furore. This week, the NUS LGBT officer Fran Cowling declared that she couldn’t possibly share a platform with gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell because he is transphobic. Sigh. Don’t console yourself that such madness is confined to the margins of campus activism. If a legendary activist like Tatchell can be accused of bigotry, then God help mere mortal and less politically on-message teachers negotiating today’s Gender Wars.

Tatchell’s crime was that he signed an open letter in the Observer last year calling on universities and other organisations to “stand up to attempts at intimidation and affirm their support for the basic principles of democratic political exchange”. The affronted Ms Cowling may be studying for a PhD, but she obviously still needs lessons in irony. More broadly, today’s too-easily-offended, censorious student activists have all only recently left school, so you can be sure this trend will be hitting classrooms any time soon.

The minefield of gender fluidity

One particular minefield is ensuring linguistic correctness, and this is especially tricky in relation to the newly fashionable field of gender fluidity. Feminist journalist Suzanne Moore got labelled transphobic for the incorrect use of the word transsexual. Apparently, it is offensive to use the word as a noun rather than as an adjective. Indeed, the term ‘transsexual’ has been replaced by ‘transgender’. Another layer of complexity is the demand for non-binary, gender-neutral pronouns and honorifics like “they” and “xe”. This is a minefield, as exemplified by an FT article on workplace equality, titled Mx matters as much as Lord, Prof, Ms and Mr – FT.com (20 October 2015, FT): “I, for example, consider myself as gender fluid or gender variant. I like to be Phil one day and Pippa another, using different forms of dress and make-up to do so. I do it at home and at work. I am straight, have been married for more than 20 years and have two children.”

Trans identities and schools

Surely this isn’t something that teachers need to worry about? Well, if your pupils participate in the Oxford Schools' debating competition (organised in association with Teach First), you will need to get with the programme. The organisers of the international competition have just updated its equity policy, announcing that they will be “implementing pronoun introductions for all debates…to ensure no participants are misgendered, and all debaters are referred to in the way that they would like”. This code of conduct is to be imposed with an unapologetic tone of intolerance: “It is very important to note that any attempts to undermine pronoun introductions will not be tolerated.” (my emphasis). Examples are given: “Once the chair introduces [all the speakers and judges] by name and pronoun (eg, ‘Good morning, my name is David and my pronoun is ‘he’, and I’ll be chairing this round’)… Who’s speaking first in Opening Government? Sarah, she. And second? Alex, they’).” Got that?

Brighton College has hit the headlines by scrapping distinctions between boys’ and girls’ uniforms to accommodate transgender students. This has been greeted as forward thinking, but it could also open a can of worms for schools in terms of self-identification as a core theme of recent discussions on transgender. Headteacher Richard Cairns explains his decision as “reacting to a changing society, which recognises that some children have gender dysphoria and do not wish to lose their emotional gender identities at school”. But this is more than a humane response to a rare condition where a person experiences a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity. The problem is that gender dysphoria is increasingly hard to define. This is especially true now that it has been disassociated from the medical sphere, which a recent House of Commons report from the Women and Equalities Committee argued “pathologises trans identities”, preferring instead to endorse “the principles of gender self-declaration…centred on the wishes of the individual”.

When this self-declaration centring on the wishes of the individual is played out in schools, it can present real challenges. Trans activist Sophie Cook, who wrote a Telegraph article titled “Why I advised Brighton College over its ‘trans uniforms’”, noted that “the school could have quietly allowed the occasional child to cross-dress with their uniform...But they wanted the message to be trumpeted loudly and cheerfully: here, you can be you”.

Where will the self-declarations end?

But won’t trumpeting loudly “you can be you” as a motto for schools only encourage pupils to believe that every aspect of school should be shaped around their identities? Indeed, Mr Cairns himself broadened the issue into a seemingly ideological commitment to accommodating pupils’ identity wish-lists, talking of his “strong personal belief that youngsters should be respected for who they are. If some boys and girls are happier identifying with a different gender from that in which they were born, then my job is to make sure that we accommodate that”. How will accommodating to pupils’ wishes pan out educationally if it goes beyond gender? Would we accept a pupil saying “from now on I want to be respected as lazy; I am happier identifying as a non-homework completing slob”? If a pupil can “self-declare” an identity as a trans male or trans female, why shouldn’t he or she also self-declare as something else? This is not a moot point, given the controversy last year around the black civil-rights campaigner Rachel Dolezal, who turned out to be Caucasian.

Gender-identity confusion

Headteachers may suggest that their role is to respect teenagers for who they are. But who they are is an ever-changing concept for the young; experimentation and pushing boundaries are a feature of growing up. Simon Calvert, deputy director of the Christian Institute, recently argued: “We must protect children from being made to feel that passing phases of confused feelings about themselves – which many go through – must be turned into life-changing moral and political decisions.” He was responding to a survey sent earlier this month to every secondary school in Brighton and Hove by the city council, to find out “how gender matters to young people”. The survey, now withdrawn, offered students 25 gender options to choose from, including “tri-gender”; “demi-boy”; “gender fluid”; “agender”; “genderqueer”; “intersex” and “androgynous” alongside “girl”, “boy”, “female” and “male”. The survey, tellingly produced by the government-sponsored Children’s Commissioner for England, was less likely to help pupils work out “who am I?” than to confuse them with identity politics psycho-babble. 

You don’t have to go along with American feminist Camille Paglia’s complaints about ‘transgender mania’ to note that awareness raising can actually encourage the young to become overly preoccupied about their gender identity. So whereas it has traditionally been estimated that trans people constitute less than 0.4 per cent of the population, the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust’s Gender Identity Development Service report that the number of children ‘seeking gender-identity advice’ has doubled in the last year. At the very least, schools should note if they simply allow this trend to shape their policy, and allow it to become a politicised issue, it will not only be the likes of Peter Tatchell and Germaine Greer who will walk the tightrope of being accused of being transphobic.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas and a former FE teacher

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