Exploring gender identity in primary schools
New study outlines the need for educational institutions to support children at an early age, writes Kim Bielenberg
The whole issue of gender identity has become much more important in Irish primary schools. Teachers are having to work out ways to accommodate children who may not fit in with conventional or traditional ideas of gender.
The children may have been born with one gender, but identify themselves as another, and that can happen from a young age. Sometimes the children may not fit neatly into either category, or their gender identity evolves over time.
The issue was explored in a recent study by Dr Aoife Neary and Catherine Cross, Exploring Gender Identity and Gender Norms in Primary Schools. The study shows how gender identity is established at a very young age, and argues that primary schools need to be ready to support children and their parents. The Irish schoolchildren featured in the study were described as "gender non-conforming" from the time they could communicate.
The growing recognition of transgender children - or those who are exploring different gender identities - has implications about the way schools are organised, and the issue can be complex and highly controversial. More traditional parents and teachers might argue that it is wrong to indulge the gender preferences of children at this age, while those with more progressive views hold the view that it is more damaging for a parent to suppress them.
Increasingly, schools are introducing unisex toilets, common uniforms for boys and girls if there is any uniform at all, and avoiding gender segregation for school activities such as sport.
Catherine Cross, Education Officer of the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, says: "Sometimes it is just about supporting children where they are now - and not making a big fuss about whether this child identifies as a boy or a girl." Cross herself is the mother of a young man called Lucas who was born a girl, and made the transition as a teenager at secondary school. Lucas told his mother at the age of 15 that he was transgender before changing his name by deed poll.
Cross admits: "I struggled with it for two years and found it particularly challenging at first. I grieved the loss of my daughter. At the time, I had never even heard of a girl wanting to be a boy."
Cross now advises schools on how to support students with varying gender identities, and initially much of her work was focused on second-level institutions. Recently, it has become an issue that is raised in primary schools.
Much of the focus used to be on the prevention of transphobic bullying, but there are other ways in which schools can adapt to accommodate children exploring different gender identities.
Cecelia Gavigan, a teacher at Balbriggan Educate Together School, says: "It's not something that teachers would be encountering every year, but it is a big issue. Schools should have it in their minds when they are devising policy."
Gavigan, who is chair of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) LGBT group, says: "If it is possible, we would advocate unisex toilets in schools."
According to Neary and Cross's study of transgender pupils at primary level, some parents talked about how gender segregated toilets caused much upset for their children.
Siobhan, mother of a five-year-old who has gone by the names of Shauna and Jason, is quoted: "Shauna - it was like she consciously took a stand when she started school that she was using the boys' toilets.
"And it became a thing because the other girls would be like 'oh Shauna's using the boy's toilet'. And so, initially, the teacher would try and make her go to the girls… and then she'd get upset."
Gavigan says one of the big steps in her school was to re-allocate the toilets as gender neutral. "It was physically easy to do it, but it required conversation with the parents to say why it was necessary to do it and what the purpose was."
Cross says: "The introduction of unisex toilets should not pose any difficulties at all, because we all have gender neutral toilets at home."
In the report on exploring gender identities, some parents indicated that gendered uniforms could cause upset to children. Cross says: "Uniforms can be a source of stress. You might have a girl not wanting to wear a skirt, or a boy trousers.
"I think it is better if there is a neutral uniform. If children are exploring their gender identity, it allows them not to hop on one side of the fence or the other."
Gavigan says, in an ideal situation, there should be a choice in the uniform and it should be non-gender specific.
At Balbriggan Educate Together, all the internal sports teams in the school are mixed, and Gavigan says she avoids situations in class where boys and girls are segregated.