It might be a small step, but they will encourage debate around gendered stereotypes and highlight omissions in school curriculums
Last week, it was announced that 80 schools nationwide, including 40 primary schools, would be adopting a gender-neutral uniform policy. The long-awaited breakthrough is the result of a government-funded drive for equality spearheaded by Educate & Celebrate, an organisation which aims to eradicate homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in the school system. Unfortunately, this emphasis on equality is still much-needed – a survey conducted last year revealed that 53 per cent of schools are not teaching about LGBT+ relationships, 49 per cent aren’t even teaching pupils the definition of these acronyms and 76 per cent of teachers have never received LGBT+ specific training. It’s clear that there’s still work to be done – but are these reforms the first step on the road to acceptance?
The first, most prominent (and, in my view, ridiculous) criticism of this policy is that children are still ‘confused and troubled by their sexual identity’ throughout their early lives and shouldn’t be forced to ‘choose’ their gender identity at such a young age. Unsurprisingly, religious site Christian Concern was particularly worried that this was part of a ‘radical agenda’ pushed on to ‘young, impressionable minds’ – a statement which insinuates that children aren’t aware of their gender identity throughout their childhood.
This is, quite definitively, not true. Studies show that kids are fully aware of their gender identity around the age of four years old – this evidence is supported by shows such as last year’s Channel 4 documentary “My Transgender Kid” as well as the slew of reports and articles online documenting the challenging experiences of trans children. The fact is that infants are often aware that they’re trans or gender-fluid from a young age and use clothes, toys and props to communicate this to the outside world – introducing a gender-neutral uniform policy gives them a wider range of options to express themselves authentically.
Furthermore, results so far have shown that children haven’t rushed to capitalise on these uniform policies just because they’re there. This isn’t quite a ‘genderless revolution’, as these rules have been designed to accommodate, not to influence – Paula Weaver, headteacher of Allens Croft primary school in Birmingham, reinforced this in a statement issued to The Guardian, saying “we still have more trouser-wearing across the board than boys wearing skirts. But that’s about what’s seen as acceptable in society and you know what? We need to work on that too.”
Her words ring true – just a few months ago Jaden Smith made headlines worldwide by modelling a skirt for Louis Vuitton womenswear, proving that these style decisions are still seen to be enormously controversial. Despite the best effort of designers such as Marc Jacobs, Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood to show that men in skirts can be effortlessly stylish and entirely desirable, progress still needs to be made. So it seems unlikely that these new regulations will have cis, heterosexual schoolboys reaching for the pleats any time soon.
“Infants are often aware that they’re trans from a young age and use props to communicate this to the outside world – introducing a gender-neutral uniform policy gives them a wider range of options to express themselves authentically”
Weaver’s words also highlight that more should be done within schools to educate children on queer theory and same-sex relationships. Charity organisation Mermaids revealed they were asked by around 80 primary school children last year to give advice on transitioning and, just weeks later, the same charity revealed that devastating levels of transphobic abuse were taking place in schools nationwide. Gender-neutral uniforms may be a fantastic entry point for discussion of gender and sexuality-based discrimination, but the reality remains that education authorities need to fix up and make sure these issues are factored into the curriculum. Remember your really awkward sex-ed classes which saw a guest speaker gingerly tease a condom onto a banana? Things haven’t progressed much since then – kids are still largely taught about vaginal intercourse and the necessity of protection as opposed to learning about the variations of sexuality and how to act on them. Transphobia would be happening less frequently if teachers were given the chance to discuss gender identity – but, as it stands, only 3 per cent of schools can honestly say that they have LGBT+ activity in two or more subject areas.
The introduction of gender-neutral uniforms is, without doubt, an excellent thing. This year has already been pivotal for LGBT+ school pupils – the Obama administration released a statement in May ordering all schools to allow children to use the toilet which they felt best corresponded with their gender identity, and one Icelandic school created ‘inclusive restrooms’ which were designed to finally solve the long-held ‘bathroom debate’. Things are moving forward, but it’s important to remember that just one week ago gay, trans and latino communities were targeted and shot in Orlando and, this week, another gay bar massacre took place in Mexico.
There’s still hatred and there’s still discrimination – it’s important that schools take the necessary steps to educate children and promote an inclusive attitude in order to eradicate these attitudes at a young age. Trans children deserve to be recognised and, above all, protected – this gender neutral uniform policy will at least encourage discussion of gendered stereotypes and non-normative gender, which can only be a good thing. Organisations like Educate & Celebrate are crucial to our education system – with their drive and passion, it may be possible to ensure that queer theory and LGBT+ education become staples of the school curriculum which, in turn, could result in a more open-minded school system which encourages rather than alienates young trans members of the population.