Tackling transphobia in Auckland schools

Transgender issues are broached in updated school guidelines but is it enough to make these students feel safe in New Zealand schools? Advocates say more needs to be done. Reporters Jess Lee and Rose Cawley discuss diversity with Auckland schools.

Gender neutral uniforms, unisex toilets, welcoming same-sex partners at school balls and inclusive sports teams are all ...

Gender neutral uniforms, unisex toilets, welcoming same-sex partners at school balls and inclusive sports teams are all recommended in new sexuality education guidelines.

Some students are not going to the toilet all day because they don't feel safe using school bathrooms.

RainbowYOUTH education director Aych McArdle says cases like this are a daily occurrence and transphobic bullying is a reality in Kiwi schools.

Gender neutral uniforms, unisex toilets, welcoming same-sex partners at school balls and inclusive sports teams are all recommended in new sexuality education guidelines

RainbowYOUTH education director Aych McArdle
Jess Lee/Fairfax NZ

RainbowYOUTH education director Aych McArdle

It is the first time the Ministry of Education guide has been revised since 2002.

McArdle says schools need to create safe, inclusive learning environments for all of their students and adopting these guidelines is a start.

"You will have queer and gender diverse students at your school - they exist - and everyone involved in the school community - teachers, principals, parents, students - is responsible for that environment to be a safe space for all students."

RainbowYOUTH board trans* representative Taine Polkinghorne
Jess Lee/Fairfax NZ

RainbowYOUTH board trans* representative Taine Polkinghorne

Four out of every 100 students reported that they were either transgender or that they were not sure of their gender in a 2012 survey of 8500 secondary school students.

More than half of transgender students were afraid someone at school would hurt or bother them.

Post Primary Teachers' Association (PPTA) president Angela Roberts says responding with guidelines isn't actually going to change this.

St Cuthbert's College principal Lynda Reid

St Cuthbert's College principal Lynda Reid

"The guidelines will not become a reality unless schools are supported to have those tricky conversations with their communities.

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"What you have to do is provide people with good professional development."

She says PPTA and organisations like RainbowYOUTH have stepped in to fill the gap by running workshops to educate staff and students.

Auckland Grammar School headmaster Tim O'Connor
Peter Meecham

Auckland Grammar School headmaster Tim O'Connor

"It's not just how they treat their rainbow youth it is how they encourage a cultural shift amongst their colleagues and also amongst their kids."

A number of schools are leading the way with inclusive environments but it's a long way from what Taine Polkinghorne experienced seven years ago.

The Rainbow Youth board trans* representative says his last two years of school were horrible.

Glendowie College principal Richard Dykes
Rose Cawley/Fairfax NZ

Glendowie College principal Richard Dykes

Polkinghorne, who was born female, came out as a trans-man when he was about 20 years old.

"The school that I went to wasn't particularly accepting of people that were different," he says.

"The bullying prevalence in schools is astronomical for sexual and gender diverse people and I think that schools really need to take an active approach to squashing that out."

This needs to include calling kids out when they use the wrong language and providing safe places for kids to get changed during physical education, he says.

"That would make such a big difference in terms of our productivity because then we're not worrying about who's going to punch us in the face or call us something nasty so we can't concentrate for the rest of the day."

A school that celebrates its diversity is Mt Roskill Grammar.

Head of guidance Margaret Hoogendoorn has seen a complete shift in the last 20 years.

"Transgender students would very much stay under the radar and transition after secondary school," she says.

"Now we have some students who enrol at year 9 and have already transitioned."

Hoogendoorn says being proactive is key.

"Ignorance fuels prejudice so if you want to fight prejudice you have to educate."

A teacher requested she attend a class where a transgender student had been verbally mocked, Hoogendoorn says.

"The students had an opportunity to ask questions openly to the transgender student.

"This transgender student was courageously answering those questions. It has completely shifted how the class treats the student."

Hoogendoorn says she is aware of six students who have comfortably transitioned while at school.

"I often say: 'You are not alone, you are part of a movement of many hundreds of thousands of people across the world'."

Organising meetings with transgender students from other schools helps them widen their gaze, she says.

A transgender student at the school says teachers have always been supportive and adapted well to the transition.

"In year 9, when I requested a gender-neutral changing space to my PE teacher, she immediately made the unisex disabled toilet available."

OUTLine NZ general manager Trevor Easton says the free phone support and counselling service has received calls from transgender kids as young as 7 years old.

"That area of the community is growing as far as need for support, help and counselling," he says.

"It is more of an education for other people rather than the young person themselves. They are usually quite clued-up on what is going on, they just need support in handling other people."

Ministry of Education head of sector enablement and support Katrina Casey says the ministry is updating the bullying prevention guide to include sexual and gender diversity.

"We know that gay, lesbian and transgender young people can face a challenging environment at school, including bullying.

"Our role is to support and guide schools to develop a school culture that is inclusive for all students."

She says there is still more work to be done.

"Feedback from some MOE regional staff is that they need more guidance in this area [professional development] so that they can better support schools and students when issues arise."


Glendowie College principal Richard Dykes:

"Schools will routinely have students with special needs and we respond to this on a case-by-case basis.                                                                                                            

"Our school culture goes beyond the letter of the law to its spirit – i.e. a safe, welcoming and inclusive society, where all students share the same opportunities to achieve their personal best."

Auckland Grammar School headmaster Tim O'Connor:

"Currently I'm not aware of any transgender students at our school.

"We don't have any policies or practices in place."

St Cuthbert's College principal Lynda Reid:

"In our health education programme our teachers use gender-neutral language. We deliver a balanced, non-biased view on sexuality and give our girls the opportunity to develop their own values and understand those of others.

"For the past few years we have extended our teaching on sexual identity and diversity by inviting Rainbow Youth to run workshops with follow-up discussions in our classrooms."

Epsom Girls Grammar deputy principal Sarah Stenson:

"We know that we will have transgender identified students in the school whether we are aware of them or not. All students have the right to be treated with respect and dignity.

"Being a girls' school requires some extra thinking about how gender or sexuality might be negotiated and the complexity around assumptions this might bring."

Stenson says the school plans to consult with students and parents on being more inclusive. This could include looking at a wider variety of uniforms to provide choice.

 - Stuff

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