All-girls schools and their intersection with transgender people have once again become a talking point in the never-ending trans debate. We asked a transgender man to give us his thoughts.
No matter how long ago, most of us can likely remember experiences from secondary school, both positive and negative. It is the place where not only may we discover ourselves, but also where our understanding of society’s unspoken rules are tested to the limit; therefore it is understandable that there is a great focus on what a healthy environment can look like for teenagers at this dizzying time in their lives.
In light of the recent reports of students at an all girls’ school allegedly grouping up against another student in relation to trans issues – aside from the allegations of bullying – many people weighed in to bemoan “trans ideology” threatening the sanctity of these “single-sex spaces”.
This echoes recent fear mongering around LGBTQIA+ topics being covered in school in general: “this ideology should be kept out of schools”; “they should be focusing on maths, not woke subjects”; “teenage girls should be taught to accept their biological reality rather than sexist stereotypes”.
Every student is different, and every school is different, nonetheless I found myself reflecting over my own experiences at an all girls’ school as a now binary trans man.
I started my secondary education at an all girls’ grammar school merely months before Section 28 was repealed in 2003 and despite the fears, there was no flood of LGBTQIA+ education throughout the next seven years amongst SATs and GCSEs. Teachers acknowledged gay people in neutral/positive terms, but that was as far as discussion in the classroom went; more important than the possibility of any of us being part of such a community was that we were the women of the future.
Despite the selling point of female students being free from the comparisons to boys, the schooling experience was still highly gendered with a liberal dose of what I now recognise as biological essentialism.
I saw for myself how beautifully varied girls are: some academic, some sporty, some kind, and some not so kind. Many of us were understandably ardent feminists; I distinctly remember the celebration of finally being allowed to wear shorts instead of a skirt in PE; it was our great achievement for women’s rights in our little corner of the world which to this day I think back to fondly.
Yet, the only thing that supposedly connected every single one of us was a few physical traits, and some shared experiences of living in our patriarchal society; we were constantly told that the sky was our limit or that there was no such thing as “girls can’t do maths”.
These life lessons helped me continue down the feminist path about which I am still passionate to this day, however I still just could not quite understand the separation. Even as a teen, being taught that I have the freedom to not be defined by my biology whilst also attending a school that enforced division along such biological lines felt like a contradiction that no one thought to question, or perhaps was willing to question.
The idea that a school just for girls – a “single-sex space” – will be inherently safer for those attending is naive and does a disservice to the infinite capabilities of women; bullying still occurred and gender conformity was still policed via both the uniform and the few trends students could get away with.
We may have only had changing rooms for girls, but there were still homophobic accusations towards other students of leering to the point that many peers saw getting changed as the worst part of PE. It was not considered a safe space. I never feared sharing a changing room with someone that may have a penis when I witnessed the very real impact of bullying from those I was told were on my team. Having the “right” genitalia was no protection against accusations of perversion.
The potential for a trans girl joining our school never came up as a topic of conversation, but that is of course due to the fact that the topic of trans people never came up at all. Regrettably most of my awareness came from the horrific stereotypes found in popular media; I recognise my own lack of education surrounding trans people was a huge factor in my own delayed realisation.
Even though I was the classic case of a girl saying that she wanted to be a boy, it was made very clear to me by family and school that this was sexism. Having to attend an all girls’ school communicated to me that there was nothing to be done about the biological reality of my body. I should instead focus on achieving and showing the world that a woman can do anything.
And I did. I went into a successful career in STEM like so many of my peers; on paper I would have been the ideal candidate for the gender critical pipeline after a lifetime of one type of feminist education. I was breaking glass ceilings and not allowing myself to be limited by my female sex.
But I am trans. I am a trans man.
A trans man who plans to medically transition and change the body I was told was immutable.
Do I yet possess all the words to describe these feelings in a way that is palatable to cis people? Of course not, but I have more words than I did when I was fifteen, words that were inaccessible in the education that was offered to me.
I do not care to weigh in on the discourse surrounding single-sex schools in general, but I am telling you that in my experience at an all-girlls school I was not protected from sexism, gender conformity, or transness (even before this became the boogeyman in the UK). Teaching LGBTQIA+ topics is an absolute must in helping equip students to understand and protect themselves from the experiences such as mine.
Trans students become trans adults, and hiding that knowledge under the guise of “safeguarding” will not stop that from happening.