The Post-Primary Experiences of Transgender and Gender Diverse Youth
Dr Ruari-Santiago McBride
Posted: 25 August, 2020
The closure of schools in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has generated much conversation about the importance of schools in the lives of young people. Many have rightly pointed to how the closure of schools has created a gap in the education and care for a generation of young people. Underpinning this view is an assumption that schools are accepting, supportive, and safe environments in which all students feel able to learn and cared for. Yet, in our project ‘Achieving Equality for Transgender and Gender Diverse Youth in Schools’ we interviewed transgender and gender diverse youth whose school experiences were characterised by rejection, harassment and bullying that prevented them from participating in learning:
“For most of third year I couldn’t attend school. If I was in, I was in for maybe an hour before I’d have really severe panic attacks and breakdowns, and had to leave the school. I’d get picked up and go home.” (Chloe, 17, co-educational community school)
The aim of the ‘Achieving Equality’ project was to investigate the difficulties youth (15-24) encounter in Irish post-primary schools and develop resources capable of reducing them. We held three arts-based workshops to explore how the gendered aspects of school life that created problems for TGD youth could be overcome. We also interviewed TGD youth, the parents of TGD youth, school staff who worked with TGD youth, and a wide range of education stakeholders about their experiences. In total, 54 people, including 19 TGD youth, generously gave their time to participate in the project. The data gathered through the workshops and interviews were then analysed thematically to identify common challenges as well as divergent experiences.
We found that a fundamental challenge encountered by the transgender and gender diverse youth who participated in the project was an overwhelming sense of marginalisaiton. This sense of marginalisation stemmed from a lack of discussion about gender identity and gender expression as well as the lack of representation of gender diverse people within their school. Experiencing exclusion led many interviewees to feel isolated and some developed a profound sense of shame about their gender identity. The marginalisation of gender identity and gender expression within post-primary schools therefore had a profound psychological impact on some transgender and gender diverse youth:
“If everybody is telling you you’re one thing, and this is how you should act, this is how you should behave, but you want to behave the opposite way, and act the other way, and look the other way, then you’re gonna think you’re crazy, ’cause you’re not like everybody else.”
Scott (16, single-gender voluntary school)
Despite experiencing marginalisation, most of the transgender and gender diverse youth described how they disclosed their gender identity to a trusted member of staff who was accepting. All of the young people who transitioned (i.e. began living in their self-determined gender identity) during their secondary school education reported experiencing challenges in relation to their transition (see Fig. 1). Some encountered minor difficulties, however, the majority of transgender and gender diverse youth faced multiple, overlapping challenges that negatively affected their physical and mental health, sense of safety within school, and their ability to participate fully in their education. Experiences of marginalisation compelled many trans and gender diverse youth engage in activism in order to raise awareness about gender diversity in their schools.
The research findings show that transgender and gender diverse youth do not have equality of educational opportunity in Ireland. There is therefore a need to establish a National Transgender Equality in Education Working Group, which would be responsible for developing a National Gender Identity and Gender Expression Policy and Procedures for Schools. There is also a need to ensure gender identity and expression are explicitly and meaningfully included within (a) the school curriculum, (b) pre-service teacher education, and (c) in-service professional development.
Achieving these goals will reduce the sense of marginalisation transgender and gender diverse youth experience, and reduce the challenges they experience following their transition. It is essential that as we move forward towards re-opening schools in the midst of a global pandemic that we retain focus on eliminating the educational inequalities transgender and gender diverse youth encounter in Ireland.
The project was funded by “Collaborative Research Fellowships for a Responsive and Innovative Europe” (CAROLINE) – a co-fund between the Irish Research Council and Marie Sklowdowska Curie. It was undertaken by researchers at the School of Education, University of Limerick, in partnership with the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI). The project team would like to extend a warm thank you to the young people, parents, educators and stakeholders who took the time to engage with this project.
The project team consisted of Dr Ruari-Santiago McBride (Research Fellow, School of Education, University of Limerick), Dr Aoife Neary (Principal Investigator and Academic Mentor, School of Education, University of Limerick), Dr Breda Gray (Consultative Academic Mentor, Department of Sociology, University of Limerick), and Vanessa Lacey (Secondment Mentor, TENI).