Nayon Ahmed, BA Politics
In a 52 page long document titled “Valuing All God’s Children” on the 12th of November, to coincide with anti-bullying week, the Church of England has advised teachers to allow and encourage children to explore gender identity. The report offers 12 recommendations to schools; including faculty and staff training on how to recognise bullying; accessible policies on how to report cases; and support for victims of transphobic, homophobic, and biphobic bullying. According to new guidelines, ‘Pupils need to be able to play with the many cloaks of identity and to explore the possibility of who they might be’, as nursery and primary school is a time of ‘creative exploration’. Whilst this recent development is undoubtedly motivated by a sense of guilt due to the Church’s history of marginalising LGBT+ identities, it is a step in the right direction. A step worth celebrating.
In today’s secular society, the Church of England is widely regarded as an outdated institution which does not embody the more tolerant attitudes we expect to see in a 21st Century democracy. Now, the question of just how far this holds true is open for debate. When the largest religious institution in the UK, one which to some is infamous for being socially conservative and intolerant, is encouraging trans positive practices in schools, people in the UK gain a sense of hope for change. The reach of the Anglican Church’s authority, with the guidance given to 4700 schools attended by over a million pupils, means these more welcoming attitudes towards trans people may permeate into wider British society. The significance of this change to their guidelines therefore should not be dismissed.
Allowing children to explore a central aspect of their identity at such an early age gives them the opportunity to get to know who they are without fear of ostracisation, bullying or even discrimination. This can help minimise the harmful effects of gender dysphoria as people will be made to feel more comfortable about themselves. The words of the Archbishop of Canterbury demonstrate an awareness of the serious harm that transphobic bullying can cause. Even those who can explore their gender safely and comfortably but do not find that they are trans can benefit from this as they can learn more about who they are. Questioning one’s gender is a healthy practice and should be facilitated by educational institutions, not discouraged. The Church of England’s advice not only challenges the notion that gender dysphoria is a mental illness or defect, it also has the practical effect of giving people the confidence to experiment with their gender without judgement or derision. For nursery and schoolchildren, this can include acts as simple as dressing up in clothes not commonly associated with their assigned gender.
The discussion generated helps to break the taboo on trans issues. This needs to become something we can have a mature but respectful and sensitive discussion about, at home, within friendship groups, and in public. The initiative taken by the Church of England has caused trans issues to be talked about more. Hopefully, recognition of the urgency of such issues will be an additional effect. The long list of names of those who were violently murdered in transphobic hate crimes (as well as those who have not been named) presented to us on Monday’s (20th November) Transgender Day of Remembrance is a sobering reminder of just how important these issues are to us today.
As always, there are critics. People have raised concerns that individuals who opt to identify as genderfluid or gender neutral are simply following a trend. This is a claim made in ignorance. Nobody chooses to risk losing their friends, being outcast from their family or society, being discriminated against in the workplace, experiencing suicidal feelings or being subjected to hate crimes. It is true that some children may not necessarily understand the meaning or the implications of labelling themselves as trans or gender nonconforming. However, the perceived risk is far greater than the actual risk, and those making these claims are often informed, whether or not they are conscious of it, by transphobic prejudices and the assumption that being trans is incredibly rare and to some extent abnormal. To many, “transgender is a new thing”. I myself have heard this exact sentence spoken by someone. In reality, there is evidence of trans people dating back thousands of years. All that has changed is that more people are openly trans, terminology has been developed, and there is greater awareness. The fact that the Church of England has to offer guidance on how to deal with transphobic bullying at school, and even more so the fact that this has been controversial, shows how, far from being something which young people aspire to in order to impress their peers, trans people are of a marginalised identity which needs greater acceptance and protection.
Nevertheless, whilst the decision of the Church can and should be celebrated, we must not allow ourselves to be convinced that the UK has suddenly become a fully trans inclusive and positive society. The reports of transphobic hate crimes in the UK have been increasing, but the prosecution rates decreasing. Both societally and politically, there is progress to be made and this is only one step forward, which we can hope encourages further change. There is work to be done but the Church of England has started to help pave the way towards a society which is supportive of the trans community and allows children to question their gender without the added fear and shame that religious institutions can make them feel. Whilst I expect continued backlash against this move made by the Church, I remain convinced that this is an important, and potentially historic, development for trans awareness and acceptance in the UK.