Total dummies

Reinforcing messages about what makes a “real” boy or girl has no place in schools

Artillery Row

Two years ago, in June 2019, Shirley-Anne Somerville, then Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People, announced that controversial guidance from lobby group LGBT Youth for supporting trans-identified pupils in Scottish Schools was to be replaced.

The climbdown came after campaign group Women and Girls in Scotland published a Child Rights Impact Assessment which demonstrated that schools following the guidance risked breaching the human rights of girlsmany times over. A Freedom of Information request revealed that ministers had concluded in March 2019 that guidance that risked excluding girls was “not legal”. Confusingly, schools were told they could continue to use the “not legal” guidance until the Scottish Government compiled their own.

This week Somerville, now Education Secretary, revealed her new guidance. Two years in the making, it’s basically a fatter version of the old LGBT Youth document, riddled with the same problematic theories and the same potentially dangerous and discriminatory advice. Under the new guidance, Scottish four-year-olds can now change their “gender” at school without the consent of their parents.

Perhaps wary of this, the Government says the guidance is non-statutory and cravenly avoids legal responsibility, stating, “Education authority, grant-aided and independent schools are responsible for ensuring that their policies, practices and information take full account of the legal requirements of the relevant legislation.”

Introducing gender ideology to primary children only results in reinforcing stereotypes

Yet any schools trying to pick a way through this will find themselves in a tangle. In a ministerial foreword, Somerville pays lip service to the “particular importance of privacy and the provision of safe spaces for girls and boys within schools” and there is a commitment to develop guidance to tackle “gender-based violence and harmful sexual behaviour in schools” at some future date. Concerns about the well-being of girls are mentioned with scattered lines referring to girls’ rights, before proceeding to ignore them in the conclusions.

Those of us who hoped that harmful theories reliant on sexist, outdated stereotypes would not be peddled in schools are disappointed. The guidance relies on the unproven ideology, pushed by Scotland’s state-funded lobby groups, which asserts that undefined gender identity is real.

Therapeutic best practice recommends watchful waiting for children distressed about their bodies, but the guidance urges affirmation using unevidenced, urgent statements calculated to provoke alarm in teachers or parents who might otherwise exercise caution, “If others deny this, it may have a detrimental impact on the young person’s wellbeing relationships and behaviour.” It also plays on fears of self-harm or suicide, citing frightening statistics and emotive quotes from young people.

Unavoidably, introducing gender ideology to primary age children must result in reinforcing stereotypes. The guidance tries to square that circle by suggesting play be gender neutral, but it’s hard to see where children glean notions of gender as distinct from sex other than toys, games, clothes or jobs. Reinforcing messages about what makes a “real” boy or girl has no place in schools, teachers should provide children with safe spaces to explore preferences and personality, without being pigeonholed or set on a path of medicalisation and surgery.

Critics have rightly highlighted the advice (which denies parental rights and flies in the face of all normal safeguarding) that a request to change gender identity can be kept from parents. Troublingly, this is accompanied with heavy emphasis on children having capacity to make decisions from the age of 12, including consent to process their data and to “instruct a solicitor, to sue on their own behalf and consent to their own medical treatment”. The implication of this reference to “medical treatment” is all the more disturbing as Scotland chose not to halt experimental treatment on young people as the rest of the UK did following the Judicial Review brought by Keira Bell.

Girls’ human rights matter

Research shows that girls dislike mixed-sex or “gender neutral” facilities in school: episodes of period shaming or even assault in such spaces result in girls reducing fluid intake or skipping school. The guidance refers to this but, extraordinarily, the government does not see this as a reason to protect girls’ spaces but rather to open them up, ignoring the feelings of female students. They suggest some single sex facilities could be made gender neutral and claim: “It is therefore important that young people, where possible, are able to use the facilities they feel most comfortable with.” This, of course, ignores the comfort of the other students forced to share with a member of the opposite sex.

Egregiously, the guidance exhibits no real understanding of why spaces in schools are sex-segregated in the first place. Much is made of privacy where the trans-identified child is concerned, but the onus is on other students to request similar respect. Presumptions that objections are likely borne of ignorance or bigotry underpin the document and are hardly conducive to encouraging children or parents to question the policy.

One example of “bullying” is a quote from a pupil told to change separately from the girls in case he “stared at” at the girls. In this manner, natural resistance from girls to undressing in the presence of a teenage male is reframed as cruelty. In cases where the child has “transitioned” before arriving in the school, teachers are advised that they might want to keep this private. Again, the potential impact on girls unwittingly sharing spaces with males, including accommodation on overnight trips, is secondary.

Government-funded women’s organisations were apparently involved in the writing of this, and it should be a matter of grave concern that they failed to identify these problems or pick up on other harmful recommendations, including an endorsement of the dangerous practice of breast binding.

There is an epidemic of sexual violence against girls in schools. Since March, the website Everyone’s Invited has posted over 50,000 testimonies of abuse in schools. The schools guidance acknowledges sexual violence exists but waves it away as “not the fault of trans people. It is the fault of the abusive men” as though the two categories could never intersect. The danger of telling young girls that the threat of sexual predation or assault posed by some men or boys is nullified by an unprovable identity is never addressed.

Any schools following this guidance should be careful: the human rights of girls matter too.

Susan Smith is co-director of For Women Scotland, a grassroots organisation campaigning on equality and human rights issues impacting on women and children in Scotland

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