Schools have a duty of care to trans pupils, with a requirement to provide LGBTQI+ inclusive PSHE. However, many schools still struggle to provide trans inclusive primary and early secondary school education on puberty and bodies, with schools often drawing upon outdated and exclusionary curricula.
Research has shown that trans children can experience exclusionary curricula, especially on bodies and puberty, as upsetting, delegitimising and harmful. Schools providing trans exclusionary education are associated with high levels of minority stress for trans pupils, with minority stress leading to poor levels of mental health and increased chances of trans pupils dropping out from education.
The good news is that trans inclusive education should not be difficult, once educators become confident in a slightly different and more inclusive way of approaching the subject.
In this blog I will share 10 recommendations for trans-inclusive puberty education, with quotes from educational resources that are trans inclusive. Importantly, this blog and the content highlighted herein focuses on how to ensure mainstream education on puberty and bodies is trans inclusive (it is aimed at ensuring the education every child receives is trans-inclusive, rather than aiming to specifically cater to trans children’s unique needs). (I’d also be interested in any additional advice on ensuring trans inclusive materials like these are intersex inclusive as well as disability inclusive).
This blog will primarily focus on a new educational resource called You-ology. It is produced by the American Academy of Pediatrics (the world’s biggest organisation of paediatricians), and aims to provide puberty education tailored for EVERY body. It is available in e-book form for £8.
This book does a couple of important things well:
1. It acknowledges, and frames puberty according to, the important role played by hormones.
“During puberty there are hormones that tell your body to grow faster, hormones that tell your breasts or testes (also known as testicles or balls) to start growing, hormones that tell your hair to sprout in new places, and hormones that cause new smells to creep out of your armpits”.
“Growing is one of the first signs of puberty. A hormone called growth hormone increases a ton during puberty to make you grow fast. Your hands and feet start to grow! So when you find yourself outgrowing your trainers faster than normal, you can smile to yourself and know puberty is starting!”
Testosterone and oestrogen:
“There are hormones called oestrogen and testosterone that cause most of the changes. A tiny, pea-sized gland in the brain, called the pituitary gland, sends a chemical messenger (yep, another hormones) to the testes or ovaries to tell them to start making hormones. Testes make a lot of testosterone. Ovaries make a lot of oestrogen and a little testosterone. Throughout this book, we will tell you more about what each of these hormones does.”
2. It considers the changes that happen to a majority of bodies. It emphasises shared experiences in puberty, rather than suggesting humans have two completely distinct and separate puberties. Rather than presenting ‘girl puberty’ in one lesson and ‘boy puberty’ in another, it instead divides up pubertal changes into the different types of changes. It provides one chapter on hair changes, one chapter on body odour changes, one on emotions. The similarities are emphasised as well as the differences, emphasising within the section on hair that in puberty most bodies develop increased hair on the legs and under the arms, while some bodies, especially bodies with a lot of testosterone, also develop hair in other places. Below is a quote from the You-ology chapter on hair.
“where you sprout hair depends on – you guessed it – hormones. EVERY body begins to make the hormone testosterone early in puberty. Testicles make a lot. Ovaries make a little. Even a little testosterone will cause EVERY body to grow darker, thicker hair on their legs, in their armpits, around their private parts; around their nipples or on their face. The amount of testosterone you have determines how much and where the hair shows up. If you have a lot of testosterone, you will grow more hair on your face. You might also (later in puberty) grow hair on your chest, abdomen (belly) and back”.
3. Where changes are significantly gendered, with most girls having a different experience to most boys, it divides the content according to the specific type of change, rather than dividing into girls vs boys. It provides one chapter on breasts and chests, one chapter on periods, one on testosterone driven changes. It manages to talk about these changes without excluding, shaming or delegitimising trans children.
“If you have a vagina. So let’s get back to body parts and start with outside private parts that most girls, and some nonbinary and trans kids have. If you have these parts, you know some of the names for them. If you don’t have these parts, it’s a great time to learn more about them!
“Let’s shift to talking about the genitals that most boys and some trans and non-binary kids have. If you were born with a penis, you’ve been looking at and touching it since you were a baby, right? And at some point (hopefully a long time ago!), you learned to hold your penis to aim it into the toilet when you pee. So if you’re like most kids with a penis, you have been pretty familiar with your genitals for a long time, and you know the names too, but let’s go through them just to be sure. If you don’t have a penis, it’s still important to learn about these parts to understand how EVERY body works!”
On uterus and ovaries:
“Most girls and some trans/non-binary kids have some pretty cool inside parts that work together. First, remember how we talked about the opening of the vagina? The vagina is actually a soft tunnel that starts at the vulva and goes inside the body to connect the inside parts to the outside world…”
On sperm & testes:
“Most boys and some trans/non-binary kids have bodies that can make sperm, and the penis is involved. Do you wonder how? We already mentioned that urine travels in the urethra as it passes through the penis and out of the body. But guess what also comes out through the uretha? Sperm. The cool thing is that urine and sperm comes from very different places inside the body. Urine is made by the kidneys and then sent into the bladder to be stored. Sperm …etc ”
“If you are like most girls, or some nonbinary or transgender kids, you have ovaries, which also help puberty start by making oestrogen. The very first thing oestrogen usually does is telling the breasts that it’s time to start growing”.
Where diagrams are used to show specific body parts, there is no reductive label provided of ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ bodies. This kind of title is not needed and alienates and invalidates trans pupils in front of their peers. Below is an example of a diagram of body part that does not need to have a ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ heading.
4. It recognises and is not afraid of acknowledging diversity, explicitly recognising the existence of trans people, intersex people, and the reality that not every person experiences puberty in the same way. Key to this inclusive approach is bringing in the word ‘Most’. When talking about gendered changes, this resource talks about, for example, periods being something that happens during puberty for ‘most girls, and some trans and non-binary kids’. Addition of the word ‘most’ is really important for trans, non-binary and intersex kids, making space for the reality that all bodies are different. Addition of the word ‘most’ is also important for cis girls who may not have periods for a variety of reasons.
5. I also like the way that this resource talks about puberty as inherently about moving from a child’s body towards having an adult’s body, in comparison to other puberty resources that describe puberty as building bodies ready for reproduction. De-centring fertility and reproduction during education on puberty is helpful, especially for individuals who are likely to have a non-traditional route to building (chosen) families, a category that is likely to include a significant proportion of LGBT youth.
6. Hormone driven changes. The resource is clear that the changes of puberty are driven by hormones. It finds a way to talk about hormones explicitly, talking about the changes that are caused by oestrogen, and the changes caused by testosterone. It talks about breast development being a pubertal changes that occurs in bodies with a large amount of oestrogen. It acknowledges that a majority of all bodies have some testosterone. It talks about the types of changes that are typical for bodies that have a large amount of testosterone.
7. Clear and upfront on body parts. Where body parts are integral to a particular pubertal change, this resource again is clear and upfront. When talking about periods, it talks about the changes that happen to people with a uterus, which includes most girls. Most girls, and anyone else with a uterus, when they have a large amount of oestrogen during puberty, are likely to start having periods.
8. It avoiding ruse of the reductive term ‘biological sex’. Within any trans inclusive puberty education it is important to avoid simplistic and reductive definitions of sex or ‘biological sex’. Where biological characteristics are relevant, it is important to refer to them in the plural, as ‘biological sex characteristics’. The Endocrine Society (global experts on hormones or endocrinology) advises against using the term biological sex noting that “the terms ‘biological sex’ and ‘biological male’ or ‘biological female’ are imprecise and should be avoided”. There are multiple sex characteristics (chromosomes, gonads, hormone levels etc), and humans do not fall into only two binary divisions in terms of sex characteristics. This recognition is critical to including trans and intersex people, as well as to including people who may not have a specific sex characteristic for a variety of reasons (eg cis women who have had a hysterectomy).
9. Likewise, it is important to avoid using gendered language like ‘male’ or ‘female’ to define body parts. Within this specific You-ology resource, there are a couple of references to ‘male bodies’. This type of reductive language goes against the ethos of the wider book and is rather frustrating. Let’s be clear here – using the word male to describe bodily features is just as exclusionary and harmful as talking about a ‘boy’s body’. There is no way to respectfully (or even accurately) describe a trans girl as having a ‘male body’. This type of language is delegitimising, inaccurate and disrespectful. If we care for the well-being of trans pupils, non-binary pupils or intersex pupils, we need to evolve away from inaccurate and binary language that excludes, delegitimises and stigmatises. (the image below comes from work by Sophie Labelle)
10. Being up front about the diversity amongst humans is easy to do, it simply requires educators who are themselves educated, and unafraid of talking about diversity. In the UK however, we have a generation of teachers who have themselves grown up under section 28, who have not have the opportunity to themselves receive diversity informed education. This is why inclusive educational resources like this one are so very important.
I’ll include here a few other recommended resource, but please send me other ideas to add in.
What makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth provides visually appealing information on babies, reproduction, fertility and families, suitable for any age. It is designed to be trans inclusive, and inclusive of all ways of building a family, including IVF, adoption, chosen families.
A guide for adults to help children engage with the book is also available here
A new resource (You know, sex) by the same team aims at a slightly older audience, covering bodies, puberty, and sex ed. with the same visually engaging and inclusive style.
The above resources are all paid-for US resources, not included in the curricula of major UK providers of PHSE education. The limited UK PHSE materials that I have seen have had woeful trans inclusivity, and would require adaptation by individual teachers to avoid harming trans pupils. This is obviously poor, and more is needed to pull up the standard of generic and off-the shelf PSHE materials, especially from PSHE specialist providers.
A downside of these resources shared above is that they do not include practical class materials or worksheets. (Mainstream UK puberty worksheets can often be trans-exclusionary and harmful, requiring individual adaptation by any teachers who care for their trans pupils). If any educators have produced free to access class worksheets or other materials that are trans inclusive, please email me (email@example.com) with links to any trans inclusive educational materials or worksheets.
Trans inclusive education is not difficult to do. It is time to make sure education is fit for every pupil.
NB. This is the accepted manuscript of an article published in a special issue of the Teacher’s College Record. The final published version (not open access) is available here.
Background/Context: Throughout the past decade, increasing numbers of trans children are being supported in childhood, with schools in countries across the world tasked with educating a generation of (known) trans pupils. Schools can adopt diverse approaches to inclusion or exclusion of trans pupils, with consequences for trans children’s well-being and safety at school. The literature includes extensive critique of the limitations of common approaches to trans inclusion, highlighting negative impacts on trans pupils.
Purpose: This article aims to reframe and bring nuance to conversations on trans inclusion in education, drawing upon primary research in the UK to make explicit different approaches to trans inclusion, their ideological underpinnings and their implications for how trans children are welcomed in our schools.
Setting: The research took place in the UK, with interviews conducted at a time of escalation of anti-trans discourse in UK courts and media.
Population: This article draws on data from two qualitative research projects focusing on the experiences of trans and non-binary children and their parents in the UK: one focusing on trans children aged 3 to 12, and the other on trans young people aged 12 to 18.
Research Design: Semi-structured interviews explored trans children’s experiences in education in the UK, with a focus on trans inclusive approaches to school culture, restrooms, and team sports. Data were analysed against the Trans-Inclusion Staged Model (TISM), a framework for distinguishing between different approaches to trans inclusion.
Findings: Within the TISM we differentiate between trans oppressive, assimilationist, accommodative and emancipatory approaches to educational inclusion. Interviews highlighted the harms and injustices in non-emancipatory approaches, revealing the role of cis-supremacy in forcing trans pupils into positions of vulnerability.
Conclusion/Recommendations: The TISM emphasizes the structural and systemic nature of trans oppression, illuminating the power imbalances embedded in non-emancipatory approaches and acknowledging the need for fundamental reform. We recommend analysis and recognition of areas of school practices that are trans oppressive, assimilationist, accommodative or emancipatory. We call for increased recognition of cis-supremacy within education, and commitment to emancipatory approaches to trans inclusion, enabling progress towards equity and gender justice in our schools.
In the first part of this article, we provide context for trans inclusion in UK schools, and summarise relevant global and national literature on trans inclusion in education. In the second part of this article, we introduce the Trans-Inclusion Staged-Model (TISM), distinguishing between trans oppressive, assimilationist, accommodative and emancipatory approaches. In the third part of this article the TISM is applied to primary data on trans children’s experiences in education in the UK, with a focus on trans inclusive approaches to school culture, restrooms, and team sports. We evaluate the limitations of different approaches to trans inclusion, discussing the implications for trans and non-binary pupils. We end with recommendations on emancipatory approaches to trans inclusion, striving towards a future of equity and gender justice in our schools.
Trans children’s rights in England, Scotland and Wales are protected under the Equality Act 2010, with “gender reassignment” one of nine protected characteristics (Wadham et al., 2016). The protected characteristic of gender reassignment applies to trans children, encompassing anyone who “is proposing to undergo, is undergoing, or has undergone a process (or part of a process) of…changing physiological or other attributes of sex”, the latter including, for example, pronoun change (Wadham et al., 2016, p.20). Department of Education advice on the application of the Equality Act in schools makes explicit that transgender pupils are protected from discrimination noting that it is “unlawful for schools to treat pupils less favourably because of their gender reassignment” (Department of Education, 2014, p.17). The same guidance states that where education is gender segregated, “pupils undergoing gender reassignment should be allowed to attend the single sex class that accords with the gender role in which they identify” (Department of Education, 2014, p.20). The use of the Equality Act 2010 to protect the right to “reasonable adjustment” in schools has not yet been tested in court for the characteristic of “gender reassignment”, though it has been tested and proven with regard to other protected characteristics, for example disability (C & C v The Governing Body of a School, The Secretary of State for Education (First Interested Party) and The National Autistic Society (Second Interested Party) (SEN) 2018).
Across the UK a wide range of school guidance materials or policies have been developed to support inclusion of trans children and young people in education (Horton, 2020), but without adequate clear UK-wide national guidance. The UK government’s 2018 “LGBT Action Plan” (Government Equalities Office, 2018) committed to funding an extension of research started in 2014 into homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying at school. This work was, contrary to other research (Greytak et. al.,2013), inclusive of the ‘T’ in ‘LGBT’, but its focus on bullying meant that this work did not attempt to address systemic areas of policy and curriculum, and guidance drawn from the research was never disseminated to schools (Carlile and Paechter 2018).
Across the UK a wide range of school guidancematerials or policies have been developed to supportinclusion of trans children and young people in education (Horton, 2020), but without adequate clear UK-wide national guidance. The UK government’s 2018 “LGBT Action Plan” (Government Equalities Office, 2018) committed to funding an extension of research started in 2014 into homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying at school. This work was, contrary to other research (Greytak et. al.,2013), inclusive of the ‘T’ in ‘LGBT’, but its focus on bullying meant that this work did not attempt to address systemic areas of policy and curriculum, and guidance drawn from the research was never disseminated to schools (Carlile and Paechter 2018).
The most significant recent change in UK educational policy relating to trans children could be argued to reside in the 2020 Relationships, Sex and Health Education guidance which requires secondary schools in England (for ages 11 to 16) to deliver LGBT inclusive curriculum, and strongly advises primary schools (for ages 4 to 11) to do so. Partly because of the Covid pandemic, the impact of this new policy remains to be seen (Epps et.al., 2021). However, it is limited to a particular curricular area, so does not necessarily have the potential for widespread policy change or the usualisation of LGBT people and trans children in particular across the curriculum, school policies and practice (Carlile and Paechter 2018).
Review of relevant literature
Existing global literature on trans children’s experiences in education raises areas of significant concern, with evidence of bullying and harassment, of school drop-out, and of encounters with discrimination and prejudice(Horton, 2020; Bower-Brown et al., 2021; McBride, 2020). Schools and individual teachers may feel underprepared for trans inclusion, with research highlighting the “panic” that can be experienced when a school is first faced with (knowingly) including a trans pupil (Payne & Smith, 2014). The picture for trans pupils in the UK remains poor, with the 2017 Stonewall school report finding 45% of 500 surveyed secondary school trans pupils had attempted to take their own life, and 84% reported self-harm (Bradlow et al., 2017). Qualitative research on secondary school age trans pupils has highlighted a wide range of challenges and areas of educational injustice across the UK (Bower-Brown et al., 2021, Carlile, Butteriss, and Pullen Sansfaçon 2021). Research on primary school trans pupils found evidence of trauma in schools poorly prepared for trans inclusion (Anonymised 2).
Phipps and Blackall (2021) draw attention to the ways in which cisnormative gender regimes are embedded in school culture. Cisnormativity is the assumption that everyone is, or should be, cis (i.e. not trans) (Keo-Meier & Ehrensaft, 2018). Research has examined the ways in which school cisnormativity disadvantages and harms trans pupils (Bartholomaeus & Riggs, 2017; Cumming-Potvin & Martino, 2018; McBride & Neary, 2021). Miller (2016, p. 3) describes how school cisnormativity privileges cis pupils, reinforcing a culture of educational injustice, where minoritized students are “forced to focus on simple survival rather than success or fulfilment”. Trans pupils are placed under significant stress when educators and policy makers try to fit them into cisnormative schools that were not designed to meet the needs of trans children(Smith & Payne, 2016).
Recognizing the challenges faced by trans children in education, efforts have increasingly shifted towards building understanding of and commitment to trans inclusion in our schools (Horton, 2020). Payne and Smith (2014) review school approaches to trans inclusion, noting willingness to take minor actions to enable inclusion, whilst avoiding examination of more systemic aspects of school culture. Martino et al. (2020, p. 1) highlight a tendency for some trans inclusion approaches, especially in primary schools, to focus purely on gender stereotypes, noting how this side-steps issues of genuine trans inclusion, and “eschews the necessity of addressing cisgender privilege and cisnormativity in the education system”. Neary (2021) discusses the limits of individualizing and conditional methods of inclusion, where trans children are forced to bend themselves to fit into cisnormative systems. Literature has highlighted the insufficiency of some efforts towards trans inclusion (Pullen Sansfaçon et al., 2021). Even when schools do try to accommodate trans students, it is often attempted through reactive accommodation that lacks integration and fails resolve more systemic issues (Martino et al., 2020). Smith and Payne (2016, p. 34) point to a lack of commitment to institutional and systemic change, noting that “failure to make structural changes is indicative of narrow interpretations of gender-inclusive schooling”. Smidt and Freyd (2018) question the ambition of approaches to trans inclusion that fail to recognize cisnormativity or address areas of institutional oppression.
Conceptualizing Trans Inclusion as a Staged Model
This article builds from the critiques of narrow approaches to trans inclusion summarised above, challenging us to raise our ambition for trans inclusion, centring a commitment to equity and justice in education. We recognize that under the heading of ‘trans-inclusive’ education there are a multiplicity of intentions, aspirations and assumptions. We suggest that conflation of different approaches under one heading of trans-inclusive education impedes understanding, analysis and action towards trans-equality. Here we propose a staged-model for trans inclusion, the Trans Inclusion Staged-Model (TISM). This staged-model aims to more clearly distinguish and differentiate between different approaches to trans inclusion in schools, illustrating four discrete approaches. We see value in utilising this staged-model as a conceptual framework for clarifying distinctions between diverse approaches to trans inclusion, drawing attention to their ideological assumptions, priorities and limitations.
Staged-models or maturity models are widely used across diverse spheres and sectors to benchmark and improve practices (McLeod et al., 2020; Tarhan et al., 2016). Such models have been critiqued as a static assessment tool, when used to place snapshot judgements on processes, institutions or practices that are complex and dynamic. Here this staged-model is not presented as a rigid evaluation tool, but instead intended to provide us with the language and conceptual clarity to have more meaningful discussions on different approaches to trans inclusion. With this article we hope to prompt readers to reflect upon the ideological and ethical underpinnings of each proposed level, and to question where current trans-inclusive practices lie. Benchmarking against a staged-model can be a helpful way of understanding the strengths and weaknesses of current practice, and can provide a stepping stone from which to prioritize actions for improved practice. This model defines four staged levels, ranging from trans-oppressive, to trans-assimilationist, to trans-accommodative, through to trans-emancipatory (see next section for details).
Whilst it can be used to assess established practice, the TISM is intended to be future looking, for shaping strategies and action plans. It is recognized that the benchmarking of practice is subjective and dynamic. For example, what aspirations for trans emancipatory practice look like from a point of trans oppressive practice may differ significantly depending on the aspirations we hold as we move closer to a position of gender justice. This is proposed as a strength of the TISM, with expectations, ambitions and priorities not set in advance, rather providing a framework to enable self-driven evaluation and progress. The TISM can help those who are committed to equity and justice to make progress towards trans-emancipatory education.
The TISM is also designed to ensure approaches to trans inclusion benefit all pupils, including those with least privilege. We particularly see value in our proposed staged-model for drawing attention to those who are ill-served by current practice, illuminating why some trans-inclusive practices can fail to benefit all trans pupils. We recognize (and explore herein) the limitations of non-emancipatory approaches to trans inclusion. Such approaches are hypothesised as more likely to benefit a certain type of trans pupil: those with parental support and social capital, those who are binary-oriented, non-disclosing, who do not challenge cis-dominant institutional hierarchies, often those who are white, and who have access to healthcare. We see value in this staged-model in drawing attention to those who are at risk of being left behind in non-emancipatory approaches to trans inclusion.
A note on language
In this article the term “trans children” will be used. Trans children includes transgender and or non-binary children, also described as “gender diverse children” (Keo-Meier & Ehrensaft, 2018). “Cis” is a term for non-trans or cisgender people. This article uses the term cisnormativity, in preference2 to related and overlapping terms including cisgenderism and cissexism. Where all ages under 18 are included (including the youngest pre-primary and primary school children) the term “children” will be used. Where necessary this will be divided into trans children and trans adolescents, and where appropriate the term “trans young people” or “trans youth” will be used, with the term “youth” excluding younger children and including young adults (UNDESA, 2013).
This article draws upon two datasets. Carlile collected one dataset as part of an international project looking at the experiences of trans children and their parents in Canada, Switzerland, Australia, the US and the UK (Pullen Sansfaçon et al 2021) and focusing on separately interviewing twelve parent-child dyadic pairs. Participants were families who lived in England and who were contacted via a support group. They mostly identified as “white British” or “English” and all the parents interviewed were cisgender women. The children were aged between 5 and 20, with the mean age being 15. Eight of the children identified as boys, two as girls, and three as non-binary. Data was collected in line with Vincent’s (2018) guidelines on conducting research with trans people. It was therefore important to take a robust approach to confidentiality (Adams et al., 2017); to work with a trans researcher who interviewed most of the trans child and youth participants and sense-checked the analysis; to invite participants to choose the location of the interview and to pause and restart where necessary; and to ask the questions in an open format as far as was possible, notwithstanding the need to adhere to the established question schedule in order to allow for an international comparison.
Horton collected a second dataset as part of a PhD on the experiences of trans children who socially transition under the age of 11 and their families. 30 parents and 10 trans children from across England, Scotland and Wales were interviewed. The 30 parents shared experiences supporting their trans children (current average age 11; range 6-16) who socially transitioned at average age 7 (range at transition 3-10 years old). Interviewed parents were 100% cis, 93% female, 90% white and were contacted via 6 UK support groups for parents with trans children. Horton brings experience as a non-binary parent of a young trans child and is themselves a member of four of those parent support groups, enabling privileged access to a hard-to-reach cohort of parents with young trans children. The 10 interviewed children, who opted in to participation after their parent was interviewed, were on average age 12 (range 9-16). Semi-structured interviews, covering broad topics including healthcare, education and families, lasted 1-3 hours (average 2 hours) for parents, and 20-50 minutes for children (average 25 minutes). Interviews utilised broad open-ended questions, allowing interviewees to talk openly and at length around each topic. Interviews were conducted remotely on Microsoft Teams. The interview methodology with trans children was flexible, adapting to individual child preference, with some interviews conducted one-to-one, some conducted with their parent present, one with their parent asking pre-determined questions and recording the interview, and one child preferring to provide written responses to questions that they selected from a longer list of potential questions.
Both Carlile’s and Horton’s data collection methodologies adhered to British Educational Research Association guidelines and were ratified by the authors’ university. These included information sheets and consent forms which were provided in a range of versions appropriate to each age group and explained verbally where necessary.
Methods of Analysis
Data collected by Carlile was transcribed by a third-party transcription company and then coded in NVivo using a thematic analysis approach which went through three coding stages in collaboration between the initial data collection team members. Coding grouped together themes of the experience of clinical settings, children’s identities, extra-curricular activities and friendships, as well as the school experiences which are the focus of this paper. Data collected by Horton was transcribed by the author, the transcripts compared against the recordings for accuracy, and stored on an encrypted platform. Anonymised transcripts were then coded in Nvivo applying reflective thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006). This paper examines a subset of the wider data corpus, focusing on experiences in education. Data from two datasets were brought into the analysis, both to see how the proposed model could be applied to different datasets, and to enrich the analysis with data on a wider cohort and age range of trans pupils. We were confident in the compatibility and complementarity of the two datasets and methodological approaches, with Carlile acting as supervisor for Horton’s PhD, and having experience of prior collaboration on a range of research partnerships.
We propose a staged-model of trans inclusion, from trans oppressive to trans emancipatory (see Table 1). This section provides an overview of the four proposed levels of trans inclusion, grounded in existing literature. The following section applies this model to our own data, drawn from primary research in the UK.
Table 1: Staged- model: from trans oppressive to trans emancipatory
Locus of change
Individual child allowed to change
Class or year group
Time-scale for change
One discrete moment
While specific child is present
Cis-supremacy in full dominance
Cis-supremacy with exceptionalism
Gender justice and trans liberation
Significance of change
Brief glitch in the matrix then reset / recategorization then business as usual
Temporary accommodation / accommodation within discrete parameters
Genuine power shift to cis trans equality
This staged-model for trans inclusion contrasts four levels or approaches to trans inclusion in schools ranging from trans oppressive, through to trans emancipatory.
At the first level of the framework, schools, policies or areas of educational practice are considered trans-oppressive. In this approach, trans identities are actively persecuted and disenfranchised, with trans pupils forced to present and align with their incorrectly assigned gender. A trans-oppressive approach assumes trans pupils are illegitimate, inferior or unworthy of rights, making no space for trans well-being. Across global literature there are numerous examples of schools adopting a trans-oppressive approach, with significant consequences for trans children in schools that are hostile and discriminatory (Ferfolja & Ullman, 2017; Ingrey, 2018; Luecke, 2018; Meyer & Keenan, 2018; Miller et al., 2018; Omercajic & Martino, 2020).
The second level in the framework aspires for trans-assimilation. In this approach, a trans pupil can be re-categorized, shifting from one binary box to the other, and is then expected to disappear into a cisnormative system without wider implications for a school. A trans-assimilationist approach assumes a trans pupil is exactly the same as a cis pupil, but mis-categorized. It assumes a binary-oriented trans pupil, who can change their category, and then disappear un-noticed within a school that immediately regains its appearance of uniform cis-ness. A trans-assimilationist approach can suit or appeal to some trans pupils, especially those who are gender-conforming, who “pass”, who are non-disclosing, and who are binary-oriented. Martino and Cumming-Potvin (2017) provide an example of a teacher adopting a trans assimilationist approach, accepting a trans child as though cis, without consideration of anything further being needed. Frohard-Dourlent (2016) similarly highlights how a teacher discourse of “open-mindedness” can contribute to trans-assimilationist approaches, where a pupil’s transitude is dismissed, without any recognition of the ways in which assimilationist approaches can perpetuate systems of inequality. Frohard-Dourlent (2016) draws a comparison to white people who describe “not seeing race” and the way this discourse can reinforce and avoid scrutiny of the racism embedded in institutions and cultures.
Martino and Cumming-Potvin (2017) describe how a swift transition of a trans child from one category to another can be accomplished within a school without disrupting cis-supremacy, and without considering any need for action beyond that very moment of transition. Davy and Cordova (2019) note that such schools can readily re-categorize binary oriented trans pupils, yet struggle to effectively absorb non-binary pupils. McBride (2020) references literature on visibility, noting that invisible minorities can be side-lined and ignored. Martino et al. (2020, p. 2) reference the “erasure of trans personhood within school communities”, where trans pupils are absorbed into a cis-mainstream without any effort towards active trans inclusion.
At level three of the framework schools prioritize trans accommodation, where adaptations or disruptions to the cis-dominant status quo are negotiated or permitted on an individualized basis. This accommodative approach is often driven by a single pupil or their family, with a visible trans pupil providing the catalyst for adaptations catering to that specific child. A trans accommodative approach recognizes that trans pupils can have different needs to cis pupils. However, it still assumes a trans pupil is a one-off, a diversion from the norm, with everything in the school reverting to business as usual once that pupil has passed through that class or year group or left the school. When taking an accommodative approach, there may be an assumption that changes are being made just for that one pupil, and there is often a significant burden on individual pupils to ask for, educate on, or advocate for the adaptations that they need.
Martino and Cumming-Potvin (2017) talk of the impact of an “out” trans student disrupting the familiar and taken for granted cisnormative binary. Several authors have written about the immense burden placed on trans children, or their families, when expected to advocate for their own inclusion in cisnormative institutions that were not designed with trans pupils in mind (Davy & Cordoba, 2019; Neary & Cross, 2018; Riggs & Bartholomaeus, 2018). The same authors emphasize the inequalities inherent in accommodative approaches, in systems where pupils and parents draw on their existing social capital, connections, power and privilege to demand accommodation. They recognize the likelihood of inferior outcomes where pupils or parents lack the knowledge, capacity, authority or power to assert their rights. In an accommodative approach, the power structure of cis-supremacy remains in place; accommodation has to be requested, and may be denied. While cis-supremacy is in place, trans pupils are by default put into a position of having to make themselves “coherent and intelligible to adults who have the power to (dis)allow” their inclusion (Frohard-Dourlent, 2018, p. 11).
A trans-accommodative approach often regards accommodations as a short-term aberration, with institutions reverting to the earlier status quo once a known trans pupil has left. Meyer and Keenan (2018, p. 749) emphasize the deficiencies in an approach that is “primarily focused on the management of individual people and cases, rather than institutional change”. Schools in this approach risk perpetually burdening trans pupils, placing them in a position of precarity where they need to negotiate their own inclusion. McBride and Neary (2021, p. 2) describe how trans adolescents disrupt institutional cisnormativity through “individual and collective acts of resistance”. Trans adolescents may be effective in challenging discriminatory policy or practice, though this does not deny the emotional toll of putting adolescents in such a position (Meyer et al., 2016). In order to resist and challenge cisnormativity trans youth have to assert and stand up for their own rights, a position where they “risk becoming identifiable and targetable” (McBride & Neary, 2021, p. 4). Such pupils are forced into a position as a visible minority, with the potential of being singled out as a troublemaker. Frohard-Dourlent (2018, p. 2) notes how schools that we could describe as assimilationist or accommodative “mark trans students as troublesome because they, (intentionally or otherwise) highlight the limits of the gendered assumptions that underlie many school practices”.
Across the literature there are examples of schools more easily assimilating a certain type of trans pupil; one that is gender conforming, binary-oriented, non-disclosing, who can be easily absorbed into a cis-dominant system with barely any disruption (Horton, forthcoming; Frohard-Dourlent, 2018). Schools find it simpler to accommodate “binary trans students, because their genders are more culturally intelligible” (Frohard-Dourlent, 2018, p. 2). Binary-oriented trans pupils are easier to assimilate or accommodate without significantly changing the gendered assumptions on which schools are run. Non-binary pupils “are more threatening to the dominant paradigm” (Frohard-Dourlent, 2018, p. 9) presenting challenges to (cis-supremacist) schools.
Level four: trans-emancipatory education, describes schools where trans pupils are understood as genuine equals to their cis classmates. This entails a genuine power shift to a position of gender justice and trans liberation, where trans pupils are genuine equals to their cis classmates.Existing literature provides limited insights into trans emancipatory education. Frohard-Dourlent (2018, p. 1) “argues for more systemic changes that do not require the presence of trans bodies, and instead offer possibilities for educational spaces in which all students would experience fewer pressures of gender”. Neary (2019) highlights how parents advocating for trans children do not want individualized accommodation of their particular child, but rather aspire towards schools where gender is less rigidly policed for all children.
Across the four levels we note the varying influence of cis supremacy. Cis supremacy is here understood as a situation where cis people hold power over or are privileged over trans people, with trans people systemically disadvantaged. Sharrow writes about how institutions are a “site for advancing, enshrining, and normalizing cis-supremacist gender orders” (2021, p.1). Schools that ignore cis-supremacist hierarchies are complicit in perpetuating, legitimising and enabling discrimination (Ferfolja & Ullman, 2021). Frohard Dourlent (2016, p. 68) emphasizes how approaches that fall short of emancipation avoid “a systemic analysis of how power functions to constitute both students and educators within systems of gender conformity”. Here we make this consideration of power explicit, focusing on cis-supremacy, and acknowledging the ways in which non-emancipatory approaches to trans inclusion may aim to assimilate or accommodate a trans pupil, whilst leaving underpinning structures, processes and systems of cis-supremacy unchallenged.
A note on non-disclosure versus assimilation
Disclosure is a term to describe how and when an individual decides to share with others information about their being trans. Across any of these levels of the TISM, an important distinction is made between a school imposing their own agenda onto a trans child’s approach to disclosure (pushing a trans child into being out as trans, or pushing a child to being non-disclosing), and a child being enabled to make their own decisions on disclosure. It is important to note that trans children may assert their right to non-disclosure across all approaches (including in trans-emancipatory or trans-oppressive schools). The description of assimilation in level 2, therefore, is not a description of an individual child’s preference to assimilate and be presumed cis, but where a school implicitly or explicitly encourages or demands assimilation. Horton (forthcoming) describes a school explicitly restricting a child from using the word “trans” to describe themselves, an example of enforced assimilation.
The TISM in practice: Application to three common scenarios
In this section we consider three scenarios in which schools commonly take distinct approaches to trans inclusion or exclusion: a school’s capacity to build a trans-positive culture (including meaningful inclusion in the community and responses to bullying and misgendering); PE and sport; and toilet facilities. These common elements of school infrastructure are illuminating foci for the application of the Trans Inclusion Staged-Model (TISM) described above. They have been selected as they are frequently invoked by the parents, children and young people both authors interviewed as visceral exemplifications of a sense of inclusion or exclusion. As one participant explained: “…it would be nice if the school could have had like just … found a way to like make everyone have PE and not feel uncomfortable about how they look. Or like feel about their gender or themselves. Or where they pee or do their business or take care of themselves” (boy, 15).
Building trans-positive school cultures
Trans children are known to be at risk of isolation, bullying and a lack of belonging in school with implications for their well-being, educational attainment, and ability to complete their education (Horton, 2020; McBride, 2020). We consider a trans-positive school culture to be one which implements meaningful trans inclusion in the school community, and effective, confident institutional responses to bullying and misgendering. The examples below highlight the ways in which many schools are not consistently committed to implementing systemic changes to create trans-positive cultures that are safe and welcoming for trans pupils (Smith and Payne 2016).
Trans-oppressive schools fail to ensure school safety, with pupils left unsupported against bullying or social exclusion, being physically or emotionally unsafe at school. One of our participants described how they had been bullied by other students: “… some of the boys in class … started to just call me … “it” because they were like, “oh it’s a thing” instead of a person” (non-binary young person, 15).
Trans-assimilationist schools are likely to take a reactive response to overt manifestations of bullying, punishing pupils for abusive language or correcting pupils who misgender, without tackling the underlying attitudes or ignorance that drives delegitimization and exclusion of trans children. The children and young people we interviewed who were pupils in such schools were likely to talk about exclusion from friendship groups, feeling misunderstood and unwelcome, even while schools reacted to individual incidents of abuse. Several of the trans-assimilationist schools described by our interviewees did not appear to be tackling systemic and wide-spread transphobic bullying. The data suggested that these schools addressed a pupil’s transition as a simple gender category change, considering a child’s transition to be a one-off event, and failing to recognize the need for broader action to create a trans-positive school environment. A parent of a primary aged child (under 11) described this experience: “… they just sort of tried to carry on as if everything was fine but this child just had a different name and pronouns”.
One parent we interviewed reported a teacher saying to her: “We just think of her as one of the girls, we just never would have thought that anything might be an issue”. Interviewees reported that pupils in such schools were likely to experience periodic incidents of bullying or abuse, with the onus on an individual pupil or parent to report and seek action on each incident. Where bullying was widespread or comprised an ongoing series of individually minor incidents from multiple individuals, trans pupils were at risk of being labelled over-sensitive or demanding, with schools losing patience in responding to each incident. Where trans pupils responded themselves to recurrent bullying incidents, they were at risk of being labelled a trouble-maker.
In contrast, the schools described by our interviewees which we would characterise as trans-accommodative appeared to recognize that a lack of trans-representation or trans-positivity could underpin the bullying or isolation of trans pupils. Such schools were reported to prioritize tackling underlying attitudes or lack of knowledge and understanding of transitude. One child described the contrast between a school with a reactive trans-assimilationist approach, and a new school they moved to that they considered more proactive in raising awareness and understanding. The new school provided proactive education, including showing a TV series with trans-positive depiction of a young trans girl navigating a new school (Kalceff, 2020), in sessions attended by both staff and students. The young person (girl, 11) felt that this made “…an extremely big difference – in the school where they didn’t show the video I would get picked on a lot by people because they don’t understand it very well. When in the other school where they did show the video, you understand why it’s difficult and why it’s hard”. Whilst we cannot be sure that positive representation was instrumental in changing culture, for this young person, a proactive effort to educate classmates (an approach we could characterise as trans accommodative) contributed to a trans-positive school culture.
In trans-accommodative schools, proactive trans positive education was often prompted by the presence of a particular trans child. Our participants explained that trans-positive education was not provided ahead of the arrival of a specific known trans child, and often only took place after advocacy from a child or parent, or after schools noted persistent or wide-spread bullying, recognizing the negative repercussions of a reactive anti-bullying approach. It seems from the data we collected that in trans-accommodative schools trans-positive education is prompted by a specific trans pupil disrupting the cisnormative status quo, with that trans pupil enduring ignorance and hostility while a school moves on a learning curve towards trans-positivity. As one frustrated parent stated ”I don’t have the time for people to learn. I need them to be able to keep my child safe straight away”. Schools with what could be considered trans-emancipatory cultures prioritized trans-positive education with high expectations for trans inclusion before a trans pupil’s arrival or transition. Where pupils joined or transitioned in a school with a pre-existing commitment to trans-equality, they did not need to request or advocate for trans-positive adaptations: trans positivity was already expected. This did not mean a total absence of transphobic bullying incidents, but such trans-emancipatory schools were well equipped to tackle both overt bullying, and the awareness and attitudes that legitimise transphobia. Trans-emancipatory schools are ones with a robust response to bullying underpinned, crucially, with proactive education of all students and staff, raising awareness, acceptance and trans-positivity.
The different approaches to ensuring a trans-positive culture found within our data highlight the limitations and opportunities of different approaches to trans inclusion. These findings build upon existing literature that critiques the shortcomings of trans inclusive approaches primarily grounded in an anti-bullying agenda, noting that such approaches can be pathologising rather than educational and celebratory, and tend to individualize transphobia, erasing and distracting from wider systemic and institutionally-perpetuated roots of trans inequality in education (Ferfolja & Ullman, 2021; Formby, 2015; Ullman, 2018). At the same time, we note that anti-bullying approaches can provide the foundation for a shift towards improved practice, with schools generally being comfortable with the notion of being against bullying (Carlile 2020). A trans-emancipatory approach goes beyond anti-bullying, “usualising” trans people across the curriculum and school environment in a systemic way. This movement beyond the narrow boundaries of anti-bullying practice is closer to the responsibilities embedded in the public sector Equality Act 2010 duty to actively enhance knowledge and understanding of marginalised groups (Carlile 2020).
PE and sport
Physical education (PE) spaces are often noted to be explicitly binary (Jones et al., 2017; Muchicko et al., 2014). Bullying, heteronormative notions of masculinity, and institutional structures such as uniforms, teams and changing rooms can exclude trans children and young people (Human Rights Council, 2020; Greenspan et al., 2019; Kulick et al., 2019). Analysis of a secondary school trans pupil’s experience in PE emphasized how inclusion of trans pupils in binary PE systems fails to challenge wider cisnormativity (Phipps & Blackall, 2021). Neary and McBride (2021) draw attention to the compromises trans youth must make to participate in sport.
In a trans-oppressive school, trans pupils might be forced to use facilities or compete in sport as their incorrectly assigned gender. Across our dataset, there were several examples of trans pupils being expected to play sport with pupils of their assigned gender. In other schools, a lack of clear policy led to confusion and debate on where trans pupils should play, with trans children left feeling unwelcome in sport. A large number of trans children in both samples were disengaged from school sports, even at primary school level, finding cisnormative and gender segregated spaces unwelcoming. Several parents described trans children who had disengaged from PE. One explained that her child “… loves sports but he’s not participating in PE. Why? Why, why is a child who loves rugby, football, swimming, hockey, basketball, dancing, why is he not participating in sport?”
Other schools recognized the rights of trans pupils to play sport in their gender. In a trans-assimilationist scenario, trans pupils are recategorized, and following formal request and discussion, are allowed to play and compete in their affirmed gender. This assimilation occurs without any changes to the originally available options or categories, and for some trans pupils, an assimilationist approach enabled them to participate and enjoy PE and sport. Assimilation into gendered groupings is however, less likely to meet the needs of non-binary pupils. Whilst trans-assimilationist schools can enable binary-oriented trans pupils to play in their affirmed gender, the best option such schools are able to offer non-binary pupils is to pick which of two binary teams to play on. According to our interviewees, this approach did not meet pupil need, creating uncomfortable environments. One non-binary young person explained their changing-room experience:
…PE was the hardest thing …in the changing rooms everyone would just be like “[name] is staring at me” when really, I wasn’t staring at them… they were just judgemental.
The trans-assimilationist schools described in our data appeared not to recognize or challenge the cisnormative nature of physical education spaces, and failed to create an environment in which trans pupils felt welcome and wanted. One parent reported that their primary-aged non-binary child asked them: “why do they have a girl’s race and a boy’s race … which race would I run in? And if there was a “both” race, would I be the only one running it?” Another parent described how her child had completely dropped out of doing sports altogether: “… because if they were going to compete, they could only do it in a binary gender, they had to pick one. So that really sort of took the joy of it out of it for them”.
Across our datasets, PE was a space where notably there were no examples of trans-accommodative or trans-emancipatory approaches. Adapting PE to cater for the needs of a minority of trans pupils was beyond the scope of ad-hoc and responsive reactions to a specific pupil. And whilst schools continue to treat each trans pupil as a one-off, the schools we heard about did not seem to be developing practices where all trans and non-binary children and young people can easily be welcomed in sport and physical education.
School toilets (“restrooms” or “bathrooms” in the US and Canada) are another example of explicitly gendered infrastructure (Kjaran, 2019). Toilets can function as spaces of exclusion, fear and discomfort, posing specific dilemmas for non-binary children (Bower-Brown et al., 2021; Paechter, Toft and Carlile 2021). Several of our interviewees described trans-oppressive approaches to school bathrooms, where they were denied access to appropriate facilities with material consequences for their mental and physical health. Many participants across both datasets simply opted out of using the toilet at school at all. One child who described being unable to use school facilities said: “I would hold it in until like literally school ended”.
Many binary-oriented young people described encountering trans-assimilationist approaches, where, often following formal request, negotiation and permission, they were allowed to use facilities matching their gender. This approach to the use of toilets viscerally exemplifies the way in which a trans-assimilationist approach can allow some trans pupils to be re-categorized within a school, without changing anything else in the school system. For some binary-oriented trans pupils, this approach met their needs. As Ingrey (2018, p.787) explains: “one must submit oneself to scrutiny of a public who can choose to accommodate or not” which only serves to “reinforce the binary of the gendered norm and the gendered other”.
Whilst a trans-assimilationist approach can meet the toilet needs of some binary-oriented trans pupils, it is less likely to meet the needs of non-binary pupils. Several non-binary children described needing to choose between girls’ or boys’ facilities, with neither meeting their need. Schools without toilet provision for non-binary children could be described as falling within the trans-oppressive paradigm, leading to repeated experiences of bullying and exclusion. One non-binary participant explained:
The girls were like, “you can’t come in here you’re a boy, this is the girls’ toilets”. And then they went out, they told me to go to the boys’ so I walked to the boys’. And then the boys all stared at me and they were like, “you can’t come here, you don’t look like you’re meant to be in here. Are you a girl or something or are you a [transphobic slur]”? And then like I used to get tripped up like down the hallway going to the toilets or whatever.
For a number of the young people we interviewed, the school’s original toilet options did not meet their needs. For some this was because of safety issues and bullying experiences such as that described above; for others because the schools lacked gender neutral facilities. In a trans-accommodative scenario, bespoke additional options are sometimes developed, for example in a specific location or for a specific year group, to accommodate the needs of specific pupils. This accommodation typically is developed following request, discussion or negotiation by or on behalf of a specific pupil. It is not typically sustained or accessible to other trans pupils.
Importantly, we draw a critical distinction between a trans-accommodative approach, where additional options are made available to better meet a child’s need, and trans-oppressive approaches, where trans pupils are forced to accept a bespoke or segregated option (for example, told to use a staff toilet, when they might prefer to use the general boys’ toilet). Within our data, accommodative examples included a school enabling access to a staff toilet/changing room, for a child who wanted additional privacy. The parent felt this adaptation met their child’s need for additional privacy, but acknowledged that this approach was inadequate for the future needs of trans students: “…well, I mean, if you’ve got ten trans kids in your school, they can’t all have individual toilets so, that feels like an interim measure”. This could be understood to fall into the trans-accommodative paradigm, characterised in the model described above as “benevolent cis-supremacy”. In a trans-emancipatory approach, trans-inclusive options would be sustained and open to all pupils, without requiring permission, negotiation or request.
Conclusion and recommendations
This study introduced the Trans Inclusion Staged-Model (TISM) as a framework for understanding and distinguishing between different approaches to trans inclusion. This staged-model is intended as a tool to enable reflection, self-assessment and discussion, with particular consideration of the limitations or implications of trans-inclusive approaches that are not trans-emancipatory. The TISM does not aspire to be a rigid objective evaluation tool, and we draw attention to the fact that the same school can adopt different approaches to trans inclusion in different spheres, for example being trans oppressive in approach to sport whilst being trans emancipatory in uniform practices.We are interested in working with trans children to identify how they would rate their school in terms of trans inclusion across different domains, and identifying the domains where they would most want to see change, though that falls beyond the scope of this present article.
This study applied the TISM to three scenarios (culture, PE, toilets), illuminating different approaches to trans inclusion, and considering their implications for trans pupils. The experiences shared by interviewees primarily focus on critiques of the limitations or inadequacies of non-emancipatory approaches, and the struggle to protect trans children from trans-oppressive approaches. Our data emphasized how parental advocacy can be pivotal in a school’s shift from a trans-oppressive to a trans assimilationist or trans-accommodative approach, dependant on an individual parent’s ability and opportunity to advocate for their child’s rights. Against a background of a lack of UK-wide educational guidelines, and varying education authority guidelines, trans children’s rights to equal access to education appear to often be determined by the attitudes and knowledge of individual school leaders, or reliant upon the advocacy and knowledge of parents of trans children. This leaves a subset of trans pupils potentially more vulnerable to trans-oppressive environments.
Our data reveal examples of schools adopting trans assimilationist approaches, where binary-oriented trans pupils are slotted into cisnormative school systems without shifting or even acknowledging the underlying cis-supremacy. Our data also highlights a distinction between the trans pupils that seem to be easily assimilated, especially those who are conforming, binary-oriented, and non-disclosing, and trans pupils for whom simple assimilation is not feasible, including pupils who are “out and proud”, who have expectations of genuine equality, who do not or cannot “pass”, or who are non-conforming or non-binary. Schools which adopt a trans-assimilationist approach with one trans pupil, who do not recognize the limitations of such an approach, can too easily frame a less easily assimilated pupil as overly demanding, or troublesome.
Our data highlighted a number of examples of accommodative approaches, with trans children or parents negotiating adaptations to better integrate trans pupils. Parents within our sample reported frustration at trans-positive adaptations being considered a one-off, not being sustained within a school, and not being extended to other pupils. These examples highlight the limitations of accommodative approaches that do not prioritize genuine transformative change that can benefit all trans pupils.
Trans emancipatory approaches ensure all trans pupils are genuinely able to access education on an equal footing to their cis peers. Across our own data, and the existing literature, there are limited examples of what a trans-emancipatory approach looks like, with limited examples of inclusion pre-dating a child’s arrival or transition, and few examples of inclusion being embedded into a school’s culture and practices, without requiring individual advocacy. This present article does not attempt to predict or prescribe what trans-emancipatory education should look like, instead providing a conceptual vision to be built upon. Further research, in collaboration with trans pupils, could delve further into trans-emancipatory ambitions in education.
The TISM emphasizes the structural and systemic nature of trans oppression, illuminating the power imbalances embedded in non-emancipatory approaches and acknowledging the need for fundamental reformof the “institutionalised mechanisms of power that disadvantage trans people” (Spade, 2007 p.20). The TISM acknowledges how institutions like schools codify and perpetuate norms of social control that dictate which children are accepted and acceptable in school (Spade, 2015). Spade (2015, p.5) notes how norms uphold systems of domination that “produce security for some populations and vulnerability for others”, calling for a action to tackle the population-level conditions that instil vulnerability. Serano (2016) has written on how forces like cisnormativity and cis-supremacy function in part through their invisibility as the unmarked status quo. The TISM recognizes how systems of oppression like cis-supremacy work in the background, as presumed ‘neutral’ features, un-noticed by cis people, until they are brought to our attention by their clash with, and impact on, trans children (Spade, 2015). Building on Kumashiro (2004, p.46) we note that “challenging oppression requires more than simply becoming aware of oppression…because people are often invested in the status quo.
The TISM also emphasizes the vital importance of prioritizing solutions that will benefit the most vulnerable, recognizing who is left out in assimilationist or accommodative approaches.Echoing work by Namaste (2011) it challenges us to prioritize solutions that will benefit all trans children, rather than actions or accommodations that will elevate only a subset of less marginalised individuals. An important acknowledged limitation of the TISM is its one-dimensional focus on trans-inclusion. It is certainly critical to understand intersectionality, gendered racialisation and the interplay between cis-supremacy and for example, white-supremacy and ableism (Spade, 2015; Gill-Peterson, 2018). Trans emancipatory education cannot be meaningfully achieved whilst ignoring other areas of systemic injustice (Gill-Peterson, 2018). This recognition feeds into the proposed application of the TISM. It is proposed as a tool and framework for driving forward conversations, priorities and action upholding an aspiration and commitment to trans emancipatory education, alongside wider commitments to intersectional equity and justice. It is not proposed as a rigid pass or fail assessment or evaluation tool, and its limitations in drawing attention to the experiences of Black, disabled, neurodiverse trans pupils are noted. We do anticipate it providing a framework for further youth-led conversations on what trans emancipatory education looks like for pupils who are, for example, trans and Black, trans and an immigrant, or trans and in the care system.
We conclude our article not with a reductive list of actions to achieve trans-emancipatory education. Instead, we add our voices to Nicolazzo (2016, p.138), who asks readers to “wade through the murkiness of systemic trans oppression with us”. As educators we need to commit to asking ourselves “hard questions about how we may still be complicit in furthering trans oppression in our policies and practices even when we take positive steps” (Nicolazzo, 2016, p.142). We recognize that being trans-emancipatory requires a dynamic and ongoing commitment, rather than being viewed as a static singular achievement, prompting us to continue to push the boundary in pursuit of trans emancipation, equity and justice in education.
We consider three opportunities for ensuring continued progress towards trans-emancipatory education. Firstly, we invite researchers analysing trans inclusion in education to identify and articulate areas of school practice that are trans-oppressive, trans-assimilationist, trans-accommodative or trans-emancipatory. Secondly, we recommend the development of tools to help benchmark school performance across the different domains of this trans inclusion staged-model. We see particular utility in a school assessment matrix geared towards trans children and adolescents, enabling trans children, or their families to evaluate their educational experience in terms of trans inclusion. Finally, we join trans scholars in asking “for educators to imagine new possibilities” (Nicolazzo, 2016, p.140). We call for greater acknowledgement of cis-supremacy within efforts labelled as trans inclusive, recognizing cis-supremacy as incompatible with an aspiration for gender justice and genuine equality.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Horton declares no funding associated with this research. This study was conducted as part of the author’s PhD. The PhD was self-funded, with a Goldsmiths University of London Department of Education bursary covered half of the PhD fees.
Carlile declares no funding associated with this research.
1 Primary schools in the UK include pupils aged 4-11, encompassing both primary and elementary school children.
2 The term cisnormativity is used for consistency and accessibility, drawing attention to areas of systemic oppression experienced and directed at trans and non-binary people. Cisnormativity is preferred as a term that echoes the semantic use of terminology such as transnormativity and heteronormativity, whereas cissexism carries echoes of older and less used terminology like cissexual, whilst cisgenderism, for us, carries associations with problematic and dated terminology like transgenderism. Terminology is recognized as evolving and dynamic.
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This blog summarises Key Findings & Recommendations for supporting trans children in schools. This summary is based upon newly published research which reviews the literature & policies for supporting trans pupils & provides recommendations for schools & allies:
Finding: Trans pupils face stigma and invalidation at school, often alongside discrimination and harassment.
Recommendation: Affirmative language, respect and trans-positivity are critical.
Finding: Trans pupils experience persistent stress, navigating systems that delegitimise and exclude them. An anti-bullying approach may underestimate the emotional and psychological impact on trans pupils of cisnormativity*.
Recommendation: Schools need to address the cisnormative practices that negatively impact on the wellbeing and mental health of trans pupils.
Finding: Schools respond to individual requests reactively, with trans pupils shouldering the burden of negotiating their own inclusion.
Recommendation: Schools need to move from individualized accommodation to proactive and sustained adaptation.
Finding: A culture of silence surrounds trans lives at school – minimal trans representation can be perceived as excessive. Trans pupils denied representation in school experience shame and low self-esteem, and are forced to educate their own peers.
Recommendation: Trans representation and visibility needs to become common and unremarkable, enabling trans pupils to grow up with a sense of belonging and self-worth.
Finding: Trans pupils may experience ignorance and hostility from school staff, causing significant harm. Even one supportive and trusted teacher can make a profound positive impact on a trans pupil’s experience of school. Teacher trans-positivity is significantly correlated with pupil well-being.
Recommendation: Schools need to recognize and address the pressures and barriers to teacher action. Clear leadership is essential, and can be driven by governors, head teachers and individual members of staff.
Finding: Schools lack ambition for trans pupils, aiming for the low bar of protection from harassment and abuse. Trans pupils need equality of opportunity, in schools where they can excel and thrive.
Recommendation: Trans pupils should be affirmed and welcomed, in schools where they are represented, validated and respected as equals.
Finding: Teacher education and training needs to move beyond basic education on transphobic bullying, to helping staff understand the ways in which cisnormativity privileges cisgender individuals and makes life harder for trans pupils.
Recommendation: Trans pupils need at least one adult who can advocate for them, help them understand their rights, and help them navigate cisnormative cultures. Teacher allies need to understand and challenge the systems and approaches that delegitimise and marginalise trans pupils.
Finding: Trans children have a right to an educational experience that is safe, inclusive and affirming.
Recommendation: Schools should listen to trans pupils and centre child rights. Schools also need to consider their institutional responsibilities, ensuring schools are fulfilling their duty of care to trans pupils.
Cisnormativity*: When systems, policies and people assume that everyone is (or should be) cis (not trans). Cisnormative schools place trans pupils at a disadvantage, requiring them to navigate systems designed to exclude them.
Trans: The term trans is used here to include people who are transgender, non-binary and/or gender diverse.
I’m pleased to share the publication of my new peer reviewed journal article. The article synthesises the literature on how to best support trans children in primary and secondary schools, together with analysis and recommendations on school guidance.