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trans inclusive primary and early secondary school education on puberty and bodies, with schools often drawing upon outdated and exclusionary curricula.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.