The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of talking about gender identity in schools is awkwardness. Not because it’s an awkward topic, nothing could be further from the truth in my mind, but because in my experience it is so rarely spoken about that people don’t know how to.
Just last week I was asked for the first time ever what my gender pronouns are. I was so shocked by the question that it took me a few moments to register what was actually being asked.
The real question is why it has taken twelve years in the education system for me to have an opportunity to answer, and I think that isn’t at all unusual for Ireland’s students. For both pupils and members of staff, talking about gender identity needs to be normalised in schools across the country..
What are the gender identities?
To start talking more openly about gender identities, it’s helpful to know a bit more about them. Most people are only ever taught about cisgender and transgender identities, but there are so many more. Some, but nowhere near all, are:
- Gender fluid: moving between two or more gender identities
- Non-binary: their gender identity lies outside of the gender binary of male/female, or man/woman
- Agender: A person who does not identify with any gender
- Genderqueer: Anyone with non-binary gender identities
You can learn more about gender identities in SpunOut.ie’s A-Z of gender identities.
It can also be helpful to know the difference between gender identity and gender expression. This is something that has never been taught to me in school. According to verywellmind.com, “A person’s gender identity is their internal sense of themselves as male, female, or an alternative gender” and “gender expression is how a person externally expresses their gender identity.”
No education leads to tension
I think that the source of some students’ and staff members’ awkwardness is really caused by not being educated. It’s understandable that not understanding the terms or not knowing which to use can be embarrassing to some. I don’t think that individuals can be criticised for not knowing, but the school system certainly can, particularly when “SPHE is intended to provide particular opportunities to foster the personal development, health and well-being of the child and to help him or her to create and maintain supportive relationships and become an active and responsible citizen in society” according to education.ie.
As I see it, not being educated on the topic leads to embarrassment, which leads to some people being either being mean and defensive, or to conversations about gender identity being swept under the rug.
What can you do?
So, how can you help? The simple answer is to educate yourself. Wouldn’t you feel more relaxed talking about gender identity if you knew some basic information about it? There are lots of resources online that you can use, including the A-Z of gender identities on SpunOut.ie, and websites like Teen Talk , LGBT Ireland and Transgender Equality Network Ireland .
Make an effort to learn about and use someone’s correct gender pronouns. It is just about respect. Spread the word to friends and family and start addressing gender identity. There are so many social media content creators, particularly on TikTok, who don’t answer to traditional cisgender labels. Search the hashtags #queer, #trans or #enby to discover their accounts and educate yourself.
Push for better education in schools
I think that encouraging people to take the initiative on educating themselves is awesome. That said, we don’t have equality in schools and that needs to change. According to a 2019 Irish Examiner article, guidance for Catholic schools issued by the Vatican “Rejects the idea of people self-declaring their gender.” Do Something (https://www.dosomething.org/us) is an organisation that encourages young people to campaign for causes they believe in, and change.org is a good tool to start free petitions. UNICEF Ireland is another group that promotes young voices. Talking to your principal or local TD about making positive changes in your school can help too.
We can also encourage the use of gender neutral terms in schools too. For instance, do you know what the gender neutral form of Mr./Ms. is? It’s Mx. (Pronounced “Mix”). Based on what I’ve seen in my school, I’m not sure that teachers would feel safe using this title. Gender identity is hardly mentioned in our SPHE classes and lots of students are uneducated on the subject. Like LGBTI+ sex education, students are left to educate themselves. On top of this, schools don’t openly offer alternatives to Mr./Ms. for their staff. It would be a positive step to encourage teachers to use these terms.
By educating yourself you can help to make schools a much more welcoming place for everyone, which is something that I believe all students and staff would appreciate. I’ll leave you with the words of Sam Smith, and I hope they encourage you to join the fight for equality and respect – “You do not identify in a gender. You are just you.”