How a trans teacher showed adults have more hang-ups about gender than primary school kids

Writing for NS Trans Issues Week, Jane Fae explains why the "think of the children" reaction to transness is just a technique for concealing overt prejudice.

Gender re-assignment? The trans-friendly workplace? Even - heaven forfend! – a transsexual primary school teacher? Move along: nothing to see here. For we have come a long way in the past couple of decades, and what was once seen as weird, perverse even, is now commonplace.

You know progress has been made, when Richard Littlejohn, scourge of the politically correct, can be found writing relatively encouragingly about such matters. But. Ah yes: there’s always a but. While transphobia has become increasingly unacceptable, there remains that last line of reactionary defence: “just think of the children”.

Which is why, after a relatively benign few pars on the recent announcement that primary school teacher Nathan Upton is en route to a new life as Miss Meadows, Littlejohn joins the small gang of bullying parents complaining that their little darlings are “worried and confused”, arguing: “Children as young as seven aren’t equipped to compute this kind of information”. Thus: “Nathan Upton’s not only in the wrong body: he’s in the wrong job” (see the editor's note at the bottom of this article).

That’s so seductive – and equally, so wrong. How do I know? Perhaps the fact that my own transition began shortly before our son turned five. A couple of raised eyebrows at the local primary – mostly, I suspect, at my awful early experiments in nail polish – turned quickly to welcome and support.

There was bullying, mostly from senior boys, who seemed to equate transness with “being gay”, though that has now mostly ended. Otherwise, not much confusion. Because, of course, when you explain this sort of thing to primary school children, you don’t need to provide detailed biological explanations. Jane was born in the wrong body: she’s putting that right. Simple.

The real problems have come from the grown-ups – almost invariably young men – who think a trans woman alone on the street is fair game for abuse, verbal or otherwise. The intimidation diminishes: it never goes away entirely.

Twice, my son has witnessed physical threats against myself and, on one occasion, his mother as well. Most recently, and without any sense of irony, the bully who threatened to punch me in full view of the young boy claimed to be doing so “to protect children”.

Where have we heard that before? Ah yes: there was the supposedly radical drama group who felt it better for me to take a sabbatical “because parents of other young actors might not understand”. Weirdest of all, the children’s activity group that suggested I stop helping because “were I to be threatened or attacked in front of the children, it might upset them”.

Huh?

There is a common thread here – one that I seem to share with Miss Meadows and the parents of trans school children: no-one objects to US. But can’t we see how confusing/disturbing/upsetting this is for the children?

Well, no. I have yet to meet a primary school child that has done other than express naïve curiosity about my journey. In part, this is the same issue as afflicts ALL sex ed, as well as ed that merely touches on sex. Parents don’t know how to talk about topics “appropriately”, don’t understand that information can be imparted in ways that make sense to six and seven year olds without blowing their minds. Making babies? A man puts his seed inside a lady... Being gay? Sometimes two boys or two girls can love each other…

There. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Some of the parental angst is genuine: things weren’t like this “in their day”. They don’t know how to cope with basic questions. Still, there’s something else. It’s the same torrid mess of fear and projection that leads one parent to speak out against sex ed for showing cartoons of people “doing it” and shocked that “there was a white girl and a coloured man” (a genuine contribution to a session hosted by Safer Media). Or that it’s OK to be gay, but…you wouldn’t want “one of them” teaching your children.

It’s fear of normalisation, even though one of the biggest of burdens for the gay, trans or in any way different child is feeling alone and unusual, while knowing that there are others like them is blessed relief.

It’s projection, too. Because the single biggest source of danger to women, children, and minorities are young men, who see the world refracted through their own crude sexuality. So transness MUST be about sex – and therefore the trans teacher MUST be dangerous.

It’s about cowardice. Because as the world learns to tolerate otherness, it is no longer acceptable to be outwardly bigoted. So someone else’s well-being, someone else’s safety must be co-opted to the cause. I don’t object to trans folk, writes Littlejohn, but…

I’ve nothing against them, opines a parent, but…

Don’t believe a word of it. These are not friends of children, but exploiters – and behind that “but” it's bigoted business as usual.

Editor's note: On 21 March 2013 it was reported that Lucy Meadows had died. The reference to her was removed from the Daily Mail article linked to above, but can still be read in the web archive version of it here

Children are often far better at dealing with transness than adults. Photograph: Getty Images

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.