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.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt