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.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times