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.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Just face it, being a parent will never be cool

Traditional parenting terms are being rejected in favour of trendier versions, but it doesn't change the grunt-like nature of the work.

My children call me various things. Mummy. Mum. Poo-Head. One thing they have never called me is mama. This is only to be expected, for I am not cool.

Last year Elisa Strauss reported on the rise of white, middle-class mothers in the US using the term “mama” as “an identity marker, a phrase of distinction, and a way to label the self and designate the group.” Mamas aren’t like mummies or mums (or indeed poo-heads). They’re hip. They’re modern. They’re out there “widen[ing] the horizons of ‘mother,’ without giving up on a mother identity altogether.” And now it’s the turn of the dads.

According to the Daily Beast, the hipster fathers of Brooklyn are asking their children to refer to them as papa. According to one of those interviewed, Justin Underwood, the word “dad” is simply too “bland and drab”:

“There’s no excitement to it, and I feel like the word papa nowadays has so many meanings. We live in an age when fathers are more in touch with their feminine sides and are all right with playing dress-up and putting on makeup with their daughters.”

Underwood describes “dad” as antiquated, whereas “papa” is an “open-minded, liberal term, like dad with a twist” (but evidently not a twist so far that one might consider putting on makeup with one’s sons).

Each to their own, I suppose. Personally I always associate the word “papa” with “Smurf” or “Lazarou.” It does not sound particularly hip to me. Similarly “mama” is a word I cannot hear without thinking of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, hence never without a follow-up “ooo-oo-oo-ooh!” Then again, as a mummy I probably have no idea what I am talking about. If other people think these words are trendy, no doubt they are.

Nonetheless, I am dubious about the potential of such words to transform parenting relationships and identities. In 1975’s Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich describes how she used to look at her own mother and think “I too shall marry, have children – but not like her. I shall find a way of doing it all differently.” It is, I think, a common sentiment. Rejecting mummy or daddy as an identity, if not as an individual, can feel much the same as rejecting the politics that surrounds gender and parenting. The papas interviewed by The Daily Beast are self-styled feminists, whose hands-on parenting style they wish to differentiate from that of their own fathers. But does a change of title really do that? And even if it does, isn’t this a rather individualistic approach to social change?

There is a part of me that can’t help wondering whether the growing popularity of mama and papa amongst privileged social groups reflects a current preference for changing titles rather than social realities, especially as far as gendered labour is concerned. When I’m changing a nappy, it doesn’t matter at all whether I’m known as Mummy, Mama or God Almighty. I’m still up to my elbows in shit (yes, my baby son is that prolific).

The desire to be known as Papa or Mama lays bare the delusions of new parents. It doesn’t even matter if these titles are cool now. They won’t be soon enough because they’ll be associated with people who do parenting. Because like it or not, parenting is not an identity. It is not something you are, but a position you occupy and a job you do.

I once considered not being called mummy. My partner and I did, briefly, look at the “just get your children to call you by your actual name” approach. On paper it seemed to make sense. If to my sons I am Victoria rather than mummy, then surely they’ll see me as an individual, right? Ha. In practice it felt cold, as though I was trying to set some kind of arbitrary distance between us. And perhaps, as far as my sons are concerned, I shouldn’t be just another person. It is my fault they came into this vale of tears. I owe them, if not anyone else, some degree of non-personhood, a willingness to do things for them that I would not do for others. What I am to them – mummy, mum, mama, whatever one calls it – is not a thing that can be rebranded. It will never be cool because the grunt work of caring never is.

It is not that I do not think we need to change the way in which we parent, but this cannot be achieved by hipster trendsetting alone. Changing how we parent involves changing our most fundamental assumptions about what care work is and how we value the people who do it. And this is change that needs to include all people, even those who go by the old-fashioned titles of mum and dad.

Ultimately, any attempt to remarket parenting as a cool identity smacks of that desperate craving for reinvention that having children instils in a person. The moment you have children you have bumped yourself up the generational ladder. You are no longer the end of your family line. You are – god forbid – at risk of turning into your own parents, the ones who fuck you up, no matter what they do. But you, too, will fuck them up, regardless of whether you do it under the name of daddy, dad or papa. Accept it. Move on (also, you are mortal. Get over it).

Parenting will never be cool. Indeed, humanity will never be cool. We’re all going to get older, more decrepit, closer to death. This is true regardless of whether you do or don’t have kids – but if you do you will always have younger people on hand to remind you of this miserable fact.

Your children might, if you are lucky, grow to respect you, but as far as they are concerned you are the past.  No amount of rebranding is going to solve that. This doesn’t mean we can’t change the way we parent. But as with so much else where gender is concerned, it’s a matter for boring old deeds, not fashionable words.

 

 

 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.