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Children, young people and families, LGBTQ+

Transgender children face discrimination even at primary school level

Interviews with trans children and their parents highlight systemic issues faced by trans children at primary school

12 December 2022

By Emily Reynolds

For many young transgender people, socially transitioning can be a highly difficult experience. Research has shown how prevalent experiences of discrimination and harassment are during adolescent transition, where trans teenagers frequently experience bullying not only from peers but from adults too.

A study in the British Journal of Educational Psychology looks at a group of children who socially transition at an even earlier age, during primary and early secondary school. Through interviews with parents and children, the work finds a culture of cisnormativity – a form of normative thought which assumes that everybody is cisgender and has the same needs – within schools and a failure to protect trans children, potentially leading to serious consequences to children's education and mental health.

Cal Horton from Goldsmiths University interviewed 30 parents or carers of children who had socially transitioned before the age of 11; social transition was taken to mean pronoun change at school, home, and other settings. Their children, who included 15 trans girls, 12 trans boys and three non-binary children, were aged between 6 and 16 years old at the time of interview, giving a wide range of experiences from primary through to early secondary school. To provide further insight, Horton also interviewed ten of these children themselves.

The interviews were semi-structured, with participants responding to open-ended questions related to school, such as "what has been your experience with school?", "what worked well in your school?" and "what do you think other schools could learn from your experience?". Follow-up prompts encouraged parents to expand on answers. Children were questioned using whatever format most suited them (e.g. written responses or interview by a parent rather than researcher).

Thematic analysis, in which key themes from the interview text are identified, analysed, and interpreted, produced three themes: institutional cisnormativity, a failure to protect transgender children, and experiences of educational injustice.

In the first theme, institutional cisnormativity, parents noted that school policies often "fail to consider the existence, needs, or rights of trans pupils". This included lack of access to appropriate facilities, such as toilets or changing rooms, with a direct impact on wellbeing, a sense of belonging, and sometimes physical health. One parent described their child being "segregated to a room by himself on a residential", "singling him out".

The theme also covered schools' poor understanding of legal protections, and a lack of effective trans inclusion policies; this meant that pupils became vulnerable to decisions informed by individual prejudice. One parent, for example, reported a headteacher denying an eight year old trans girl access to the correct toilets, stating that "I'm worried what she would do in the girls' toilets".

The second theme concerned schools' failure to protect trans children. Many trans children and their parents reported schools being unsafe, with abuse being tolerated and pupils experiencing harassment and threats. Parents felt that schools had a "lower expectation of safety for trans pupils" than cisgender ones, making them slow to respond to abuse. Many pupils also reported being isolated: one child said that "because of all of the rumours about me... people stayed away from me", while a parent said that their child had been "isolated at school... comments [were] made about him in the corridors".

The final theme related to experiences of educational injustice. A number of pupils had been taken out of school by their parents when schools failed to meet their needs; one pupil was asked to attend conversion therapy by their school. Others missed classes or dropped out entirely because of bullying or harassment, while some were recommended by teachers to leave out of concerns for their safety. Finally, pupils and parents reported feelings of trauma after "years of strain", with chronic stress impacting mental and physical health. Some pupils were diagnosed with mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression.

While individual prejudice and harassment clearly impacts trans children, the research also highlights the systemic issues stemming from poor policies within schools and poor understanding of existing legal protections – for example a lack of access to facilities, and individual prejudice contradicting legal protections. As author Cal Horton told Research Digest, "trans children in UK schools are harmed by experiences of discrimination and segregation, in schools where cisnormative policy enables transphobic practice."

"Schools need to raise their expectations for trans pupils, more proactively demonstrating commitment to building schools that are safe and welcoming, enabling trans children to thrive and grow up with confidence and self-esteem," they said. "Schools need to take steps to adapt to ensure trans pupils are protected from discrimination and gender minority stress, with trans equality a priority for safeguarding trans pupil well-being."