Debates surrounding the Safe Schools Coalition in Australia, particularly comments by conservative politicians and lobby groups, show that gender diversity is not only marginalised, it is largely misunderstood.
How gender diversity is misunderstood
An increasing number of young children are reporting a gender that differs from that expected of their sex assigned at birth. Rather than being a form of play or make believe, children who are trans often persistently insist that their gender is different from their sex assigned at birth, and can become distressed when, for example, they are forced to wear gender normative clothes. Other children may be gender diverse in a multitude of ways, such as by blending elements of different genders, by identifying as more than one gender, or by presenting as different genders depending on context.
In the past, trans and gender diverse children were largely forced to live as their sex assigned at birth. While more children are now being supported to affirm their gender, there are still ongoing challenges, including in relation to bullying and exclusion in education settings that can have a detrimental impact on children’s wellbeing and health.
The term ‘trans’ is typically used to refer to people whose gender or gender expression differs from that normatively expected of their natally-assigned sex. The term ‘gender diverse’ is typically used to refer to people whose gender identity is not encompassed by the two categories ‘male’ or ‘female’. However, the terms ‘trans’ and ‘gender diverse’ encompass a wide range of gender expressions.
Turnbull Government dumped Safe Schools Coalition work in primary schools anyway
Despite the growing numbers of young trans or gender diverse children in Australia and internationally, the federal government has decided to no longer support the Safe Schools Coalition’s work in primary schools. This follows the review of the resources used by the Safe Schools Coalition, although does not appear to be directly linked to the findings.
The sensationalist tabloid reporting about the Safe Schools Coalition continues, such as in relation to the recent furore about a Sydney girls’ school requesting the use of gender-neutral language. At the same time, such debates have also sparked a great deal of support for trans and gender diverse students among principals, school staff, and parents.
These public debates have real impacts for trans and gender diverse children and their families.
Resources for schools with trans and gender diverse children
Schools constitute a key context in which children may disclose that they are trans or gender diverse. It is not uncommon for a primary school to be asked to sensitively support a trans or gender diverse child. This highlights the need for school communities to provide affirming and informed responses.
This prompted me and my colleagues to look at resources that could be made available in schools, in particular, picture books, to discuss trans and gender diverse issues with young children.
While there are few resources accessible to this age group exploring what it means to be trans or gender diverse, there are a growing number of picture books featuring trans and gender diverse characters. This includes two new Australian books: The Gender Fairy and Introducing Teddy (though unfortunately neither of these books were included in the project as they were published after the data collection period ended).
Picture books are a useful resource to talk about issues with children, including in education settings. Thus the use of these books has the potential to improve inclusion in education cultures.
How well do these books support trans and gender diverse children?
Our research findings: an audit of picture books featuring trans characters
I carried out an audit of picture books featuring trans characters with my colleagues Damien Riggs and Yarrow Andrew. We found that there were twenty such books published. Most of the books were supportive of the central character and affirmed their gender. The books often focused on issues that are likely to be important in trans young people’s lives such as relationships with parents, bullying, and issues at school.
We identified three themes reoccurring in many of the books:
- adherence to a binary model of gender (characters were either girls or boys, and girls and boys were discussed as opposites),
- framing of clothing, behaviours, and interests in gender-typed ways (particularly a focus on trans girls’ desire to wear dresses), and
- the reliance on professionals for diagnosis (inclusion of a character who was a medical or health professional who was needed to assert the protagonist’s gender)
While we have critiqued the books for often drawing on gender stereotypes and professional diagnosis, in doing so our aim has not been to undermine trans people’s own experiences. Instead, we highlight that these narrow framings may discount other experiences. This includes the expectation that trans people will recount stereotypically gendered childhoods relating to their affirmed gender. These issues of gender stereotyping have also been debated by parents of trans children, such as a mother who was criticised for giving her trans daughter Barbie dolls because of their messages about body image.
Are picture books useful?
It is critical that resources are available to children that explore trans people’s lives, for trans children themselves, for children with trans parents, and for children generally to increase their understandings of gender diversity. Importantly, all children have the potential to benefit from less restrictive ideas about gender.
I conducted book reading sessions with a class of junior primary students where we discussed six picture books with trans characters. The books were useful for opening up discussions about trans people, and students showed support of the characters. However, the students repeated the focus in the books on the salience of hair and clothing in relation to gender, and what it meant to be trans was not always clear to them.
These findings suggest that informed teaching and the development of teaching materials are needed to allow a space to provide explanations and explore students’ questions. Reading and discussing books and stories is a familiar practice in junior primary classrooms, making this a logical area to promote inclusion and understanding. Therefore, picture books should be seen as valuable resources which are accessible to children and able to provide a start to exploring trans and gender diverse issues.
Our website with collated resources
As a direct result of our work in this field, Damien Riggs and I have created The Rainbow Owl, a website of Australian and international resources for supporting trans and gender diverse children and young people. This site has resources for trans and gender diverse children and young people, their families, different groups of adults who work with them (educators and mental health professionals), and researchers. There is a picture book review page where we look at each book in detail.
Dr Clare Bartholomaeus is an adjunct Research Associate in the School of Social and Policy Studies at Flinders University. She is leading a project exploring trans and gender diverse issues in primary education. Further findings from the project are available from the report Exploring trans and gender diverse issues in primary education in South Australia. As part of this project, she co-created the website (with Associate Professor Damien W. Riggs) The Rainbow Owl which collates resources for supporting trans and gender diverse children and young people. Clare is on Twittter @cbartholomaeus