Teachers (re)presenting gender: Considerations for transgender and gender diverse students from the “Free2Be?” project

Year: 2016

Author: Ullman, Jacqueline

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper examines data from the “Free2Be?” project, which surveyed 704 sexuality and gender-diverse Australian teenagers (aged 14-18) from across the country, 51 of whom (7%) identified as transgender or gender diverse (TGGD). Explorations began from the premise that schools participate as active agents in the marginalisation of sexuality and gender diverse young people through systemic acts of gender (re)enforcement. Schools enforce a clear “gender regime” through formal and informal dress codes, language codes, the defining of certain curriculum areas as masculine and feminine (Connell, 1996), the “policing” of acceptable masculinities (Martino, 2000) and femininities, and a culture of compulsory heterosexuality (Toomey et al., 2012). Numerous studies from across the globe have highlighted the social and curricular marginalisation encountered by sexuality and gender-diverse secondary students, with many detailing higher incidence of such exclusionary practices for TGGD students. Accordingly, this research investigated links between TGGD students’ reported school climate, specifically with regards to diverse sexualities and genders, and their sense of school wellbeing and connection. Participants completed an online survey asking about their teachers’ and classmates’ treatment of diverse sexualities and gender expression, in terms of curricular and social inclusivity and/or marginalisation. Measures included original items measuring “gender-climate” (Ullman, 2015) which examined formal (e.g. organisationally-enforced) and informal (e.g. socially-enforced) rules regarding students’ autonomous gender expression, as well as explicit curricular visibility of diverse sexualities and genders. TGGD students reported significantly higher frequency of transphobic language use at school than their cis-gender, sexuality-diverse peers, with lower incidence of teacher intervention and fewer instances of teacher positivity regarding diverse gender expression. Correlational analyses highlighted the significant relationship between such teacher positivity and TGGD students’ school wellbeing, with greater reported frequency of teacher positivity associated with higher school morale and connection to school more generally. Multiple regression analyses revealed the significant predictive impact of teachers’ positivity on TGGD students’ sense of connection to their school environment. Findings underscore the criticality of TGGD students having access to school staff members who are trained, knowledgeable, administratively-supported, and unafraid to normalise diversity of gender expression and discuss the ways that gender performance is learned and socially-constructed.