Parents’ experiences of navigating schooling with/for their trans/gender diverse child

Year: 2019

Author: Ferfolja, Tania, Ullman, Jacqueline

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Australian schools are conservative, heteronormative spaces where teachers fear broaching gender and sexuality diversity (hereafter GSD) for fear of parental or public backlash (Smith et al., 2011). Research on the school experiences of Australian GSD youth highlight the specific challenges faced by trans/gender-diverse students (Jones & Hillier, 2013; Ullman, 2017). However, little Australian research examines the experiences of parent/carers of trans/gender-diverse children.

Drawing on Foucault’s (1978) theoretical work with particular reference to concepts of discourse, knowledge, power, subjectivity and their intersections, we view bullying as a form of gender socialisation (Pascoe, 2013) inherent in the ‘gender-regime’ enforced in schooling (Connell, 1996). Recognition of GSD in Australian schools has been highly politicised and denigrated by conservative media. Unsurprisingly, the in/visibility of trans/gender diverse subjectivities remains the norm, producing a difficult climate for their parents/carers to navigate.


This paper reports from ongoing engagement with Australian parents around the inclusion of GSD content within school curriculum and policy, with questions of visibility and access central to our enquiry. We draw from two periods of data collection: one which recruited 22 parents of school-aged children across six focus groups (Ferfolja & Ullman, 2017) and another which engaged parents/carers of GSD school-age children attending government schools in individual interviews. We employed semi-structured, individual and group interviews to understand participants’ experiences of navigating school for their child(ren) and undertook thematic analysis (Saldana, 2009) to ascertain the discourses in operation.


Focus group participants highlighted the limitations of relegating GSD-inclusive content to conversations framed as anti-bullying education. They discussed the constraints of properly challenging transphobic behaviours when bullying policy frames these interactions as individual incidences while leaving no space for interrogation of cis-normative discourses.

Parents of trans/gender diverse students similarly spotlighted the shortcomings of reactive policy frameworks, in lieu of whole-school approaches to education and visibility of gender diversity. Rather than unpacking large-scale questions of social power and gender conformity at the whole-class/school level, educators reportedly placed the burden of gender identity and relationship management on the child. Where these mothers detailed positive schooling experiences for their child, they described school cultures where gender diversity was affirmed by school leadership and where GSD perspectives were incorporated into teaching and learning and whole-school events.

Findings underscore the importance of policies which aim to shift entrenched paradigms surrounding GSD identity and encourage educators to positively shape school culture.