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Trans inclusion – how you can make all children feel safe and welcome

Joel Groves on why primary schools play such an important role in allowing pupils to be themselves...

  • Trans inclusion – how you can make all children feel safe and welcome

Looking back at primary school, I remember a mostly happy time. They’re some of the best days of our lives, after all. But for me, and so many other people like me, the joy of learning, making friends, story time and play are overshadowed.

You see, I’m transgender. I was transgender at primary school too, though I didn’t understand that fully yet. I’m well into my 20s now, and as an adult I love being transgender. I love the pride I feel in myself and my community, I love being able to educate on trans inclusion, and I love being able to push for social change.

Being transgender is integral to my identity – it’s a big part of what makes me, me. I’m old enough now to embrace those things, and to meet the challenges that being an openly transgender person can bring, but when I was at primary school, I was none of those things.

I wasn’t proud, I wasn’t understanding of myself, and I certainly wasn’t equipped to face transphobia or social exclusion. I was just a confused and scared little boy trying desperately to pretend to be the little girl everyone else saw me as.

At home I was very lucky – my parents never tried to push traditional gender roles on me. I was allowed to wear what I liked and play with what I liked, and I was happy. But my experience in the classroom was less accepting.

Lack of inclusion

I loved my teachers and friends, but it was confusing yo-yoing from an environment that encouraged me to be myself, to one where everything was rigid and gendered. My co-ed school felt highly segregated. Everything was boys or girls, never either or both, and I felt like a fraud when I was made to join the girls’ groups.

I have one very distinct memory of playing with dolls in the classroom one day and declaring confidently that I was going to be a daddy when I was older.

All the girls I was playing with laughed and my teacher corrected me: “Don’t you mean a mammy? Girls grow up into mammies, and little boys grow up into daddies.”

That left me feeling incredibly confused and ashamed. I certainly never said anything like that again. It might sound like a small comment but I know that the following 15 years of my life could have been quite different if the response had simply been: “Really? Ok!”

The message from everyone and every story book at school was clear: it doesn’t matter how you feel inside, you must be a girl. And I believed it.

Because of this, I didn’t have any understanding of being trans, nor the confidence to speak up and come out until I was 21, which is a really long time to hide such a significant part of who you are.

How to be an ally

But it didn’t have to be like that, and still doesn’t. I really believe teachers are incredible people who have the ability to transform young trans people’s lives. You don’t need to be any kind of expert either – you just need to be an ally. 

One thing you can do is discourage unhelpful gender stereotypes. Being told repeatedly by peers and teachers at primary school that I should behave in certain ways because of my perceived gender was really damaging, and segregating us by gender didn’t help either.

It also would’ve been incredible for younger me to have been able to read books that feature gender-diverse children. The charity Just Like Us has a recommended reading list that might help you.

Talking about diverse families, such as having same-sex parents or a trans sibling, would’ve helped me loads too. And perhaps even organising some kind of Pride celebration during School Diversity Week, so that all pupils feel safe and welcome.

Your allyship won’t just help trans young people, but all children, to be equipped for our diverse world and show them that they can be themselves in school – no matter their gender identity or how they express it.

This will help ensure that when pupils reflect on their time at your school when they’re my age, their memories are nothing but shining and bright.

Joel Groves is trans and a volunteer ambassador with Just Like Us, the LGBT+ young people’s charity that runs School Diversity Week, celebrated by thousands of primary and secondary schools every June.

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