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Parents and teachers’ fears for trans kids after Braverman's ‘evil’ speech

Schools urged to ignore attorney general’s ‘dangerous’ comments, with trans kids still protected by equality law

Lou Ferreira 2022.jpg
Lou Ferreira
16 August 2022, 10.48am

Attorney general Suella Braverman | Richard Lincoln / Alamy Stock Photo

Trans advocates and allies have condemned “evil” comments by the government’s top legal adviser Suella Braverman claiming it is “lawful” for schools to discriminate against trans children.

They have moved to reassure students, parents and teachers that attorney general Suella Braverman’s comments are not legally binding, and that trans students remain protected by equality law.

It is feared that Braverman’s message, repeated widely in the British press, will fuel anti-trans hostility and deter schools and families from supporting trans kids.

Braverman claimed in her speech, at the Policy Exchange think tank on 10 August, that it is lawful for schools to deadname and misgender trans pupils, and prevent them from accessing toilets, sports teams and dormitories, or wearing uniforms that match their gender. But experts say this would breach the protection afforded to trans people in the Equality Act 2010.

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Braverman also said it is lawful for single-sex schools to reject trans children, and argued that schools teaching students about gender identity are “misinformed” and “indoctrinating children”.

‘Spreading fear’

Helen, whose son is trans, condemned Braverman for “spreading fear” and contributing to a “hostile” and worsening atmosphere for trans youth in the UK. Helen told me that her son came out as trans “before the massive onslaught of transphobic hate and panic that’s being whipped up by these bad faith actors now”. His school was really supportive, and teachers “clamped down” on transphobic bullying as “absolutely unacceptable”.

But not all teachers are supportive, and approaches to trans inclusion vary hugely between schools.

Jules*, a cis gay woman who has been teaching for 20 years, currently works at a secondary school in East Sussex. “Some teachers are brilliant, especially the younger ones who are really on it with pronouns,” she told me. But others find trans and non-binary kids “a bit difficult to get their heads around… There’s still a lot of confusion.”

“My school is very much of the mindset that, if we don’t hear it from the parents, we can’t support it,” she said. This means it’s up to individual teachers to decide whether or not to use trans pupils’ correct names and pronouns.

She’s worried Braverman’s comments will embolden transphobic parents, and push her school to establish a blanket, trans-hostile approach. “I can imagine the school will try to protect or future-proof itself against complaints from unsupportive parents,” Jules said.

Since coming out to her students four years ago, Jules has helped to run weekly meet-ups for LGBTQ+ pupils and allies at her school. “It’s really positive for my students to see someone who’s openly gay and happy,” she told me. “I’m married, I have two kids and a dog, and I’m a teacher. And I just happen to be gay.”

Her student group has a “personal library” of LGBTQ+ books, approved by the school and available for students to borrow. A few years ago, Jules loaned a pupil a book written by a trans author. “Their mother found the book, phoned the school and accused me of ‘transing’ their child – and of taking their child to Pride, which of course never happened,” Jules said. “That was really distressing and horrible. It had to be formally investigated, even though it was ridiculous… And that’s just me lending someone a book!”

She added: “I’m more afraid because I’m LGBTQ+ myself. I have a personal fear that parents will accuse me of turning their child gay or trans.”

To protect herself from such accusations, Jules ensures she is always accompanied by a straight, cisgender teacher at the LGBTQ+ student group.

Jules also has experience as a parent of how schools can vary in their attitudes to trans pupils. Her daughter, now 14, is trans. Her primary school was really supportive, and she was able to access girls’ toilets and share dorms with friends during school trips.

When her daughter entered secondary school, Jules met with the school to discuss her access needs. “We wanted to talk about her anxiety and autism, but the meeting was very much about which toilets she was going to use… As a parent of a trans child, it makes me feel sick, reading [Braverman’s speech].”

Braverman’s comments have also been condemned by Owen Hurcum, a non-binary advocate and ex-mayor of Bangor, Wales, who called her comments “dangerous” and “cartoonishly evil”. Braverman is “giving the green light” for schools to withdraw support for trans pupils, and pushing for an interpretation of the 2010 Equality Act that allows direct discrimination against trans people, Hurcum said.

“This will kill trans children,” Hurcum wrote. “Blood will be on the hands of any organisation that goes along with it.”

Outing kids is a safeguarding issue

Jules and Helen are both supportive parents, but not all are. A survey of UK parents with socially transitioned trans kids found that interacting with “dismissive” or “discouraging” clinicians at UK gender clinics increased the time it took for them to “fully support and embrace their child’s identity”.

Some respondents were concerned that such clinicians might deter uncertain parents from supporting their trans kids, or “reinforce and legitimise transphobic abuse and rejection” in unsupportive households.

Similarly, Helen told me, Braverman’s comments risk reinforcing and legitimising scepticism or hostility in unsupportive schools and home environments. “Suella Braverman is whipping up misinformation, misunderstanding and hatred towards trans people, and this is absolutely going to influence parents of trans kids to be more hostile towards them.”

“She’s putting doubt in the minds of those who may be inclusive, misleading those who don’t know, and giving credibility to a small number of teachers who are already anti-trans or ‘gender critical’,” Helen said. “It’s evil.”

Suella Braverman is whipping up misinformation, misunderstanding and hatred towards trans people

Braverman also argued that teachers should not use trans pupils’ correct names and pronouns without parental consent, and that schools have a duty to out trans pupils to their families, or face safeguarding risks.

But outing a child to their parents is a safeguarding issue, Helen explained. “Transphobes like to espouse ‘safeguarding’, but one of the tenets of safeguarding is that you would not share information about a young person, even with their parents, if it would create a detrimental situation for them.”

Young people may be physically or emotionally abused, put through so-called ‘conversion practices’ or forced out of their homes because they are trans, she said. On forums where ‘gender critical’ views are expressed, such as Mumsnet, parents swap “extreme” advice such as revoking a child’s access to their friends and phone, or removing them from school if they identify as non-binary, she told me.

Even for children with supportive home environments, who choose to come out to family members, the experience can be “extremely stressful”. It’s perfectly legitimate for trans kids to seek advice from “safe adults” before doing that, said Helen. “If you prevent teachers from being that safe person… they’re going to look elsewhere, probably to the internet. And they might reach out to someone who isn’t safe.”

Not legally binding

Following Braverman’s speech, trans-hostile media outlets rushed to print stories that “purposely misrepresent, by omission, what the law says” or position Braverman’s statement as legally binding, Helen said.

The British media is “letting us down”, Helen told me. People will take these accounts “at face value” and remain “misinformed”.

In reality, gender reassignment remains a protected characteristic, and trans children are still protected from discrimination by the 2010 Equality Act.

A statement from trans youth charity Mermaids said that Braverman’s speech is “not legally binding on schools and does not mark a change in schools’ duties toward trans children in their care”.

Discrimination lawyer Robin Moira White called the attorney general’s words “a master class in how to misinterpret Equality Law”.

Her comments are simply personal opinions, shared by a small number of ‘gender critical’ actors, said Helen: “Suella Braverman is using this as a PR opportunity to spread her own ideological perspective.” Nonetheless, she is worried the claims will lend false credibility to transphobes, who may use the speech “to hoodwink unsuspecting teachers” into adopting this interpretation of the Equality Act.

The government’s own safeguarding guidance states that schools “must not unlawfully discriminate against pupils” because of protected characteristics including sexual orientation and gender reassignment, and should “carefully consider how they are supporting their pupils and students” with regard to such characteristics.

Likewise, Ofsted’s 2022 handbook places a positive obligation on schools to “ensure an inclusive environment that meets the needs of all pupils, irrespective of age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation”.

‘The younger generation is amazing’

Some schools do have problems with transphobic bullying and discrimination, particularly where teachers are unsupportive or afraid to intervene, and trans children face a greater risk of dying by suicide when compared to their cis peers. Braverman’s speech sends a “dangerous” message that this behaviour is acceptable, Jules said.

But they also obscure the reality of trans-positivity in many schools. Jules has openly gay, bi and non-binary students in her Year 7 group, all with supportive parents and accepting peers. “The younger generation is amazing,” she told me. “Whether cis or straight, things like pronouns and gender identity are part of their normal vocabulary.”

The measures that trans students need in order to feel safe at school are, in reality, “really basic and simple”, Helen told me. “They’re just compassionate and inclusive things that any decent teacher would do for any child who’s in the minority among their pupil cohort.”

* This person’s name has been changed to protect their identity

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