Being out in schools -a tribute to Lucy Meadows

“I’d like to be able to say I’ve given something back. I suppose the best way for me to do this would be to educate the people around me and children at school – I am a teacher after all!” -Lucy Meadows

I am sad to only have heard of Lucy Meadows, born Nathan Upton, after her tragic death. Tonight I will be attending a vigil outside the Daily Mail offices to pay tribute and to condemn the hatemongeing perpetrated against her by Stuart Pike, Littlejohn and others within the media, and transphobic and other forms of abuse both in media and more widely. Jane Fae has said a lot of the things which need to be said about the case –to start with Lucy Meadows’ transition was not a newsworthy story  but part of her private life, considers responses and summarises the broader press issue astutely. There’s a big summary of everything on the internet about it here  and a post against media monstering by inforrm. I don’t need to repeat what others have said.

I want to honour Lucy Meadow’s bravery in transitioning openly. Being ‘out’ while working in schools and other institutions working with children and young people is something I have wanted to write about for a while. Being out, in the sense I am using it, means to be open about something which may provoke negative reactions, and which it might be easier to hide. This can potentially mean many things, and I am thinking in particular of sexual orientation , political or religious beliefs or practice, health conditions, personal background, gender identity and activities considered devious by society or law. To me it is aspirational to be as wholly out as is possible while maintaining privacy and appropriate boundaries. This is a question of providing a human example of different possibilities in life.

Children are exposed to many role-models as they grow up, but there are some arenas where these role-models present a narrow and conformist vision of life. Gender-normative, heterosexual, non-disabled, white and affluent bodies and lifestyles are magnified by the mainstream media and culture industries far beyond the portion of our society they make up. Children who do not fit into these roles have it harder to find their way into an adult identity. When Section 28 was in place, teachers were at risk of losing their jobs if they were out as non-heterosexual. Imagine being a gay teacher, dealing with a case of homophobia, and being unable to use oneself as an example of a person the children know who is gay. Even with Section 28 repealed, that takes bravery. People do it though, because making a group of people human is the most powerful weapon against prejudice directed against that group. More and more teachers are providing role-models of openly being different from the norm and young gay people are increasingly coming out as teenagers, rather than in their 20’s.

Trans* people are in a very specific situation. People do not choose to be born in the wrong body, to experience gender dysphoria. But when they seek to transition to present a gender which matches their identity, they are rewarded with transphobia in many forms, which can deny their post-transition gender-identity and treat them as freaks in ways which cisgender people just do not come up against. The numbers of non-cisgender people are hard to estimate, because many people avoid submitting to the gruelling process of pursuing transition through the state in favour of a more discreet and private process. A rate of 1 in 1000 would means there is likely to be one child in 35 classes who might transition in later life, quite different from the average of 3 children in a class of 30 who will be homosexual. However, these children are no less deserving of proper treatment. The chances of a child with gender dysphoria coming across a trans* role-model in person are low. But a school community who experience a teacher’s transition as a low-key event are better prepared to accept a friend or acquaintance who goes through gender transition as a person.  Every ‘out’ transition that is accepted makes it just a bit easier for others to go the same process – or for trans* people in schools and elsewhere to be out regarding their birth gender.

Lucy Meadows showed not only commitment to her school community by staying in the same school through her transition, giving continuity to her class and colleagues, but commitment to the ideal that people should not have to uproot and reinvent themselves if they transition to a different gender. People should be able to share the possibility of changing their gender without fear of rejection. Families should not disown their sons if they become their daughters. And maybe if there are more visible queer  gender expressions , everyone will be able to find a gender expression that fits them, and none of these will be harder to defend than any other. It seems appropriate to end on Lucy’s words, as an inspirational role-model to those of us concerned as teachers about being out at school and educating by example, (source):

“I was lucky to have a supportive head,” she wrote, “but I think I’d have done it here regardless as I couldn’t put it off any longer and I have family and financial commitments as well. The guidance I’ve had from the trans community has been generally sound and very much appreciated, and I’d like to be able to say I’ve given something back. I suppose the best way for me to do this would be to educate the people around me and children at school – I am a teacher after all!”

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Pond dipping – new to newts

Something pretty exciting is happening in the wild garden. It’s spring. The frogs and newts are out from hibernation, and getting on with, y’know, what they do in spring (that’s another post though). And that’s not the most exciting thing for me – I do love it, have done every year of my life. It’s the kids’ reactions.

I’m lucky to be a playworker in community garden in urban london. It’s somewhere where children can wander in, and if they’re over 8, they can do this independently of their parents/carers, if they’re younger then they can come as a family. We’re next to a busy road, but are screened from it by trees and our building. Some children don’t come very often, but there’s a few who keep coming back. And sometimes there’s someone who comes for the first time.

With a new person, they don’t always become a regular. Often though, there’s something which they’re excited by, and a bit scared of but then they overcome that fear and hesitation and experience something new. These moments are happening in the wild garden. Urban kids are jerky. They respond sharply to each other. They are alarmed as they slip on uneven ground. And they glance around without focussing closely.

Then they see something move in the pond.

“Aaagrh what’s that?”

“It’s a frog, I can see it?”

They’re not sure about putting their hand or knee down on the dirty ground but they can’t balance without doing so, so their nets dip wildly. I ask them if they can see anything where they’re dipping. They can’t, it’s murky where they stirred it up. I lean in slowly, getting someone to watch the end of the net to develop their underwater eyes, and we scoop up a newt (common/smooth newt, Lissotriton vulgaris – which in the UK is protected from sale, but may be captured, unlike the Great Crested Newt).

“Does he bite?”

“it looks like a fish!” “No, like a lizard”

“Can you touch it?”

Most of them won’t come close, let alone touch a newt at first. It’s a rule that you can only touch creatures from the pond if you dip your hand in pond water so it’s cool and damp first. But after a while, sometimes after ten minutes, once the most screamy friend has gone away, they’ll come, and they’ll look at the newt’s golden eyes, his spotty (or her speckly) belly. They can see which is male and which is female (the females have bulging middles full of eggs, and the males have bulging balls at this time of year). Some of the kids it takes longer to break through the hesitation. They have to slow down to observe. But once they’ve seen, they’re telling the others, and showing them. They’re learning through doing and looking and thinking, because something’s there right in front of them, and they need to work out what’s going on. They’ll remember that the newt can breathe in air as well as water, and when they come out, they’ll see that newtings, with their external gills, can’t breathe air. And this knowledge is not abstract, but is immediately shaping their actions.