Being Transgender at Girls' School
This post has been written to coincide with Trans Day of Visibility 2021 (TDOV). All opinions are the author's own.
I’ve struggled for some time with the task of narrating my own story of gender acceptance.
The truth is my gender identity is so caught up in multiple narrative threads that separating them seems impossible. Am I discrediting elements of my identity by sanitising them, or leaving them out entirely?
It’s hard for me to talk about coming to terms with my gender identity, because during that period of my life, I was drifting from one trauma to the next. These traumas seem relevant to me, but tangential perhaps to others. To what extent does my own sense of masculinity rest on this experience of survival?
That’s not to say that trauma made me trans. I have always been trans. But gender expression is greatly influenced by personal experience in society, and I wonder whether my own experiences of trauma have influenced my gender presentation today.
This blog post marks the beginning of my attempts at figuring out how to tell my story.
From the ages of 11-18, I attended a single-sex girls’ school.
I wanted to go - it was prestigious, it had a reputation, and to pass the entrance exam was to be part of an elite group of people smart enough (or with the right access to tutoring) to get in.
Strangely, although I never associated my identity with femininity of any kind, it never occurred to me that going to girls’ school might force me to be a girl. I knew about the uniform policy going in but figured that I could deal with it for the sake of access into the higher portions of the league tables.
I was wrong about that.
The uniform policy was strict. Skirts only.
One day I intend to write specifically about the oppressiveness of this policy, but in terms of my gender identity, the ‘skirt’s only’ mantra was hugely damaging to me. For years I had nightmares about the school skirt and occasionally still do – the waistline would get tighter and tighter until it cut through me, and I would wake up with stomach cramps from tensing up. Although I wouldn’t have the necessary vocabulary to voice my discomfort until I was 17 at least, I hated having to wear a skirt every single day.
The lack of choice on offer enabled no exploration of alternative identity and wearing the exact same uniform as your peers in an institution where behaviours are determined by rules and outcomes of academic achievement predestined for you (as was extreme punishment if you should fail), forced myself and my cohort to carve out an identity for ourselves within an extremely rigid box.
Had I attended a mixed-sex school, I would have very quickly been forced to face the reality that I simply wasn’t as masculine as the boys. I theorise that I would have been forced to reckon with my gender identity much earlier, because it would have been plainly obvious that I wasn’t one of them but wanted to be.
But within the confines of a girls’ only institution, I was able to be the most masculine, at least, compared to my peers. I had to wear the same uniform and behave myself yes, but within that rigid box I could be the ‘boy’ of the class. There was no conflict between my image of myself and the reality of this image (apart from the school as an institution), and this allowed me to avoid seriously questioning my gender identity for years.
That becomes an issue however, when I consider that, had I realised my trans identity sooner, I could have gotten help sooner. I wouldn’t be going through male puberty at 23. I could have transferred to the boy’s school that my brother attended, or a mixed-sex school. I could have avoided the trauma that was to come.
I spent my first couple of years attempting to forge this masculine identity for myself, helped along by my classmates who quickly became notorious as the prank-pulling, mischief-making form of the cohort.
That was until the deaths started.
Between year 8 and year 13, there were 3 suicides, and many more attempts. The problem was so acute that myself and others were accused of being part of a suicide cult (please know that the absolute absurdity of that is not lost on me). Self-harm was happening behind closed doors, but also in bathroom stalls, and even in class during lessons. It was an open secret. So much so that many of us started to carry basic first aid supplies to help deal with the consequences.
I won’t go into more detail than that. First and foremost, out of respect for those that did die. I do not wish to co-opt their story into my own, only to acknowledge that the fallout from those deaths impacted my own identity so strongly that I cannot separate them from this story: they are integral to it.
But also, because I intend to write on this more robustly in the future. There is a reckoning to be had about the epidemic of abysmal mental health and pastoral care facilities within girls’ schools more widely, and I will revisit this at a later date.
Having to provide support to friends going through mental health struggles left no room to come to terms with my own. It made sense to me that my own depression and anxiety were caused by the sheer terror of not knowing if your peers would make it through the night. But it was also being caused by unacknowledged gender dysphoria, and the distress caused by having to fit into an identity you never could by an institution that didn’t care to treat any of us as an individual.
The complete lack of pastoral care provided by the school forced us to create our own support network. Had the burden been lifted somewhat, I could have explored my own mental health issues more keenly, but I again was denied this opportunity for self-reflection.
Not to mention, as this was happening, I was sitting my GCSE exams, and facing all the pressure that came from an institutional focus on academic excellence at the expense of anything else.
I should have been ‘finding myself’ in my middle teen years, and figuring out my identity, gender and otherwise. Instead, I was part of a group of children just barely preventing our friends from suicide and being told that the only concern I should have was getting 11 A*s.
I mentioned at the start of this piece that elements of this story might seem tangential to the wider narrative of my journey through gender identity and expression. Therefore, I want to be clear: these experiences of traumatic deaths and misplaced, extreme academic focus made the rigid box of available identity even smaller. There was no room to explore identity because I was focused on keeping people alive, a job which should never have fallen to myself and my friends. The school failed us in many ways in this regard. Had they not, I would have still faced identity issues, but the box within which to explore them would have been much less oppressive. If I had been able to focus on my own needs, perhaps my gender identity would have become obvious, and again, I may have been able to access help at a much earlier age.
It wasn’t until I was 17 and exposed to trans people for the first time via my boyfriend and the band ‘Against Me!’ that I learned the vocabulary necessary to explain my own gender discomfort. I began to experiment with names and pronouns, settling on Finn and they/them (later he/him). I initially chose a gender-neutral identity because I wasn’t comfortable making the commitment to the gender binary, but the extreme difficultly and constant need to educate adults about what being non-binary meant pushed me to define myself as a trans man. At least within the binary it would be easier to explain.
Here was another example of my identity being forced to conform to the rigidity of attitudes and acceptability mandated by the school. Being non-binary initially forced me into the awkward space of knowing more about gender and cis sexism than my teachers but being unable to explain my identity to them without appearing as if I was giving them a lecture. Staff were uncomfortable with this, because the gender binary was outside of their worldview, and to admit their own lack of knowledge on the topic would be tantamount to conceding that they were not in control at all times.
Upon reflection, I think the long shadow cast by Section 28 may have had an influence here. Many of the teachers with whom I trusted this information were teaching throughout the 1990s and would therefore have memory of potential job insecurity if they supported their queer pupils with sexuality or gender issues. I do not think that the institutional hostility towards my gender identity was caused by this directly, but I theorise that it had a minor effect on some of the more personal interactions I had.
Now that I had finally realised my true gender identity, I could put a voice to my discomfort about wearing a skirt every day. Wearing an item of clothing that is so inextricably linked to female gender identity in this context was inappropriate for me but convincing the school of this was akin to constitutional revolt.
The uniform had been immutable since the very inception of the school, and so what should have been a simple and quick fix (i.e, allow me to wear smart trousers) took almost a year of lobbying, including forcing me to out myself to all teachers, staff, governors and the parents of other children, and therefore putting me at risk of harassment in the process.
Because of this, me and my boyfriend (also a trans man at the school) faced numerous complaints from parents who thought of us as a bad influence on their children. Senior leadership, instead of protecting us from this harassment, told us we were ‘abnormal’ and belittled us and our integrity by accusing us of being inappropriate on school premises, simply for having the audacity to refuse to hide our gender identity and sexuality.
Bullying is an issue for many trans people at school, but my peers were supportive. Our cohort had a sense of collective solidarity that came in part from suffering through collective trauma, and I will always be grateful for their kindness and respect. In practice, it was the staff who made my existence as a trans person a misery.
An example of this is my name. My old name became a weapon that staff used to taunt me whenever I pushed a bit too hard for equal treatment. My new name became a reward for compliance in a system that was actively repressive. I existed in a limbo of victimisation wherein calling out inequality made the inequality worse.
The seemingly benign language used by staff every day became an issue too. We were addressed throughout the day as ‘girls’. There is definitely an element of sexism and repression to be recognised when a male teacher addresses a group of young adults as ‘girls’, but for me, the wider issue was that it felt like an overt rejection of my identity and how I was fighting to be recognised. Like it was directed at me, in order to force me back into the box of acceptable behaviour through exposure to gendered language.
This might seem like a lofty claim, especially when I was one of 800 other students at the school. I had no problem with being addressed in this manner during assemblies, when I was outnumbered to a larger extent. But during 6th form, when my biggest class size was 10 (sometimes as small as 3), addressing the group as ‘girls’ felt more targeted.
We also shared some of our A-Level classes with male students from the neighbouring school, in order to maximise the number of A-Levels on offer. The teachers had no problem addressing these boys as such when introducing themselves or giving orders. But I wasn’t a real boy to them – I was just a nuisance, and therefore didn’t merit this special treatment.
These issues culminated during my final week of year 13. I had faced 7 years of trauma, mistreatment, belittlement and lack of recognition, and admittedly, I had had enough. In my final days at the school, I refused to be silent in the face of inequality, and actively challenged it alongside my peers who also, seemingly, were fed up with the way we as a cohort had been treated.
On my final day at the school, two deputy headteachers attempted to expel me. One told me to my face that I ‘would never amount to anything with (my) attitude’.
I never was officially expelled, despite their best efforts. I think it was simply too late in the day.
In the years since, my sense of understanding of my own identity has improved substantially. I met some great friends at university, and they helped me not only come to terms with my trans identity but take pride in it and process the complex PTSD symptoms I faced as a result of my time at school.
I spent a long time thinking that my school experiences were ‘normal’. It was only through talking about them to others that I realised they were not. Through therapy, legal advice and my support network, I have come to realise the interconnectedness of my gender identity and trauma. As stated, I cannot separate the two, nor do I wish to. To do so would be to discredit both.
I want to work with schools, particularly single-sex girls’ schools, to develop training and policies to ensure that no one else has to go through what I did. There are other trans people suffering in these institutions, largely because staff are not equipped to handle gender identity issues, especially in schools where gender is thought to be negated by ‘single-sex’ status.
There is an extreme taboo in admitting that things could be improved or done differently at these schools, where reputation and academic achievement are paramount. Staff need to be courageous and ask for help; it is pupils who suffer most when they do not.
To finish, I’d like to end on the claim from the deputy head that I’d ‘never amount to anything with (my attitude)’. I carry this with me every single day. It’s become my motivation when things seem hard, when discrimination seems unsurmountable, or that it would be less stressful to just give up and get a ‘normal’ job.
I have amounted to something. I will continue to do so.