Children Education Sex and Gender

Let’s kick ‘gender identity’ out of school

As a transgender person, I know better than most the febrile nature of the debate over gender and biological sex. But as a science teacher, I know that the advice taken on board by some schools has been woeful.

If Liz Truss made waves in the transgender debate when she said no to ‘self-ID’, then guidance emerging from the Department for Education (DfE) is likely to cause even bigger ructions. An explosive paragraph buried towards the end of the document shows why:

‘We are aware that topics involving gender and biological sex can be complex and sensitive matters to navigate. You should not reinforce harmful stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different gender based on their personality and interests or the clothes they prefer to wear. Resources used in teaching about this topic must always be age-appropriate and evidence based. Materials which suggest that non-conformity to gender stereotypes should be seen as synonymous with having a different gender identity should not be used and you should not work with external agencies or organisations that produce such material. While teachers should not suggest to a child that their non-compliance with gender stereotypes means that either their personality or their body is wrong and in need of changing, teachers should always seek to treat individual students with sympathy and support.

Department for Education

This guidance, which is aimed at teachers and comes into force shortly, spells an end for certain organisations being allowed to work with school staff. This can only be good news. As a transgender person, I know better than most the febrile nature of the debate over gender and biological sex. But as a science teacher, I know that the advice taken on board by some schools has been woeful.

Like all other mammals, humans are either male or female. We might be able to change our legal sex (and that was the issue Liz Truss was grappling with) but we cannot change our biological sex. In that respect, at least, transwomen are male and transmen are female. These definitions have stood the test of time, until relatively recently when the notion of gender identity emerged. In short, this concept refers to a person’s individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth. This may be shaped by other expressions of gender, including dress, speech and mannerisms.

Despite the stereotypes this may involve, the concept of gender identity has been adopted by international bodies such as the WHO and Council of Europe, and gained undeserved credibility as a result. Gender identity has also been adopted enthusiastically by LGBT and transgender campaign groups including Stonewall UK, Mermaids UK and Gendered Intelligence.

Teachers – such as the trainee who took part in a compulsory class on transgender issues – are then exposed to these concepts. At a session run by the mother of a trans child on behalf of Mermaids – a charity which ‘raises awareness about gender nonconformity’ – teachers were told that gender is a spectrum and shown a graph with Barbie at one end and GI Joe at the other. 

Meanwhile, Gendered Intelligence’s Trans Youth Sexual Health Booklet – which was supported by the National Lottery – contained the infamous line: 

‘your identities [sic] paramount. A woman is still a woman, even if she enjoys getting blow jobs.’ 

Gendered Intelligence

And Stonewall tells schools: 

‘A trans young person may wish to use the toilets and changing rooms of their self-identified gender rather than of their assigned sex. Schools…should make sure that a trans student is supported to do so and be aware that this is a legal requirement under the Equality Act.’

Stonewall UK

But is this right? After all, the law actually says

‘Separate toilet facilities for boys and girls aged 8 years or over must be provided.’

Hopefully this new DfE guidance – a long-overdue wake-up call – will end the confusion and help teachers and pupils find some much-needed clarity. Barbie and GI Joe need to be shown the door, and they should take gender identity with them. Its definition is underpinned by sexist stereotypes: dress, speech, and mannerisms. Children must not be taught that their bodies might be wrong and in need of changing. It’s a pity that this even needs to be said.

So what does this new guidance mean for the likes of Mermaids UK? Responding to the publication, the organisation – which offers training for teachers – said:

‘Gender identity is who you are as a gendered person. So, if you are a woman for instance, that is your gender identity. However, you might be a woman who expresses in ways seen as ‘masculine’ by traditional society. It shouldn’t matter of course but, in any case, this is your gender expression. We agree that schools should be careful not to confuse the two, as many transgender, cisgender, non-binary and gender-diverse people express themselves freely and should never be judged as a result.’

Mermaids UK

Confused? You’re not alone. But let’s hope this shake-up means teachers have to spend less time listening to presentations on gender identity and more time doing what they are good at: teaching.

Debbie Hayton is a transgender teacher and journalist.

* This article was first published by The Spectator on 25 September 2020: Let’s kick ‘gender identity’ out of school.

By Debbie Hayton

Physics teacher and trade unionist.

2 replies on “Let’s kick ‘gender identity’ out of school”

Humans are either male or female except when they are not – for example, if they are intersex. I have a great deal of respect for your intentions, Debbie, but while biology is largely binary it is not exclusively so. In framing the debate about what it really means to be male/female/trans it is essential to respect the full complexity of nature.


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