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Touchy about tutus

17 November 2017

ON MONDAY, the Church of England Education Office issued new guidance on the prevention of homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic (HBT) bullying in its schools. The guidance included a sentence about primary-school experimentation: “For example, a child may choose the tutu, princess’s tiara and heels and/or the firefighter’s helmet, tool belt and superhero cloak without expectation or comment.” Cue silliness in the national press and online. Male to female cross-dressing has always been seen as more disturbing than female to male — to the extent that there are now no clothes thought to be exclusively male, apart perhaps from Y-fronts and Argyle-pattern socks. It is notable that the C of E list contrasts the tutu, tiara, and heels with three items, two of which, at least, a self-respecting woman might wear. Naturally enough, little notice was taken of the report’s firm caveat that educating children against gender prejudice need not involved detailed information about sexual acts, to fulfil “a primary school’s responsibility to safeguard the latency of childhood”.

All this was a distraction from the authors’ serious purpose, which was to help schools prepare for the increased incidence of children who identify as other than the gender of their birth, as well as greater openness about homosexuality and transgender issues. As the guidance says, a school would be failing in its duty were it not to educate its pupils “to understand the rights of all people to live freely within their sexual orientation or gender identity without discrimination”. Many adults will recall the degree of sexual bullying that took place in schools before even the words “transgender” and “bisexual” were known. It is all too easy for children to explore the boundaries of their own sexuality by making fun of others — or worse. Anti-bullying policies in schools have improved a great deal in recent years, and it is important that they keep up to date with the issues that can cause most hurt.

Teachers are naturally anxious about a new set of pitfalls, and many would want, for a child’s sake, to ensure an element of provisionality about gender, especially with regard to choices made before puberty. The question remains, however, whether it is possible to hold views that criticise or deny such identities and orientations — on the grounds that this position is defensible by reference to the Bible — without being accused of HBT bullying or, at some level, encouraging it. In many church circles, it is possible to air such views without offending anyone who disagrees, especially if the church has the sort of reputation that discourages LGBT people from attending. Schools, however, have no such privilege — or disadvantage — and must minister to a complete cross-section of society. Those on the staff who choose to test the boundaries of what they can believe and express about sexuality and gender must do so against a demanding standard: not a school’s HBT-bullying policy, but Christ’s strictures against doing any harm to any child.

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