Celebrity journalist Piers Morgan recently dismissed the whole concept of neutral gender as “ridiculous” and “anarchy” on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. One of London’s top private schools is responding to students’ calls for a gender-neutral uniform policy. But despite making headlines for the bold change the new policy proposed at Highgate School simply allows students to wear either the boys’ or girls’ uniforms, with anyone who actually identifies as “gender-neutral” stuck between the two.
The school’s attempts to be more open to transgender students includes gender-neutral toilets, an end to dividing sports by gender and the use of the pronoun “they” as opposed to he or she.
The school is also hosting a conference in June on “The Developing Teenager” with other schools, which will include the issue of gender in modern education.
However, is the school really embracing the idea of gender as a broad spectrum between male and female or simply offering a choice of “skirts or trousers” that’s already outdated?
Headteacher Adam Pettitt says the male and female uniforms are not changing but might no longer be gender-specific. “We are asking them, should it be called uniform number one and uniform number two?”, he told the Sunday Times.
This is the same concept now adopted at Brighton College where Pettitt is a governor.
“Non-binary gender” and “gender-neutral” are terms reflecting the modern idea of a broad spectrum of sexual identity between male and female that is not recognised in UK law. The NHS describes gender dysphoria, the medical understanding of this, as “feeling trapped inside a body that doesn’t match their gender identity.” This is a topic that always results in a lot of delicate language and careful use of hyphens in order to avoid offending both activists and terrified Daily Mail readers.
Canada’s decision to allow gender-neutral options on driving licenses has prompted a landmark case in Ontario in which filmmaker Joshua Ferguson is now applying to be recognised as non-binary on his birth certificate. “I was assigned male at birth, but I never felt like a boy growing up and I didn’t feel like a girl either. In my adult life, I’m forced to constantly choose between one or the other,” he says.
“Cis” is the term used to describe people who do identify as the gender they were assigned at birth, although some commentators believe that everyone has a degree of gender-fluidity.
Authorities obviously have to consider the potential abuse of granting legal recognition to people who identify as non-binary in gender, such as unwelcome men hanging around inside ladies’ toilets or changing rooms by claiming to be non-binary. How does a legal system differentiate in a question of psychology versus a person’s physicality?
They also have to deal with simple issues of plumbing. When the Barbican recently renamed its toilets as gender-neutral some women complained that men still had access to urinals while women faced an even greater queue for a limited number of cubicles.
Progress or more to do?
About 120 UK schools now have a gender-neutral school uniform policy according to LGBT in schools charity Educate & Celebrate. Some of them open male and female uniforms to all pupils while other schools have a unisex design.
But maybe these basic allowances are enough of a compromise when a uniform is meant to repress individual identity? Gender is an integral aspect of a person’s identity and so where should the line be drawn between a boy who wants to express a degree of femininity through make-up and earrings and a boy who is diagnosed with gender dysphoria?
Gender-Neutral toilets in schools?
School toilets have held a certain mystique for decades as smoking dens and secret meeting rooms for groups of the same gender. How would that tradition cope with people who do not identify as wholly male or female?
The simple answer is to designate a separate gender-neutral toilet, and in most cases non-binaries can already use the disabled facility. Halesowen College in the West Midlands has marked its disabled toilets with a sign reading “This toilet is for everyone”.
Of course, apart from bringing in bright new ideas for the estimated 0.4% of the population identifying as non-binary it would help of schools provided some basic maintenance of their existing facilities for the other 99.6%. A 2010 campaign to improve facilities titled “Bog Standard” found that 38% of girls wouldn’t use their school toilets due to poor conditions.
Whether or not uniforms actually improve academic results is difficult to assess since they are worn in 90% of UK schools, spanning both ends of education league tables.
Perhaps 21st Century schools should retire all uniforms in favour of “smart” dress codes and rely on the satisfaction of their students as a measure of success, as forward-thinking Adam Pettitt has concluded. “If they feel happier and more secure in who they are, it must be a good thing.”
by Stewart Vickers @VickHellfire
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