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Unconditional Love Lives Here

Participating in a recent panel discussion for the Principal’s Training Center, I found fresh fuel in Freire and argued that our schools’ curricula need to be disarmed; that the power inherent within them must be transferred from ‘oppressor’ to the ‘oppressed’; and that curriculum as the “practice of freedom” is essential in ensuring diversity, equity, inclusion and justice in our schools, in envisioning a better world, and in affording every student the right to locate their own identities visibly in the what, whether, how and why of their learning. However, visibility works both ways, and as we reach the end of Pride Month 2021, I call for the cloak of invisibility to fall from perhaps the most oppressed part of the LGBTQ+ community, our trans children and young people.

As the proud father of two transgender adult children, and having led (their) schools in several countries around the world, it saddens me to see a silencing of these identities much like Section 28 and the systemic homophobia that spawned it gagged the gay community only a few decades ago. The recent judgment that ‘gender-critical’ beliefs could be ‘protected’ under the UK’s Equality Act (2010) is a chilling enablement of what is an existential attack on the trans community. All of the protected characteristics are vulnerable – this is why they are protected – but gender identity seems to the only one whose onslaught is tantamount to erasure. However, this article does not aim to enter into the ‘gender debate’, precisely because to debate anyone’s existence is a repugnant notion. This article aims to share Jack’s story.

Every child needs to know they belong (Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash).
Every child needs to know they belong (Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash).

Now 19 years old, Jack, my youngest child, began to question his gender identity with the onset of puberty, only coming out to us, his parents, a few years later, by which point we were living and working in the Middle East, in a society riven with conflicted and toxic attitudes to sexuality and gender. When most he needed visibility, he was cloaked in ignominy, and his dysphoria pathologised by mental ill health, a cloud which descended as a direct result of having to hide or deny who he is. I watched with impotence as the child I had loved unconditionally from birth began to crack and crumble. Three years of rapidly worsening anxiety and depression, self-harm and suicidality, almost destroyed him, and us, by which point he had completely withdrawn from school and spent most of his time trapped in a room even whose rainbow curtains could barely illuminate.

Eventually, my wife returned home with him, whilst I completed the remainder of my contract alone. Back in the UK, we were able to register him with a private gender identity clinic, under whose expert care he could chart his subsequent transition. Just as importantly, he was also able legally to change his name and, with that, the gender markers on which he relied in a daily life with which, finally, he was both able and willing to engage. With each month on T(estosterone), his voice deepened, his beard appeared, his strength grew, and, whilst he waited for the top surgery which is now only weeks away, we were able to source binders whose comfort and efficacy rendered him able to ‘pass’ in public. He also registered for a pre-university Fine Art course, reigniting his frozen education with a talent and passion that swiftly saw him published and exhibited.

‘Accumulation’ - a pareidolic self-portrait (Picture by @jacksavart).
‘Accumulation’ – a pareidolic self-portrait (Picture by @jacksavart).

He is still the same person he has always been: stubborn and contrary, kind and loving, the same beautiful tangle of attitudes and behaviours he was a decade ago. In fact, he told me recently that his trans identity was now but a minor part of who he is: above all, he sees himself as an artist and a gay man, a brother, a son and, one day, a husband and father too; and what we see is a human being on the threshold of an extraordinary life. We made mistakes when first he came out; we found ourselves thrown into a learning as swift and sweeping as any we will ever experience, and we did not always get it right. However, running behind him as fast as we could, we finally caught up, and now we walk hand in hand, into a world that will be a happier, better and more beautiful place for his presence in it. However, in the process, he was denied and rejected by his paternal grandmother, who proved by negative example what we hold truest of all – that love is unconditional and, when it comes with conditions, it was never really love at all.

UK-based charity, Just Like Us, recently published ‘Growing Up LGBT+: the impact of school, home and coronavirus on LGBT+ young people’, shedding light on the disproportionate challenges they face and the ways we can work together to improve their lives. Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, the report observes, “Pupils in schools with strong positive messaging about being LGBT+ have drastically improved wellbeing and feel safer – regardless of whether they are LGBT+ or not”. As with any inclusive practice, if our schools demonstrate transinclusivity, they also facilitate belonging for every single student. Therefore, it is imperative, for every child in every school, that we understand the challenges our trans kids can encounter, and mitigate against these in everything we do. And we achieve this by giving them visibility – within, across and beyond their curriculum, in their relationships, and in their lives.

We all have a right to choose and own our pronouns (Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash).
We all have a right to choose and own our pronouns (Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash).

I have led a number of workshops on this topic during the past year, in which I outline some of the simple steps we can take. Since we know that prejudice is so often rooted in fear, and fear in ignorance, we need to educate our staff, and our students, about gender identity and expression, sexuality and sex. Our commitment to transinclusivity needs to be enshrined not just in practice but in policy, and every stratum and corner thereof. If we must have school uniforms, they need to be gender neutral and worn in safety and with consent. Language that feeds a gender binary or perpetuates gender stereotypes is a vector of violence, and we have a duty to disarm the language in our schools. Every human being has a right to choose by what name and pronouns they wish to be called, and we must respect and model this in all communication. Toilets should be safe spaces for every student, regardless of their gender identity, so why must we gender them at all? The semiotics of school are sometimes subtle but always potent, and we must be mindful of this at all times.

However, all of this begins with love, and love, remember, is unconditional. This is where the leadership of our schools must begin too. The values we espouse and profess to promote must be visible in everything we do. School is a place of questions, and learning begins with inquiry; our children and young people must be able to explore and make sense of this messy and muddled world without fear of erasure or harm. This year, my eldest child came out first as bisexual, and then as trans too, and we were so much better equipped to support her from the outset. Now I look at my family with wonder and with awe, and safe in the knowledge that whatever hatred lives outside these walls, unconditional love lives here.

Unconditional love lives here (Photo by Denin Lawley on Unsplash).
Unconditional love lives here (Photo by Denin Lawley on Unsplash).

I also find myself identifying strongly with the words of Amanda Jetté Knox, the title of whose memoir, Love Lives Here, makes the same observation:

“What I want the world to know more than anything is that yes, my family looks a little different these days, but not in the ways that really matter. We’re a typical home filled with laughter, conversation, sibling rivalry, too much laundry, not enough vegetables and fights over who gets to pick the Friday-night movie.

And yeah, we have a couple of trans people, and some gays. Who cares?

Some of the names and pronouns have changed, but the love remains the same.”

So what is my message to educators and school leaders who read this article? Find your students; I mean, really locate them, and see them for who they actually are. And once you have done so, enable them to find and see themselves within your walls, walls within which no hatred should be granted entry, and where unconditional love must live.

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Matthew Savage
Matthew is an educational consultant, trainer, coach and ally, and former international School Principal. He is founder of #themonalisaeffect, host of #thedataconversation podcast, and a passionate advocate for an #earlyyearsup and #wellbeingfirst approach to education worldwide. He lives in remotest Scotland with his wonderful wife and atypical dog.

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