A Scandal for Schools

Image of distressed girl sitting on a step.
Image by Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock.com

A teacher’s perspective on why the Cass Review offers hope, not hate

By Rachel Evans*

A PDF Version is available here.

A recent social media post shows a Venn diagram which aims to suggest that ‘1970s homophobia’ and ‘2020s transphobia’ arise from a similar position of bigotry. In the middle of the diagram, where the two circles intersect, are statements such as ‘They’re indoctrinating kids’, ‘It’s not natural’ and ‘Kids will grow out of it.’

Image comparing 1970s homophobia with 2020s transphobia

1970s Homophobia versus 2020s Transphobia – a very questionable interpretation.

I know plenty of allies in school and church contexts who deeply regret the homophobia of the past, are fully supportive of gay rights, and have made what must feel like a natural progression towards seeing demands from transgender activists as all part of the same movement for social justice.

I also know plenty of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults who still bear the scars of having grown up in a climate of widespread discrimination, and who feel strongly that no young person today should experience that.

This Venn diagram is designed to appeal to all of us. It was doing the rounds on social media in early April 2024, following the publication of the Cass Review of NHS Gender Services for young people, and its aim was to suggest that this is history repeating itself, the impact of the report being something akin to that of Section 28.

It’s easy to see how people who want to be supportive allies fall for this comparison. Who wants to be ‘on the wrong side of history’?

But the Cass Review is a watershed moment in challenging such glib conflations, and it’s vital that schools, churches and all other organisations which support young people understand this. In particular, the exposure by Dr Cass of the lack of evidence for the safety and efficacy of puberty blockers, despite their widespread support from those who claim to advocate for ‘trans children’, must give responsible organisations and individuals considerable pause for thought.

For those who still fail to recognise the scandal that has been unfolding in recent years, some of whom are even now seeking to discredit the painstaking research carried out by Cass and her team over a four-year period, when the legal cases follow in due course, as they surely will, it will not be enough to cling to an analogy which must now be exposed for the fallacy that it is.

A first-hand perspective

I have taught in secondary schools for over 25 years. I was at school when Section 28 was introduced, and taught while it was still in place for the first seven years of my career. Until recently, I ran a school club for LGBTQ+ students and their allies. In speaking out about the dangers of trans activism, I have not been radicalised by things I have read or seen online. I am not afraid of people who identify as transgender. I feel compelled to share what I have witnessed because I care above all about the safeguarding of young people.

If you have not been immersed in a school in recent years, you may not yet have a sense of the nature and scale of the change that has taken place, and how the sudden surge in transgender identification is utterly unlike anything that has gone before. My story may help to illustrate this.

The shadow of Section 28

For most of my teaching career, I was never open about my sexuality. At first, this was motivated by a fear of Section 28, a fear that was neither abstract nor disproportionate: I knew two teachers who had been sacked when their same-sex relationships had been discovered, both of whom worked in Christian schools.

Even after it was repealed in 2003, Section 28 cast a long shadow, leaving lesbian and gay teachers still vulnerable to homophobia. And even now, choosing whether to be out at school is not a straightforward decision. On the one hand, sexuality is obviously an intimate part of a person’s life, without obvious relevance in a work context, and certainly not in one where the safeguarding of young people is paramount. On the other hand, gay teachers are probably more aware than most of the frequency with which heterosexual colleagues refer to their partners in front of students, for example when sharing anecdotes in assemblies, or when chatting informally about wedding plans. In contrast, gay teachers often feel they must adopt a much more neutral persona, and sometimes long for the ease with which straight colleagues make casual reference to their families.

Positive role models

Added to that, in the absence of positive role models while they were growing up, many lesbian, bisexual and gay teachers want to be able to be those role models for their students. This is something which motivated me to come out, about twenty years into my teaching career, at a time when I finally felt confident enough to do so. It wasn’t a particularly dramatic moment – just a comment in a PSHE lesson about an experience of homophobic abuse in the past and how it had made me feel, to illustrate a discussion that until then had been quite abstract. I hadn’t planned it, but in the moment it felt right and valuable to draw on a particular experience, and the students’ response – avid attention, followed by respectful questioning – encouraged me that I had made a sound judgement, in the best interests of my students.

Establishing a club for LGBTQ+ students and allies

This experience empowered me to set up a club at my school for students who thought they might be LGBTQ+, and their allies. This was around 2017, at a time when homophobic comments were still common in schools, and when some students still found it difficult to come out as lesbian, gay or bisexual to their friends and families. I wanted to set up the sort of club that would have helped me when I was at school, but which could never have been established in the era of Section 28.

I felt that it was vital for the club to be open to anyone. The fact that it was advertised as being open to allies encouraged students to come along without any sense that doing so would label them as ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, bisexual’ or anything else, either to themselves or to others. At this stage, when I founded the club, the school had not yet had a student openly identifying as transgender.

For the first three years, the club thrived in just the way that I had hoped. One of our aims was to address homophobia in the school, so the club became a space where students could share comments they had heard and discuss in what areas of the school people felt least safe. Having gathered this data, we then shared it with the senior leadership team, in order to inform future policy and practice. We also delivered a series of assemblies with the aim of challenging homophobia (addressing comments like, ‘That’s so gay’, for example, and explaining why they’re hurtful). It was heartening that, after a year or so, students reported that the school felt safer and that they were hearing homophobic comments much less frequently.

I am not afraid of people who identify as transgender. I feel compelled to share what I have witnessed because I care above all about the safeguarding of young people.

I also used these sessions to teach about key moments and pioneers in LGBTQ+ history, and we wrote letters as part of Amnesty campaigns for LGBTQ+ rights in other countries. In one session, a teacher with a gay twin talked about her experience of supporting her brother when he came out to the rest of their family.

At that time (2017-20), about twenty students regularly attended the group. Towards the end of that period, one student, a biological female, informally adopted a different name and began using ‘he/him’ pronouns. Other than that, no particular interest in issues around gender was expressed by anyone in the group.

From March 2020 the club stopped running, firstly when schools temporarily closed at the beginning of the pandemic, and then for the whole of the following academic year, when schools were discouraged from running extra-curricular activities in which students mixed between different year groups.

A sudden change

I looked forward to re-launching the club in September 2021, and was delighted when over thirty students attended the first meeting. However, I immediately became aware that the dynamic had changed dramatically. Now, over three quarters of the attendees (most of them female) identified as non-binary or as transgender boys. A higher proportion than before were in Year 7 (aged 11-12), and over half were on the autistic spectrum. Students wished to be known by a wide range of pronouns, including one student who wanted to be referred to as ‘it’, and another who would point at different badges to indicate which pronouns best reflected their changing mood. One student, just 11 years old, told the group about his father’s dismay when he had told him he was ‘omnisexual’. Another explained that she realised she was non-binary when she had wanted to wear trousers to a family wedding.

On the one hand, I felt completely out of my depth: the change was so sudden, so dramatic, and so beyond my experience. On the other, as a very experienced teacher, I knew that these young people had not, at a deeper level, changed substantially from the ones I had known before the pandemic. They were just using different language and different frames of reference, clearly highly influenced by material they had been accessing online.

If you have not been immersed in a school in recent years, you may not yet have a sense of the nature and scale of the change that has taken place, and how the sudden surge in transgender identification is utterly unlike anything that has gone before. My story may help to illustrate this.

Given that so many of these students were girls, and so many seemed motivated to seek new identities by a frustration with rigid gender norms, I felt that there was plenty of common ground here, where I could provide a helpful counterbalance to what they were finding on the internet, which was pushing them towards breast binders, puberty blockers and surgery. So, I set about planning a series of sessions in which we looked at a range of female role models, my main objective being to broaden these students’ sense of all the many varied ways in which women look, dress, behave and speak, such that they might be less likely to draw the conclusion that a desire for non-conformity must mean that they were not really girls.

We had some fascinating discussions – including several in which I was shocked to discover just how limited their understanding of biology was. But it was hard work, which required a great deal of sensitivity, and I became increasingly aware that in running the club on my own I was leaving myself vulnerable to accusations either of transphobia from one quarter, or of indoctrination from another.

A typical exchange might go something like this:

Student: I just don’t feel the box called ‘woman’ is a good fit for me.

Me: Me neither! What happens if we try to make that box as broad
as possible? What if it just means we have female bodies – everything else, like clothing, hairstyles, jobs, interests, relationships, is up to us to choose?

Student: But I’m non-binary. And there’s no such thing as a female body.  That’s just a racist, colonial concept.

In the space of a couple of years, these students had consumed many hours of online content which fed them ideas, terms and identities which then became integral to their very sense of selfhood. Algorithms drove them towards more and more extreme videos, with the result that they formed strong views which they could state, but not fully explain. When these views became tested in the reality of their non-online lives, the students quickly became distressed. Conflicts with parents became a regular topic of discussion at our meetings, as had rarely been the case before. Students would complain of having been ‘dead-named’ when their parents struggled to remember to use names that they had adopted only days before. Trying to unpick these situations with students, and to take some of the heat out of them, was a huge challenge, and not one I felt equipped to deal with.

Pastoral concerns

Alongside the change I had noticed in the students attending my school club, an increasing number of students – the majority of whom were girls – were asking the school to formally change their names and pronouns. A few of these students were referred to me by pastoral leaders for support, even though I felt this was well beyond my expertise. The saddest case – though not an atypical one – was of a 13-year old autistic girl who said to her Head of Year, ‘I want you to make me a boy.’ This student had arrived at the school a few months previously, having been relocated from another town with her mother to escape an abusive father. When I asked this student how she thought things would be different if she were a boy, she replied: ‘Then I would be free.’ It’s not difficult to imagine why this young person craved freedom, but had she been referred to a gender identity clinic, her discomfort would very likely have been attributed to an innate transgender identity, and she could have been placed on a medical pathway, with irreversible life-changing consequences.

It’s important to note that this pattern is now widespread in schools. I became aware during this period that in a neighbouring school 14 students from the same year (over 10% of the year group, and almost all girls from the same friendship group) requested to change names and pronouns in one term.

We are often told that very few young people under the age of 18 actually receive medical intervention for gender dysphoria, but I know of several cases in my school and the surrounding area where desperate young people and their parents have accessed hormones and surgery through private clinics, sometimes outside the UK. If schools suspect that girls are being taken abroad to undergo FGM, they are duty bound to report this under safeguarding legislation; no such regulation applies to staff who become aware of students being taken out of the country for ‘gender-affirming surgery.’

Whatever some prominent LGBTQ+ campaigners might say, there is no precedent for any of this, and there was no route-map for teachers like me, trying to help confused and vulnerable young people to navigate this new territory.

Training from LGBTQ+ organisations

In the face of this unprecedented shift, schools like mine understandably turned for guidance to local LGBTQ+ organisations which specialised in working with young people. When my school first received training from our local such organisation in 2017, I was impressed by the way in which it provided teachers with the knowledge and skills to help tackle homophobia in schools, and to support students who might be struggling with challenges such as coming out to parents.

I attended further training from the same group in 2021 and was shocked by the change in emphasis. This time, all the signposting was towards organisations that offer support for young people who are exploring transgender identities, with no mention of groups that might offer support for those who are lesbian, bisexual or gay. It was as if lesbian, gay and bisexual people had been completely erased. Indeed, when I checked this organisation’s website, the word ‘lesbian’ was now nowhere to be found.

One section of the training focused on a teenage girl awaiting puberty blockers who, with a short hairstyle and an interest in boxing, it was assumed must be a transgender boy. In discussing a scenario in which a member of staff reported concerns about a male student using the girls’ toilets, attendees were advised that the correct response would be to ‘rebuke’ the female member of staff for expressing the concern.

The whole training session was underpinned by an understanding of sex and gender which was reliant on narrow, outdated and misogynistic stereotypes, and betrayed an alarming lack of concern over the rapid increase in girls presenting as non-binary or transgender.

Explaining the sudden change

At this training we were told that the reason for the sudden increase in the number of young people exploring transgender identities was simply the equivalent of people twenty years ago feeling free, finally, to start to explore same-sex attraction in a less socially conservative climate.

Attempts to explain the phenomenon as being attributable to the greater social acceptability of transgender identities in the last decade often cite a graph showing the increasing prevalence of left-handedness as it ceased to be stigmatised.

If this were a valid explanation, teachers would have witnessed a similarly dramatic acceleration in the number of students coming out as lesbian, gay or bisexual twenty years ago, with the repeal of Section 28 swiftly followed by the introduction of civil partnerships, and the general climate of increased social acceptability. There is no evidence of any such phenomenon. Certainly, over the first fifteen years of my teaching career I was heartened to witness an incremental shift in attitudes in schools, which led to more students feeling they could more openly express same-sex attraction, or at least support for gay rights. This shift was gradual, however.

And there are some other crucial differences:

  • Young people exploring same-sex attraction were not told that unless they came out as gay they were at high risk of suicide
  • Girls did not come out as gay or bisexual at several times the rate of boys
  • Exploring same-sex attraction was not a pathway towards irreversible medical intervention
  • Young people did not tend to come out as lesbian, gay or bisexual in friendship clusters
  • Young people did not at the time have unsupervised access to online content

The wider context for girls and young women

In addition to these significant differences, when considering the prevalence of transgender identities amongst girls, it is essential to consider the wider context in which this is happening – one in which females are at high risk of sexual harassment on a daily basis even within their own schools; in which a high proportion of young people are regularly exposed to or seek out pornography which often depicts sexual violence against women; and one in which children grow up targeted by highly-gendered marketing around toys, books and clothes.

Any reputable organisation claiming to care about gender-nonconforming children ought to be able to demonstrate a shrewd awareness of all of this, a robust approach to safeguarding and a nuanced approach to providing support.

Comparisons between ‘1970s homophobia’ and ‘2020s transphobia’, as illustrated in that Venn diagram, and upheld by prominent LGBTQ+ campaigners, seem therefore ignorant at best, and wilfully negligent at worst.

Motivation to act

I recognise how many of these girls feel, as I too am gender non-conforming. Like many lesbians, I am very confident that, had I been a teenager today, I would have been tempted to follow the same route towards puberty blockers, and that that would have been a total disaster. And I’ve also been appalled by what has happened to so many other women who have expressed this concern: dismissal, silencing, abuse.

Fortunately, I was well-supported by senior leaders at my school when I expressed my concerns to them. It helps to work in a context where it is understood that the safeguarding of young people takes precedence over everything else, and although when I initially raised these issues I felt that there was a lot that I had to explain, it has been helpful that so much of the discourse around transgender ideology and its impact on young people has entered the mainstream media in the last couple of years.

In the end, I took the decision to put the school club on pause, and immediately felt a strong sense of both relief and guilt. I am very sorry no longer to be able to offer what had felt like a safe and valuable space for young people at my school, but the wider context in which I was running it had become too febrile, and I no longer felt equipped to lead it.

My school has also cut all links to our local LGBTQ+ organisation, and has not sought renewal of our Rainbow Flag Award accreditation. I hope that many others follow suit.

The Cass Review

The work of courageous campaigners such as Allison Bailey, Simon Fanshawe, Maya Forstater, Keira Bell, Simon Edge and Helen Joyce has done a huge amount to prepare the way for the many thousands like me to feel that they can now speak more freely. The recently-published Cass Review should now empower schools to make bold changes to their policies and practices in order to protect young people from psychological damage and life-changing medical interventions.

I think there is a helpful Venn diagram to be drawn, comparing the 1970s to the 2020s, but it’s not the one shared by my Facebook friend. Mine compares ‘1970s homophobia’ with ‘2020s trans activism’, and it looks like this:

Revised 1970s Homophobia versus 2020s Transactivism Venn Diagram

A second, revised and more accurate version of the 1970s Homophobia vs 2020s transactivism venn diagram.

The Cass Review lays all of this bare, underpinning it with painstaking research. It is for all those in positions of influence in schools to use the Cass Review as an opportunity to call out transgender ideology for what it is – a new form of homophobia and misogyny which is deeply harmful to young people – before any further damage is done.

Changes in practice

Schools are currently awaiting the publication of guidance from the Department for Education on support for ‘Gender questioning children’, following a consultation period. This long-awaited guidance, which will no doubt also be informed by the Cass Review, will be most welcome. I hope that it will enable schools to support gender non-conforming students in a much more holistic, compassionate way.

In the meantime, there are some simple but powerful things that schools could begin to do to support gender non-conforming young people:

  • Avoid policies around uniform and hairstyle which stipulate different things for male and female students
  • Encourage teachers to use images of men and women who challenge gender stereotypes in resources such as powerpoints, so as to allow students to see as broad a range of ways of being male and female as possible
  • Ensure that sex education is appropriate for students who are may be lesbian, gay or bisexual
  • Ensure representation of female role models throughout all aspects of school life, for example in weekly form quizzes (which too often feature questions about male footballers, actors etc)
  • Robustly monitor and challenge sexual harassment within the school

Young people need adults they can trust, who truly have their best interests at heart. They need safe places where they can ask questions and talk about how they feel and what they’re worried about, without being told that they’re at risk of suicide, or that there are people who don’t want them to exist. They need role models who are comfortable in their own bodies, and who don’t tell them that theirs need to change. They need time and space to work out who they are and what the future might offer, without being pushed towards life-changing decisions, the implications of which they are not yet capable of understanding.

The Cass Review, finally, gives me hope that once again schools might provide contexts in which all of this can happen. It will take time, care and courage, but the Cass Review should empower more schools to throw off associations with those who share false analogies with earlier homophobia, and consider more thoughtfully how to provide genuine support to gender non-conforming young people.

* Note on anonymity

I have written under a pseudonym because I still don’t feel safe enough in my work and church contexts to be able to be as open as I would like to be. Ironically, this returns me to the same state I was in as a closeted lesbian teacher in the 1990s, and it is deeply regrettable that the organisations of whom I am now most afraid are those who claim to represent me – organisations such as Stonewall, the LGBTQ+ network within my teaching union, and, perhaps most sadly of all, Christian movements for LGBTQ+ inclusion.

As a lesbian Christian, I have often found myself at an uncomfortable intersection – too gay for many Christians, but also too Christian for many gay people.Now, those of us lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians who recognise and resist the homophobia and misogyny inherent in so much of transgender activism find ourselves further marginalised – no longer at home in ‘One Body One Faith’ (formerly the ‘Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement’), which recently, for example, gathered members’ data in a questionnaire which offered the option of declaring one’s gender but not one’s sex.

Thank goodness for LGB Christians, and for the refuge it has created for us. I hope that an increasing number of LGB people and allies recognise the new homophobia for what it is, and join this movement to challenge it.