Wednesday, 11 January 2017

An Open Letter to the CEOs of Schools Out about LGBT History Month

Dear Mr Fenwick and Ms Sanders,

As a trans woman and someone who has in the past, supported Schools Out to try and make things better for LGBT pupils and teachers in our schools I am writing to you as a matter of utmost seriousness. I also speak as a trans academic who has published research into trans children and young trans people. My concern is regarding journalist Julie Bindel’s talk in Manchester which is being promoted by you as part of LGBT history month.

In this letter I intend to make the following points; firstly that the justification you have made for your support of Julie Bindel’s participation in an LGBT history month events is untenable, and secondly that this brings into serious question the credibility of Schools Out as an organisation.

In Achbishop Desmond Tutu’s famous quote he describes neutrality as harming the oppressor, at least in your case we are not talking about neutrality, representing a kind of passive support for the oppressor, you are engaging in active support. In your justification for including this item in your listings you cite primarily an article published by Bindel in 2004;

She made the comments that questioned the existence of trans women in 2004 and has said she would have phrase things differently now.”

Foregrounding this rather than other publications of Bindel is very highly problematic and also very revealing. She “apologised” for that article under pressure from trans people, however this article, while expressed in objectionable terms, is far from the worst example of her output. It is telling that you have chosen to foreground this in your explanation rather than her, very recent, article in the Daily Mail about trans children which you only mention only at the end of your statement. It is this that concerns me greatly since it appears to reveal some very serious issues regarding Schools Out as an organisation claiming to work for trans children and young people in education.

Bindel’s article in the Daily Mail (Britain’s highest circulation newspaper) a few weeks ago is harmful (and here I am choosing my words very deliberately, and very carefully) to transgender children. In her article Bindel suggests, while providing no supporting evidence, the following;

“If I were a teenager today, well-meaning liberal teachers and social workers would probably tell me that I was trapped in the wrong body. They might refer me to a psychiatrist who would prescribe fistfuls of hormones and other drugs. And terrifyingly, I might easily be recommended for gender re-assignment surgery… just because I didn’t like the pink straitjacket imposed on girls.”

There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that this is the case for any kind of transgender or gender nonconforming children. Indeed there is a great deal of evidence to the contrary. All evidence suggests, that trans children and young trans people find it very difficult to convince anyone that they are trans: If you are a trans child, you are probably more likely to be regarded as gay or lesbian than trans. In addition you are more likely to feel significant pressure not to come out, or be recognised as your real gender because of a number of different social and cultural pressures, pressures made worse by Bindel’s article. Indeed even for those who do come out, leading anything like a normal life can be a real struggle, with opposition commonly manifesting itself amongst parents of other children at school, school staff and even peers, in many areas of school life from PE to toilet access.

Bindel’s narrative appears to have been constructed to serve a purpose; to delegitimise trans people in general and trans children in particular. It is designed to make it harder for those trans children trying to come out, trying to communicate to parents, siblings, teachers and friends and convince them of who they are. When trans children are unable to do this, or face resistance from their families, communities and schools, in effect they are being forced to undergo a kind of amateur community Conversion Therapy. This is why I use the term “harm” very particularly.

The consequences of this article reaching such a wide audience are difficult to quantify of course. Yet it doesn't take much imagination to see how it is very likely to make many parents, parents of other children and school staff adopt a more dismissive and hostile attitude to any trans child brave enough to try and come out, with the consequent psychological damage to those individuals.

In other words Bindel’s article in the Daily Mail will have an effect on trans children which is opposite from the apparent stated aims of Schools Out. And, in case you're not aware of it, this is not the only attack on trans children in mainstream media; the BBC are broadcasting a program about a mental health professional, widely regarded as engaging in Conversion Therapy on trans children, in a documentary in which the parents of a trans child in Canada are alleging journalistic malpractice. There is a very real danger that a popular media consensus harmful to trans children is developing. Julie Bindel’s article is part of that consensus. Your endorsement of Bindel’s event is an endorsement of those harmful effects.

Your organisation is adding legitimacy to Bindel by including her event in your LGBT history month listings. In effect you are saying that it is okay for someone who produces material like hers to take part in LGBT (not LGB) history month. One of the justifications you use for this is the old canard of “debate”.

“She has a right to speak just as we have a right to challenge what she says. That is the nature of debate and it allows us to make change happen in society.”

With the circulation of the Daily Mail at 2.2 million, and a readership probably in excess of 3 million, perhaps you would like to explain how I am able to challenge her fabrications to this audience. To the best of my knowledge the Daily Mail has not permitted anyone to publish any response to this article, and indeed has published further articles, which will cause harm trans children. Even getting a right to reply article in New Statesman over trans issues has proved impossible in my experience, never mind the Mail.  The current popular media consensus about trans children has largely taken Bindel’s side of the argument with few, if any, opportunities for trans people to “challenge” or “debate” her dangerous narratives in any effective sense or even have our voices heard at all. The “nature of debate” as you describe it, on this issue, contrary to your assertion, is pretty one-sided if it could indeed be described as a "debate" at all...

However what is of more immediate concern is your organisation’s failure to forward the interests of those you claim to represent, namely trans children, over this issue, because this is an issue that is directly relevant to your purview. Indeed it makes me doubt very seriously that you are indeed an LGBT organization if you are prepared to support someone whose actions are harming those you claim to be helping. If you are an LGBT organisation then act like an LGBT organisation. Transphobia and cisgenderism are real and seriously harm children in schools. Transphobia and cisgenderism are not the same as homophobia and discrimination against trans children in schools is not the same as discrimination against LGB children, although it has similarities. Your failure to understand the issues with Bindel and how they affect children you claim to represent or wish to help suggests a profound and fundamental failure on the part of Schools Out.

So in my opinion this demonstrates that Schools Out has very serious problems relating to the way it goes about its business in relation to trans children and young people in schools. As a result I will stop recommending your organization to schools and teachers, which I have hitherto done regularly. I cannot see how it is possible for you to maintain the position you have with regard to Bindel and still effectively help trans children in schools. I do not want to be associated with Schools Out in its current form and I will recommend other organisations instead as a result of your stance on this issue. I no longer have any confidence in your ability to help trans children in schools. In my opinion you have become part of the problem.


Natacha Kennedy.
Goldsmiths College and 
University College London

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