- Annual Conference Speaker
Written by Matthew Savage, International Education Consultant, Savage Education and speaker at the 40th COBIS Annual Conference.
In early 2017, I almost lost my son. Any parent knows that there can be no pain greater, and having stood at that precipice and looked into that abyss, the axis on which my world had revolved shifted forever. A few weeks ago, and, by his own admission, now “thriving”, Jack agreed to record with me a candid conversation about his transition from AFAB* (*assigned female at birth) Year 6 pupil to 20-year-old out, proud, queer young man.
I have released this conversation as a podcast series of six episodes, and called it “Jack and Me”. Whilst it is very much a story of one trans man’s journey, it is also a story of identity, of courage, and of unconditional love, equally relevant for all parents and their children navigating the powerful but perilous terrain of transition in their own families, and for all international educators passionate about the wider pursuit of diversity and inclusion in their schools.
For this article, I have chosen but a few of the insights he shares in the podcast, but I strongly urge you to listen to the entire series. At a time when the world is moving further and further away from equity, inclusion and justice, never have Jack’s words been more important than they are right now.
Jack describes in detail the transphobic slurs he endured even as a 10-year-old child, and the insistence of so many teachers to refer to, and group, their children by a gender binary. At first, he was puzzled by such language, as it seemed to predate his conscious questioning of his own gender; but now, looking back, it was his brutal introduction to a world rife with transphobic ignorance and hate.
Like in too many schools, the first uniform he was obliged to wear as a secondary student could not have been more gendered, perversely accentuating and revealing every nuance of the adolescent female body. He did not have the courage to fight it, but wearing such clothes on a daily basis served also to accentuate and reveal to him the dissonance between his identity and the body he inhabited.
He was struck from an early age by how pervasive explicit transphobia seemed to be, and how legitimised and unaccountable were those fuelled by, and fuelling, such hatred. He reflects now on how much harder becomes your transition if you are coming out in a world that seems to regard your very existence as the subject of laughter, revulsion or, worse still, denial.
Before Jack ever came out as trans, he decided to come out as lesbian, and it is his experience that this is too often a common first step by many trans boys and men. Such is their desperation to be part of the wider LGBTQ+ community that they would rather enter it through an inauthentic door than not belong to it at all.
One thread that runs through these conversations is how many mistakes we made as parents, despite the best possible intentions and all the love in the world, in our struggle to “catch up” with Jack and walk his new road hand in hand. We got there in the end, but it took us too long and, in the meantime, his journey was even harder as a result.
Jack talks candidly about “binding” – how essential it is for many a trans male teen, and how we can either support them in sourcing safe and quality products or leave them to fashion their own dangerous and painful alternatives. Thankfully, this issue finally reached a broad audience with some of the scenes in the recent series of Netflix’s Sex Education, and hopefully his words will help educate too.
Reflecting back, Jack is remarkably understanding of the difficulty facing many an international school in choosing between supporting LGBTQ+ students at all costs and avoiding the opprobrium and moral panic of the wider parent body. But at the time, he felt like a caged bird, denied his right to fly freely.
Jack is frank and open about the comorbidity of gender dysphoria and the onset of eating disorders, and how trans children and young people will often be willing to go to dangerous lengths in order to chase the body their unblocked puberty seems so determined to deny them.
For so many years, Jack had to hide the very essence of his own identity, and the detriment from such denial affected every stratum of his physical and mental health. I write and talk daily with schools around the world about the masks that so many students wear every single day, and Jack’s was as hard and heavy as any.
Listening to Jack made me reflect still further on what I call the five Cs of visibility – campus, climate, culture, curriculum and communication – and just how far we have to go before our schools are safe for every student. Above all, however, it has made me realise just how different it is for a student to feel “looked at” and for a student to feel “seen”.
There is much talk now of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice in the international schools sector, which has to be a good thing, but we have to remember that inclusion, unlike gender, is a binary: either we are inclusive of all identities and characteristics, or we are inclusive of none.
I do not question the sincerity of those international school leaders newly carrying that torch, but I hope they will find a way, despite the sociocultural context in which their schools are located, to enable every single student to be known, be seen and belong, regardless of how they identify or who they are.
Conditionality and contingency abound in all of our schools, but we must not let the winds of performativity and normativity blow us from that path. Surely we take an invisible oath when we join this profession to “do no harm”, and I hope that Jack’s story can help us realise just how important that is.
* “Jack and Me” is available now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, but please use his words carefully, sensitively and with respect – and to the benefit of all the LGBTQ+ students in your own schools. Jack has fought long and hard finally now to have the privilege to decide what he shares and with whom, and I am determined this podcast neither dilute nor detract from that agency in his own, private life.