Two months ago, parents at Sacred Heart girls’ school in Hammersmith received an unexpected letter. “As a Catholic school,” wrote headteacher Marian Doyle, Sacred Heart must “promote greater wholeness for transgender individuals”. If a girl identifies as a boy, pupils should use their “preferred pronoun” (he or him), and “refrain … from any judgment”. These were Catholic values, Doyle explained. Conveniently enough, they were also in accord with the Equality Act 2010, which obliges schools to help “eliminate discrimination”.
The letter was vague, but for some parents it was deeply alarming. What were their children going to be taught about gender? What would happen to dissenters from the new idea that girls can, if they wish, be regarded as boys? It was “a very dangerous letter”, said one – who didn’t want to be named, like every parent or teacher I have spoken to on this subject. That won’t surprise you if you have followed the news in this area. Last year a Catholic school in Kent had to apologise to a transgender pupil who had originally been refused the right to wear girls’ uniform and use the female changing rooms. The pupil set up an online petition and hired a solicitor: in the current atmosphere, there was only going to be one outcome.
The Christian Legal Centre says it has encountered “a large number” of cases of teachers being disciplined or silenced. The most prominent recent example is Joshua Sutcliffe, a maths teacher in Oxfordshire who unthinkingly addressed a group of pupils as “girls” although one identified as a boy. He apologised, but the pupil went to the school authorities. Sutcliffe was suspended by the school for “insensitive comments” and a failure to recognise “the sexual and cultural diversity of students”.
Many will sympathise with Sutcliffe’s story, because he was trying to walk the tightrope: he couldn’t in good conscience refer to the pupil as “he” because he didn’t believe it was true, but he was prepared to use the pupil’s new (male) name. And then the tightrope snapped. This is what Christian teachers – and others who feel bound by their consciences – fear: that they are just waiting for the authorities to put them in an impossible position.
Teachers, along with doctors and others, are on the front line, but nobody can be indifferent to these questions. It is not just a matter of whether teenagers are being rushed into processes with huge irreversible consequences; not just of whether the system could be exploited by predatory men; it is a destabilising of our world picture, to which the images of male and female have always been essential. As one parent remarked to me: “You don’t know anything about how your child will turn out: whether they’ll be sporty, or extraverted, or even whether they’ll be healthy; the one thing you know, from the moment the baby is handed to you, is whether it’s a boy or a girl. And now even that is being taken away.”
But no less anguished are those who suffer from gender dysphoria, whose stories are often of extraordinary courage and suffering. Yes, some of them may be caught up in a momentary phase; but for others, this will be a problem for the rest of their lives.
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