(Photo source: Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash)
Like many other international schools around the world, the United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA) recognized the difficulties that young LGBTQ+ people often experience in the education system and is striving to respond in an authentic way. By engaging and listening to those most impacted, a journey has begun that will continue to evolve through formal and informal conversations that will shape how inclusion and belonging look in our school.
A need to belong is fundamental to being human. It is a universal trait and when a person doesn’t feel accepted, included, and cared for by those around them, it can be devastating for their wellbeing and for that of their family. The World Health Organization (2022) now recognizes that social isolation and discrimination are major determinants of general health and life expectancy. Schools are in the privileged position of being able to play a significant role in reducing these risks of exclusion and isolation by creating communities in which every member feels safe and heard.
In many countries around the world, there is a growing awareness that schools, as part of societies in general, have not historically been a safe or welcoming environment for many LGBTQ+ young people. There is a willingness amongst many schools to change this but there is also considerable anxiety about how to begin and how to do this well. At UWCSEA we have recently embarked on this journey and while we certainly do not have all the answers, we are sharing what we have learned and our progress to date in the hope of helping others in similar journeys toward true inclusion for LGBTQ+ people in schools around the world.
It all starts with a policy. A gender inclusion policy clearly communicates a school’s position, commitment, approach, and limitations to creating an inclusive and safe learning environment. It is the cornerstone of everything that we do. We didn’t start from scratch as there are now many great examples that have been developed and can be adapted to suit the context and needs of any school. We certainly drew on many organizations we found through online searches and reaching out to other schools to find background material and ideas.
When developing policy, we listened to key groups within our school community, especially LGBTQ+ or DEI affinity groups, parent groups, student councils, sports departments, facilities departments, and of course leadership teams. Why? Because the best policy is informed by the people who will be impacted, supported, protected, and empowered by it in the future. The leadership team will be responsible for creating the guiding principles that form the basis of the policy and will anchor everything the school does to create an inclusive environment. Whenever things get tricky or we can’t see a way forward, we come back to these guiding principles. Some examples of our fundamental guiding principles include:
- Every student should have the opportunity to learn in a safe and accepting school environment.
- All staff must commit to the safety and wellbeing of the youth they serve, including those who are transgender or gender-expansive, and
- The exploration and expression of gender identity is a healthy and appropriate aspect of human development.
It’s important to remember that policy does not try to provide explicit and definitive solutions to every possible scenario that might arise. In complex areas like this, it makes little sense to adopt a multitude of specific rules and a one-size-fits-all approach toward respecting individual differences (it took us a while to realize this). Instead, policy should define and publicly state intent and values whilst being honest about any genuine limitations or challenges that may exist to realizing these intentions.
There were a few areas in which we struggled to achieve a clear consensus when developing our policy because we were bogged down in the details. We were trying to ensure our procedures covered every possible complexity that might arise instead of taking a balcony view of what we were trying to achieve. For example, with regard to privacy and confidentiality, there were strong voices advocating for the rights of young people to decide when and with whom they share their gender identity. Equally, there were those who felt the school had a duty of care to share important information with parents and to work collaboratively with them to support their children. “Keeping secrets” from parents felt very uncomfortable to many and was also logistically impossible in our very large school. Ultimately, we needed to acknowledge that coming out is a personal journey that differs for every student, and we need our procedures to be flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of contexts.
School facilities such as toilets and changing rooms were another complex area for us to navigate. Some schools have created gender-neutral facilities to solve the problem but this wasn’t immediately possible for us for practical reasons. Rather than let this prevent progress overall, we have committed in our policy to planning and resourcing these improvements in future years as refurbishments happen. In the meantime, our traditional accessible toilets have been repurposed into multi-purpose, single-user toilets for anyone who requires greater privacy or has ambulant access needs. When speaking with our gender expansive students, it was often apparent that they felt equally uncomfortable using either a male or female toilet and we needed to have a third option until better facilities could be created. Here, if we had assumed that the needs of every LGBTQ+ student are the same, we would have failed to provide a fully inclusive infrastructure to support our community as a whole. Flexibility has to be key.
So how do we achieve this flexibility? The turning point for our journey came in the form of a “Gender Support Plan” (visit the Gender Spectrum website for a great Gender Support Plan template) which is designed to create a shared understanding among school staff, parents, and students about the ways in which a student’s gender will be accounted for and supported at school. This allows each student to express what they need and for them to be involved in decisions around the construction and sharing of the plan.
Just the experience of being genuinely heard by the school through this process can be sufficient to create a sense of belonging for a student. In some cases, students have told us this was all they required to feel heard and to be a part of the solution. The process of engaging also allows us to share some of the challenges we face as a school when trying to meet the needs of so many diverse individuals, and this also seems to be validating for students who can see we are genuinely trying to do our best but not always succeeding (at least not yet). For example, we were engaging with a trans-girl regarding the type of sleeping arrangements that would feel most comfortable for her at an upcoming school camp. We were able to let her know the steps we had taken to investigate different options but also the challenges of finding suitable facilities in a remote camping location. She was understanding and was able to tell us that all she needed was to share a tent with her closest friends, which was easily arranged.
To date, every time we have sat down with a student to develop a support plan, we have discovered that we were able to co-construct the steps needed to help them to feel safe and included. We have found that the very act of asking and listening is far more powerful than any type of system or process change that we could implement.
Any sort of authentic inclusion in any community often requires a paradigm shift in how we understand and appreciate the differences and similarities within, among, and between individuals and groups. In my experience, most people want to make this shift but are anxious about doing or saying the wrong thing. Any community seeking to develop here needs the knowledge, skills, and shared language to make conversations about gender, sexuality, race, culture, abilities, etc. an easy and everyday occurrence. Without these conversations, the diverse needs of our communities remain hidden and there is a good chance that despite our very best intentions, we are not going to get it right.
It is easy to hire an expensive consultant who will provide inclusion training for parents, staff, and students, but this can be pricey and out of reach for many schools. If a professional trainer falls outside of your budget, then there are plenty of online training resources available that can kick start your PD sessions and staff room conversations. I would strongly recommend asking your students if they would like to provide training for staff as they are often very keen to do so, and their experiences are, after all, the fundamental issue here.
Finally, it’s important to remember that “pushback” from individuals in the community is inevitable and understandable. This is where your policy comes into its own. Prepare your staff for these conversations by ensuring they are familiar with the school’s position (see guiding principles in your policy). Whilst these conversations can be uncomfortable and difficult, it’s important for an inclusive school to model respectful communication and acceptance of many different viewpoints without compromising your school’s commitment to inclusion for all.
My key takeaway is the importance of a good policy that listens to its community and is cognizant of its school’s circumstances, limitations, and opportunities. My hope is that you will all share your learnings along the way so we can all benefit and improve our culture of inclusive support for everyone in our communities.
Gender Spectrum Website (2022). Accessed 1 August 2022, https://genderspectrum.org/
World Health Organization (2022, August 1) The Social Determinants of Health. https://www.who.int/health-topics/social-determinants-of-health#tab=tab_1
With a background in teaching and clinical psychology, Lia Gould has been working in international schools in Singapore for the past 14 years, most recently as the senior safeguarding lead at UWCSEA where she works closely with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Team to proactively create a safe and inclusive learning environment for all students.