“Are you like wearing mascara?”

As part of rs21’s ongoing series on trans liberation, Sølvi, a teaching assistant in a London secondary school, tries to grapple with what it means to be non-binary when working in education

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I work in a London secondary school. I’m a teaching assistant for students with special educational needs. We’re in a particularly inequal borough in a criminally inequal city. My students are often challenging, having faced situations, pressures and trauma most of us could hardly ever imagine. I have a near-infinite well of patience and affection for my students. I like them militantly even when they’re being purposefully annoying – and I say that because liking students isn’t the prerequisite for working with young people I thought it would be. Students are fantastic, but the education system is a tragedy.

I’m also questioning my gender. I pass as a man, and go about the world with all those privileges and benefits. I feel like I have no way of explaining to my students that on the weekends I wear maxi dresses and violet lipstick. Or of explaining that I ask them about their nail jobs because I envy them, not because I’m trying to get them in detention.  It shouldn’t be difficult – every day involves negotiating and juggling the relationships you build with students alongside difficult, complex and awkward ideas. But it really is. I can be honest about being bisexual, but not about wanting to not be a man. And maybe I don’t want to be a woman, I don’t know. Indeed its the haziness, the confusion, that makes having a solid foundation to assert your personality upon so difficult to find.

Writing down the ways in which I find tiny victories is, at the moment, one of the few weapons I have. There are genderqueer, trans and non-binary folk working in education. But they’re nowhere near visible enough – not their fault but a reflection of the problem. Education, especially at this level, is so profoundly gendered. I need to back this up I know, but my feeling is that gender plays a huge role in the practice learning and the assumptions of how it works. It is one of the key means of dividing and classing an educational environment. And more than most places, it is the primary means by which you address other people. ‘Sir, Miss, young man, girls, boys, ladies, guys.’ The fact that I find it so hard to avoid even doing this myself, whilst internally wincing with every ‘sir, come,’ is a testament to how deeply embedded gender is.

Of course this isn’t surprising. The entirety of capitalist society is gendered. However I think there is something to recognise in the fact that mass education institutions  – being the places where the new generation of workers are continually reproduced – concentrate the gendered assumptions of society. Which would, arguably, make it a hard place to talk about a gender binary being a social construct.

Even if this isn’t the case, it remains fucking hard. There’s been beautiful progress around being gay, lesbian and bi at school (although London is apparently the worst in the country for ‘out’ teachers), but trans seems to be an unspeakable thing.  Today I had mascara and eye-liner on from the last night, that didn’t come off with make-up wipes. Only a few students even noticed. All boys. I could only give the response I wanted to one student and its a sad fact that I felt more comfortable to do so because I knew his Asperger’s made him far less judgmental. What was I afraid of? That I would lose my ability to relate to them – that they would humiliate me? Anyone working in education will know that being humiliated is a huge confidence knock, but still… By not having that quick response for all of them – ‘yep, suits me doesn’t it’, or ‘very astute Jamie, are you into make-up too?’, I allowed it to become a source of weakness. Actually it could, and should, be normal. What concerns me most is not the way I feel, and the humiliation it could cost me, but the way that silence marshals the internal transphobe in a young person’s head. And how does that affect the way that they relate to their body, and their confidence in questioning their gender? It’s fucking neglectful!

In times like these, we can take progress for granted. Civil rights do not continue unhalted, as much as Stonewall and Pride would like to think. What we choose to do, matters, what we neglect to mention, matters. Every day we are asked to pray. I’m not religious, but I’m agnostic enough to recognise that faith drives us more than we’d like to accept. So I use these moments to demand  whatever unimaginable Infinite Cause there is, to grant me some fucking strength. I don’t want to blush. I want to be proud.


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