A story emerged in the UK not long ago about a Maths teacher who had faced disciplinary action for accidentally misgendering a student. At least, this was how the story was spun at the time by the right wing press: a ‘typical’ attack on conservative values by the liberal Thought Police. Upon closer examination, the disciplinary case was more complex than that. Of course it was.
Accidentally misgendering someone is embarrassing for everyone. Sometimes mistakes happen, because we’re fallible human beings who might make assumptions or forget. Chances are, if you called someone by the wrong name or the wrong pronouns, you would be mortified. You’d probably apologise profusely, because you never intended to cause harm, or to deny that person’s identity. If a complaint was raised about this, you would say the same thing, but in a more formal way. And if an accidental slip was all that it was, that would be the end of that.
Deliberate misgendering is a different thing entirely, and that is where the conservative press’s coverage of the case mentioned above starts to come apart at the seams. The teacher in this case, Joshua Sutcliffe, accidentally misgendered a trans student once, but the rest of the time, he used a strategy of his own devising when ‘dealing’ with this student: he would use the student’s preferred name but would not use male pronouns; instead he would phrase everything in such a way that he would always use the student’s name. He felt that this was a compromise. He was wrong.
What he was doing was ‘othering’ this student linguistically, singling him out unnecessarily in a way that took more effort than just using the male pronouns in the first place. How might that work? Here is a fictional example: Imagine being Dave in a classroom full of “boys and girls and Dave”. This teacher must have thought he was being subtle and clever. When he was called out for this, here’s what should have happened, and what I would have advised him to do if I had been his trade union representative:
Step 1: apologise profusely for singling out this student, and promise not to do it again.
Step 2: request some training for all staff about transgender issues. Admit that you don’t fully understand — that’s fine, there are times when all of us can do better — but that you want to ensure your classroom is an inclusive and supportive space, and you’d welcome the opportunity to have more tools for that.
Step 3: ensure that the school develops a clearer transgender policy and code of practice so that this doesn’t happen again in any other classrooms either.
That doesn’t sound too hard, right? But apparently, it was. Sutcliffe marketed his strategy of using the preferred name but not the pronouns as the best he could do given his religious beliefs. And he is back in the news now, because instead of apologising and drawing a line under the incident, Sutcliffe, who is also an evangelical pastor, is suing the school for religious discrimination, claiming that he has been victimised for his Christian beliefs.
Mr Sutcliffe said: ‘I have been shocked and saddened by the actions of the school, which, in my opinion, reflect an increasing trend of Christians being marginalised in the public square, and unpopular beliefs silenced.
‘While the suggestion that gender is fluid conflicts sharply with my Christian beliefs, I recognise my responsibility as a teacher and Christian to treat each of my pupils with respect.
‘I have balanced these factors by using the pupil’s chosen name, and although I did not intentionally refer to the pupil as a “girl”, I do not believe it is unreasonable to call someone a girl if they were born a girl.’
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre which is supporting Mr Sutcliffe, added: ‘This is one of a large number of cases we are encountering where teachers are finding themselves silenced or punished if they refuse to fall in line with the current transgender fad.’
The former Conservative Party chairman Lord Tebbit said: ‘It seems to me this is a mad world when someone is disciplined for stating a biological fact.’
(Source: Daily Mail)
To Mr Sutcliffe: This boy’s beliefs about gender and how he expresses his gender are none of your business, just as your Christian beliefs are none of his business. (Your beliefs shouldn’t be any of my business either, but since you are using them to bully a child, you have made them fair game here.) If he wants your opinion, he’ll ask for it. If he wants to talk to a teacher about it, he will. If he wants to talk to an evangelical pastor about it, he will. If he just wants to come to class and learn like any other student you have, then he has that right. You don’t need to have a philosophical discussion with a trans student about whether gender is fluid, how biology shapes identity or whether he is ‘really’ a boy or a girl.
How about this as a general rule: If you aren’t trans, you can safely assume a trans person knows more about being trans than you do. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have spoken to people who are much more knowledgeable about it, and I have learned from them. If I have questions, I ask them. As a teacher and a pastor, it must be tempting to believe that you have ALL the wisdom and the answers in the world, but you don’t, and it’s OK to admit that. If you can’t let go of your assumed authority on the subject, ask yourself: what does more harm? Calling him a boy or calling him a girl? Does using this child’s preferred pronouns harm you in any way? Even if you don’t agree, does it spiritually damage you, compromise your ideals, clash with your principles in a way that irreparably harms you? Of course it doesn’t. Put your ego to one side. It’s not about you; it’s about the child’s well-being.
To the Christian Legal Centre: Does Christianity have a leg to stand on when it raises objections to punishing people who don’t fall in line with ‘current fads’? I’m sending serious side-eye to an institution that punished people for ‘heresy’ by burning them alive. But OK, that was a long time ago, so I’ll ask this instead: What would Jesus do? Well he’d probably tell you to be kind and respectful. That was pretty much his way. And if God doesn’t make mistakes, then this boy was meant to be trans. Maybe think about that for a while.
To Lord Tebbit: you may think that ‘stating’ a ‘biological fact’ does no harm at all, and it’s fair to say you have received rather a lot of personal criticism over the years, like that time when Michael Foot compared you to a pole-cat; you tend to roll with it when people insult you. But this is a child we are talking about. What you are condoning is a form of bullying. There are plenty of other situations when publicly stating a ‘biological fact’ about a person would upset them, and would result in universal criticism. Using this argument to justify picking on a transgender child is gross and stupid.
Is it so hard for these people to grasp common decency? Whenever you meet someone new, you find out their name and you take their word for it when it comes to their gender. You don’t demand to see their ‘biological facts’ (or their birth certificate). It can be difficult to adjust when someone changes their name or their gender, but you just make a little more effort to remember, and YOU SAY SORRY WHEN YOU GET IT WRONG.
What you absolutely don’t do is fight for your right to ‘other’ a child based on selective reading of a religious text. You don’t present yourself as the victimised party. Mr Sutcliffe, you might have the backing of the Christian Legal Centre, but Jesus would be shaking his head at you right now.
Here’s the teacher explaining his situation on TV. Note that he still won’t use male pronouns for this student. And he still thinks the main problem was the accidental slip. Andrea Williams from the Christian Legal Centre is infuriating too, but it’s actually quite therapeutic to see how disgusted Holly and Phillip are with their ‘medieval’ attitudes.
My final note: a lot of schools are doing really great work in terms of transgender issues, and from my own experience working with young people, I have rarely seen a teenager bat an eyelid about another student changing their name or their pronouns. Young people get it; don’t they deserve at least the same from the adults in the room?