I first came across the term transgender when working as part of one of the first adult education projects to engage with the transgender community in 2003.
Back then it was a misunderstood term and, as I begin to research my article, I quickly realise that, despite its higher profile, it still is.
But if there’s one person who can help me to understand it’s Lisa Vine.
I met her when we both worked for NIACE, the UK adult education charity that’s now part of the Learning and Work Institute. She had come there from the UK parliament, where she had worked for one of the UK’s leading political parties as a researcher.
Following a spell as policy officer at NIACE, she left to, amongst other things, lead a flagship UK project, funded by BBC Children In Need, supporting transgender and non-binary children and young people, for which she won Leicester Pride’s “Unsung Hero” award.
“Over the three years the project ran, I supported over 70 young people between 3 and 18 years old,” she says.
Fairy trans mother
Lisa Vine defines herself as a cisgender woman and a trans ally. Consequently she admits not having an understanding of what it’s like to be trans or non-binary.
“My knowledge and expertise come from people I worked with and, when I advocate for the trans and non-binary community, I’m conscious of ensuring I speak on their behalf, not my own. It was working directly with these wonderful people and their families that motivated me to start my own business. They called me the ‘fairy trans mother’,” she smiles.
A core part of Lisa Vine’s work on the project involved creating a toolkit for schools and colleges, looking both at the legislation they needed to adhere to and lesson plans for addressing those issues in the classroom.
She has worked with 10 local authorities and similar organisations as well as the local Anti-Bullying and Educational Psychology services to put together a toolkit that addressed the needs of educators supporting trans and non-binary students.
“This was a challenge because there’s not a one-size fits all approach. Every person’s different and their feelings, ideas, wants and dreams are different too,” she says.
Stigma around LGBT+ is coming back
Now working as a freelance consultant on LGBT+ matters, she says the toolkit is relevant beyond school because the legislation and the guidance for support are the same for older students as they are in school, though she admits that teenagers and adults may need more tailored support.
I’m impressed by the detail of the toolkit. But I need to understand why, in 2019 Britain, it’s still needed.
“In the last 10 years, I think we’ve come full-circle,” says Lisa.
“People often say to me ‘things are so much better for LGBT+ people now’ and in many ways they are. However, for trans and non-binary people we’re seeing waiting times for NHS gender services rocket to almost two years before first appointments and, worryingly, we’re seeing higher levels of hate crime and incidents being reported compared to just a few years ago. For me it doesn’t matter how much legislation we have to protect LGBT+ people when the stigma around being LGBT+ is coming back and there’s limited services to support people.”
Even the legislation has catching up to do as non-binary identities, when someone feels they are neither solely male nor female, are not legally recognised in the UK, whereas they are in some countries.
Trans and non-binary still encounter prejudice and fear
In a country obsessed with international politics, the European dimension is not lost on Lisa, who recognises that, amid the different countries there isn’t a one-size fits all approach, just many people with differing experiences.
“Some European countries are doing some fantastic work in terms of supporting trans and non-binary people however, where there is difference there is prejudice and fear,” Lisa says.
People who are able to be themselves are more likely to engage in their community and be successful in what they do. Adult education providers are best placed to support a learner or student to be their true self
A number of European countries require sterilisation before a trans person can be legally recognised as the gender they identify with and Lisa thinks that this may influence perceptions, leaving people to assume that trans is simply a phase.
“I hate the word ‘phase’, I really do. It isn’t so much the word, but how it’s used. When someone says ‘don’t worry it’s just a phase you’ll get over it’ it doesn’t matter if they are right or not, what matters is that in that moment they are dismissing someone’s feelings, not acknowledging who that person feels they are at that moment.”
As a cisgender person, she argues, it is important to make any trans or non-binary person feel safe and accepted and, she says, we should never underestimate our role in this.
Showing support is simple acts
To conclude, I ask her what adult educators can do to support and make changes. She’s passionate everyone plays a part, especially adult education.
She feels that the support adult education can offer doesn’t just apply to learners, but staff too. For many, trans and non-binary might not be a subject they know much about and, by learning to support other learners, staff can benefit too.
Lisa feels that support can be summarised as simply as helping a student to be their true self; whether using the correct name and pronouns or supporting someone in terms of their medical or social transition.
Lisa knows this is new to people: “For those who maybe haven’t thought about this yet or who haven’t yet supported a learner who is trans or non-binary there’s so much to think about, it is important to be proactive rather than reactive, and it’s OK to feel overwhelmed.”
That’s where the toolkit, training and local organisations supporting trans people can help. The final call from Lisa is a clear as it is simple: “If you work in adult education and you want to do more to support learners, seek out support from organisations who can help or advise.”