Ways to make your youth group a safe and welcoming place for young transgender people

This page is available as a downloadable PDF.

Document: Ways to make your youth group a safe and welcoming place for young transgender people (PDF, 170KB) by Joey T. McKillop.

Thanks to:

Josh Minor and Pig Jefferson for a youth worker’s look-over, Ruth Pearce and Karl Walker for a young person’s look-over, Bernard Reed for a professional’s look-over plus proofreading, and James Morton for some last-minute saving of my bacon.

1. ‘T’ is not for ‘token’!

A lot of LGB (lesbian, gay and bisexual) youth groups have added the T to become LGBT without investing the time to truly understand and embrace transgender identities. Trans youth spot these groups a mile off and tend to give them a wide berth. If you are committed to being trans-inclusive then you must be explicit about that fact. A policy against transphobia, for example, does no good gathering dust on the shelf. To embrace is a verb, and embracing diversity requires action. Open discussion is a positive way forward.

As an example of best practice: the Green Door project in the London Borough of Hackney is a council-run, council-funded LGBT youth centre. Trans people are welcome to all the evenings, but there is a specifically trans-oriented group that meets on a Wednesday evening to discuss all manner of issues.

Some activities you may plan for your group would have a greater impact upon trans young people than they would upon cisgendered (not trans) young people:

  • Swimming is one such activity. Most swimwear is not suitable for preserving a trans person’s modesty and privacy. The use of gendered changing rooms leaves a trans person feeling uncomfortable and can make them vulnerable to assault or even the threat of wrongful arrest. Marlin is a swimming club, hosted at Levenshulme baths in Manchester, where trans-identified people have free exclusive use of the pool once a month. Matters are far from ideal when it is felt that this needs to take place, but the fact that it does take place is very progressive.
  • Residentials would require careful planning to ensure that the young trans person is housed alongside the most suitable individuals in a way that does not compromise the dignity or security of any individual. Your young trans person is one of the first people you should consult about these arrangements.

If you begin your session with an icebreaker so as to learn each other’s names, why not include pronouns? Not only does this provide the opportunity for the young trans person to make it known what pronouns they’d prefer, but it is also healthy for all young people to assert the various facets of their identities.

2. Identity is individual

“The Binary” is a term used by trans people to describe the commonly accepted system of gender identity wherein one is either male or female, without acknowledging any variation from those two roles. A large proportion of trans people identify within the binary, that is to say that they will identify as either male or female, at odds with the sex they were assigned at birth. Not everyone does, but we’ll get to that in four paragraphs’ time.

A young trans man – for example – will identify as a man. He will want to be referred to as Him. He will likely want to participate in boy’s activities, particularly whenever the group is segregated by gender. He will use the men’s toilets. As he identifies as male, there are certain aspects of female life which he will probably not want to discuss.

As a scenario: a young person walks into your centre. This person is wearing a skirt, feminine shoes and a stuffed bra beneath a tight t-shirt, but their deep voice tells you they were probably born male. What do you address them as? A lot of people’s first instinct might be to refer to the young person as him. Chances are, going by my description, that the young person will want to be referred to as her. The best way to clarify the situation is to ask the person themself, quietly and off to one side. So long as it is handled tactfully, trans people do not mind being asked their pronouns. Rather than seeing it as impolite, they actually regard it as a sign that someone is willing to respect their identities.

Being transgendered will not be the start and end of a young trans person’s identity. They may also identify with their music taste, their fashion sense or their football club. Each youth subculture – be it Chavs, Emos, Skaters, Goths or Punks – has trans people among its number. You will find trans men wearing eyeliner and trans women sporting mohicans. Please don’t go away thinking that trans people simply uphold stereotypes when, actually, some of them revel in challenging stereotypes.

Not all trans people identify within the binary, that is to say that not all young trans people will identify as male or female. You may come across young people expressing other gender identities with names you’ve never heard before. A popular non-binary identity is genderqueer. You may also encounter bi-gender, androgyne, or neutrois.

Non-binary people may choose ambiguous names, such as Alex, Max, Nicky or Jo, to name but a few. They may also adopt a name you haven’t heard before. Titles such as Mr. or Miss are also invested heavily in the binary. An increasingly popular alternative to these is Mx., which has just as much legal validity as Mr. or Miss. There is no reason why a youth group ought to dissuade a young person from adopting these identities if that is what the young person themself feels best suits them.

Pronouns such as he or she can feel like a bit of a minefield until you get used to it. Not everyone will want binary pronouns, so if you’re working with transgender young people then other pronouns such as they, zie, or it will crop up from time to time. If you don’t allow for it then the young person will simply try and find somewhere else to go.

3. Free the pee!

Public toilets are a bit of a nightmare for young trans people. Verbal abuse and physical assault are common in public toilets, as are calls to the police or security. Often, a trans person will be asked to show “proof” that they can urinate into that particular set of porcelain bowls, rather than the ones next door. People even ask for Gender Recognition Certificates (GRCs) as proof, despite the fact that this is illegal. As per the Gender Recognition Act, a judge or a registrar can ask if you have a GRC, but anybody else is breaking the law just by asking or telling.

So how can you make life easy for young trans people at your youth group? One way is to not interfere with their choice of toilets. Another way is to take any allegation of toilet-related bullying very seriously. Acknowledge the fact that toilets have never been a safe space and that no amount of segregation has ever prevented indecency or assault upon anybody. It is not an invasion of this space for a trans woman to pee in the women’s, nor for a trans man to pee in the men’s.

The law allows a trans person to use the toilets they themself deem most appropriate. The amended Goods and Services Regulations make it a requirement that trans people are not discriminated against in the provision of services, including toilets and changing rooms. The General Equality Duty applies to public sector services and also contains similar provisions with regard to toilets and changing rooms. The law is specific in stating that a trans person does not have to have had surgery or hold any special papers in order to enjoy these rights and protections.

4. We need role models too

The public perception is that transgender history starts with Nadia Almada and ends with Thomas Beattie. As such, for a young trans person still finding themself, it can feel like the world has no place for them or their contributions. It can feel a bit like being trans will hold you back. Transgender history is rich with adventurers, poets, artists, professionals, activists, pioneers and warriors. The internet is your friend, and in any field you will stumble upon one of our number who has successfully integrated and has gained distinction on the merits of their work, whether that be playing Jazz, starting the Pride movement or commanding the entire Royal Army Medical Corps. Offering a young person a role model who they can relate to is a great way of building self-esteem.

Good books to read include Transgender History by Susan Stryker and Transgender Warriors by Leslie Feinberg.

5. Some basic transition stuff

Transition is the process by which a person progresses from living in one gender role to living in another. Just as many people transition from female to male (trans men) each year as those who transition from male to female (trans women). Trans women just tend to be more visible, especially in the media, and more likely to approach doctors. If you have young trans people in your youth group, they may come to you for advice about the early stages of transition.

  • A deed poll or statutory declaration is a means by which a person can legally change their name. All it changes is the name; it doesn’t change the title or the legal gender role. You can find more detail about changing documents here. Titles such as Mr. or Miss are known as courtesy titles. They are issued purely by social convention and have no legal standing whatsoever. You do not require any paperwork to change your title. Some firms who deal in deed polls will offer to change a person’s title at additional cost; this is a racket and you should advise them to shop elsewhere.
  • The GIC, or Gender Identity Clinic, oversees the medical and psychiatric aspect of transition. They are regional, rather than local, and you may not be in the same city as your nearest one. There is one dedicated paediatric GIC in London, and the adult Sandyford clinic in Glasgow will take under-18s. The rest of the GICs won’t take a patient aged under 18, so a young trans person may need to travel quite far to see a specialist. Some GICs will accept a self-referral but most will insist that the trans person is referred there by their GP. Some GPs will be reluctant to refer and some PCTs (Primary Care Trusts) will refuse funding for gender treatments, even though they are not allowed to do so. If this is the case, your young person will have to dig their heels in and hound the PCT until things change. Advice on this can be sought from the organisations listed at the end of this document. While a GP is perfectly capable of referring directly to a GIC, some PCTs will insist that a referral to the GIC must be made from a psychiatrist to whom the GP must first refer. This is purely a cost-management exercise and is irrelevant to effective care, given as most general psychiatrists are not given adequate training in gender identity.
  • Hormones will cause severe mood swings in a young person, just like in puberty. If you have a young person who is going through their second puberty, please be patient. The grumpiness and/or crying sessions won’t continue for nearly as long as they did during their first puberty.

6. Some links

Queer Youth Network are a national, youth-led organisation, which provides signposting, peer support, advocacy and campaigning for young LGBT people. The trans youth within QYN are said to make up the strongest part of the organisation.

Mermaids is a national organisation for transgender children and their families. Traditionally parent-led, the steering committee also consists of a number of the older children. Mermaids offer support to young kids often still in primary school and experience has shown that they are fiercely protective of their charges.

Gender Identity Research and Education Society, or GIRES, have been campaigning and educating people about transgender identities for a long count of years. They’ve worked with everybody from local youth services right up to the upper levels of national government and they are very good at what they do.