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School uniform policy should recognise gender diverse students

Media Academy

While gen-Z becomes increasingly open to new concepts of gender identity, Queensland high schools are stuck in the past with their one size fits most approach to uniforms, writes Maddison Hatzioannou.

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Although the perception of gender has changed over the past decade, which school uniform you wear still largely stems from whether the doctors shouted, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” in the first few minutes of your life.

This gender binary harms more than it helps gender non-conforming and gender-queer teens, alienating them from a young age and making them feel that their opinions are not worth the time of adults – an eternal lament of all teenagers.

Principal of Mansfield State High School Karen Tanks believes that uniforms are integral to the school environment as students both, “learn about pride in themselves and who they represent,” and “are more engaged in their learning when in formal uniform.”

But with 80 per cent of homophobic and transphobic bullying occurring within the school system, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission, and a 2021 report by LGBTQ+ Health Australia finding 90.2 per cent of 14-21 year old transgender and gender diverse people experiencing very high levels of psychological distress, this system needs to be examined.

A 2016 study of school outcomes for transgender and gender-diverse students by Western Sydney University researcher, Jacqueline Ullman reveals, “Transgender and gender diverse secondary students report routine social and curricular marginalisation at school, factors which have been linked to negative social and academic outcomes.”

TJ, a gender non-conforming Year 12 student, shares their struggle to label how they experience gender and, “just want to be viewed as a human being.” However, as their school only provides binary uniforms, they wear the female uniform.

“I don’t really feel that comfortable in the [female] uniform. [It] makes me feel…invalidated in my sense of identity,” TJ says, “I have boobs, and the uniform just makes everyone aware of that fact.”

This type of disconnect from student’s gender identity can significantly impact a student’s social outcomes as well as their overall high school experience. As stated by Ullman, diversity of gender expression is a critical element of school gender climate.

Toja (non-binary, Year 12) feels that their inability to wear a gender-affirming uniform has a considerable impact on their mental health.

“It’s really hard sometimes because you look at a long skirt and a blouse and how feminine its style is and you feel like, ‘why don’t I feel like that on the inside?’” they say, “It’s always in the back of your mind,” making it hard to enjoy their high school experience.

Similar to Toja, 25 per cent of gender diverse survey participants reported that they avoided their schools because they could not conform to the gender stereotypes prominent, according to a 2015 study conducted by University of New England researcher, Tiffany Jones.

TJ says that although gender-diversity is a relatively new topic for schools and understands that it will take time to make a difference, they feel that many students would be more comfortable in a unisex uniform.

While Education Minister Grace Grace announced in July 2018 that it would be mandatory for Queensland state schools to provide pants options for girls from 2019,  student uptake of this provision appears to be quite limited so far – and true gender diversity may be better served by schools embracing the uniforms wanted by students and their families.

“I think a lot people make the mistake of thinking [schools] function very well on a female-male binary because no one is outwardly complaining,” Toja says, “But on the inside, so many people are hurting.”

“There’s a long way that a lot of schools need to go.”

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