The Unisex Loo Coming to a School Near You

The Unisex Loo Coming to a School Near You

In January next year a notable if not historic event will occur in Hong Kong. And it is not one you will be aware of.

A leading international school will open the first ever gender neutral toilets for both staff and students (High School). Prior to this, only Hong Kong University had gender neutral loos – and they only opened a year ago.

How do I know this particular HK international school will open gender neutral loos in early 2018? Because this month I spent two days at the school delivering Gender Inclusivity professional development to the school’s administrators, teachers and students (G7-G12) as part of their preparation for this opening.

All parents have been notified and with few exceptions the response has been overwhelmingly positive. And this from a parent/student body that is 85% Asian (Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, HK, Japanese).

Yes, times are indeed changing, and fast. Schools especially have to keep up. Fortunately for staff and students of this particular HK school, they are blessed with enlightened leaders and managers.

It is very clear to me that in the not too distant future any international school which considers itself worthy of the label will not only have to provide such unisex facilities but also encourage LGBT societies. Already I am getting responses from owners, Directors and Principals of some of Asia’s most long-established and prestigious international schools, all interested in learning more about how to go about this process.

I know, many of you reading this will say “it cannot happen in Asia” and that “parents won’t like it”. Well, I am here to tell you that it will happen, indeed it is happening.

I can see a time quickly coming when the likes of top accreditation agencies such as the Council of International Schools, judge a school on whether or not it has such facilities, plus the quality of the gender awareness training and application happening in the classroom.

Because having a gender neutral loo is not just about recognising non-binary identities, it must be part of a larger move towards all staff understanding how gender identity processes play out in the school, not least in terms of boy’s behaviour/under-achievement and the cultural limitations continuing to be imposed on feminine identity.

You have groups of boys who are a ‘problem’ in your school? You have the girls generally achieving much higher academic results than the boys? But you also have girls who imagine their future in gender stereotypical ways and judge themselves weaker than the boys in many areas? You have teachers and administrators who cannot see beyond the gender binary? Sure you do. Most schools around the world have the same problems. Just don’t imagine this is all to do with ‘natural’ differences between the sexes. It isn’t. Girls are as physically strong as boys up to puberty (though they don’t realise it) and up to puberty there is no major difference in the brains of boys or girls. The brain is plastic. It moulds according to the information it receives. Educationalists must ensure that their students receive arguably the most important information they are going to need in life: That Gender/Sex Identity is Not Destiny.

I have been studying, researching and writing in the field of gender, sex and sexuality for some three decades so I am very aware of its complexity, imbued as it is with both biological conditions and cultural imperatives. Nevertheless, it is increasingly important that educationalists stop ignoring it. The gender binary is not inevitable and more and more parents and students are now challenging it.

  1. The HK international school that I delivered the PD to has already experienced potential parents asking ‘why does the school need to know the gender of my child? It is not relevant’.
  2. A top international school in South Korea has just established an LGBT Society for its staff and students – this in response to requests made by some of its secondary level students.
  3. In Glasgow, UK, every new primary school will only have gender neutral loos, not gender specific ones.
  4. An Auckland Primary school recently installed a gender neutral loo for a six year old transgender pupil.
  5. The number of British children seeking gender identity advice from the Tavistock Trust increased 100% during 2016 and has averaged 50% increase each year from 2009.
  6. The California Healthy Youth Act, which went into effect in 2016, requires all California public schools to teach students about gender expression and gender stereotypes.
  7. Surveys of some secondary schools in Thailand suggest at least 10% of boys consider themselves transgender.
  8. Global surveys indicate that 1%-1.5% of under 18 year olds identify as transgender.
  9. Increasing numbers of parents around the world are refusing to identify their child as being of any gender but simply ‘non-binary’.
  10. A child can start to feel the need to ‘transition’ as young as five years old. Certainly, most transgendered people realise their non-binary identity before they reach puberty.

There are tens of millions of people whose birth-assigned sex/gender identity does not correspond with their brain, body or reproductive systems. There are tens of millions of people who are neither male nor female. And then there are the many millions of us who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or asexual. They are in your school. If you are a teacher then it is 100% certain that you’ve taught LGBTQS students.

The idea that everyone is either male or female and straight is just too ridiculous for words and I assume everyone reading this realises it. That said, there is resistance to even talking about sexual identity in many schools and I am very aware that lots of parents, not just in Asia but in the West also, have strong objections to any ‘promotion’ of LGBTQS identities.

Whatever one’s objections, the facts are immutable. We know that humans are not just born male and female. There are at least SIX biological sexes based on most commonly identified chromosomes. Plus there are the 1 in 1500 of us who have no typical genitalia (intersexed).

A percentage of transgendered people will seek to become transexuals and undergo full gender reassignment surgery, perhaps also with voice surgery – leading to legal identification as male or female. In response to this need, a growing number of countries are offering their citizens gender-neutral travel documents, Canada being the latest.

For educationalists such as myself, it is not enough to simply provide a ‘quality learning experience’ based on and measured by, academic performance. Education is much more than preparing people for work. It is about preparing people for life. And life today is more diverse than ever.

In my work as a consultant to international schools in South East and East Asia, I am consistently encouraged by one fact: the students are so switched on nowadays. Generation Z are ahead of their parents when it comes to LGBTQS issues. Students, around the world, are leading the way, driving schools to adopt more inclusive teaching methods, to become a true community of learning.

The gender-neutral bathrooms shortly to be opened at the international school in Hong Kong are much more than toilets: they are a symbol of that school’s continuing journey to a more liberal and inclusive educational system. No longer traditional and conservative but one in tune with the 21st Century.

Where they lead, every quality school will eventually follow.

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