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Blog post Part of special issue: The ECR journey: From inspiration to impact

Speaking the unspoken: Teaching and learning about transgender identities

Sophie Atherton, Research Fellow at University of Edinburgh

In 2020, guidance published by the Department for Education stated that relationships and sex education (RSE) in England should discuss ‘LGBT content at a timely point’ (DfE, 2019, p. 15). Although this is a step in the right direction for recognising the diversity of relationships in the 21st century, the guidance has been the subject of criticism (Glazzard & Stones, 2021): it lacks detail about what this ‘content’ should consist of and fails to address the complexities of ‘a timely point’. The recent draft of guidance for schools in England regarding ‘gender questioning children’ (DfE, 2023) does little to expand on teaching about trans identities in schools.

How do teachers navigate the requirement to teach about LGBT identities with little official guidance to draw upon? What can be done to improve teaching and learning about trans identities in schools? My PhD, which explored the everyday experiences of transgender students in UK secondary schools, provides some insight. The research involved online interviews with teachers and young trans people aged 16 to 29, and an online survey with teachers only. All names in this blog post have been changed to protect the anonymity of the teachers and young trans people.

The unspoken

As my research took place in 2020, many of the young trans people I spoke to had left school by the time the new RSE legislation had come into effect. Most of the young trans people explained that they had learned little about trans identities at school; instead they had gathered information from other sources such as the internet, television and books. For some, this had problematic impacts on their transition: it led to what Kennedy (2022) describes as ‘deferrals’ to realising and living as the gender with which they identify. Also, as Scott (2018) argues, the absence of a topic, object or experience can result in it being seen as deviant. Learning nothing about trans identities at school did little to eradicate the uncertainty and impossibility that some of the young trans people initially felt about their gender identity.

‘Most of the young trans people explained that they had learned little about trans identities at school; instead they had gathered information from other sources such as the internet, television and books.’

Navigating the silence

Alongside the need for improvement, however, there is also a challenge: how to teach about trans identities without drawing unwanted attention to individual trans students. This is encapsulated in the extract below from one young trans person, Jake:

‘if they started showing pictures of transgender people … I’d feel awkward and embarrassed more so than empowered’

Jake, he/him

To make sense of this tension, I was drawn to Miller and Woodward’s (2012) work on wearing jeans and their argument that people often just want to be ordinary. For the young trans people in my study, their gender identity is a part of who they are, but it is certainly not all they are.

Moving forward

‘I asked myself the question … “What can I do … to make there be a little corner of every classroom where … students can look and feel … happy and supported?”’

Sebastian, teacher

My research suggests that the key to teaching about trans identities without making a fuss of individual trans students is to incorporate trans identities into everyday school life. As Sebastian indicates in the quotation above, ‘a little corner of every classroom’ can become incredibly meaningful and can make trans (and LGBTQ+) identities a part of the ordinary in schools. Other examples include LGBTQ+ groups that are welcoming of all students, and sharing rather than assuming pronouns. However, teachers need tools, information and support to ensure that they feel sufficiently comfortable and knowledgeable to implement these changes, including talking about trans identities in the classroom. Improved opportunities for continuing professional development and more robust guidance could provide such tools.


The author’s PhD was funded by the Studentship from Sociology in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Manchester.

Current project: ESRC-funded ‘Viral Memories: From HIV to COVID-19 and Beyond’, ref: ES/X003604/1.


Department for Education [DfE]. (2019). Relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education: Statutory guidance for governing bodies, proprietors, head teachers, principals, senior leadership teams, teachers.

Department for Education (DfE). (2023). Gender questioning children: Non-statutory guidance for schools and colleges in England.

Glazzard, J., & Stones, S. (2021). Running scared? A critical analysis of LGBTQ+ inclusion policy in schools. Frontiers in Sociology, 6. 

Kennedy, N. (2022). Deferral: The sociology of young trans people’s epiphanies and coming out. Journal of LGBT Youth, 19(1), 53–75.

Miller, D., & Woodward, S. (2012). Blue jeans: The art of the ordinary. University of California Press.

Scott, S. (2018). A sociology of nothing: Understanding the unmarked. Sociology, 52(1), 3–19.