Gender diversity at school: The school dress vs. my gender identity
By: Dean Amo
I am non-binary but at my girls’ school I am a “she/her”.
School makes me feel like I am trapped inside a caricature that only flaunts its femininity, forcing other parts of my identity to emerge in unhealthy ways.
That is why I find relief in suburbs such as Fitzroy, where I get lost amongst record stores, galleries, bookstores, cafes and smiles from strangers. There, I am not reduced to a female student – I am a person and I am not limited by a uniform.
As is the case with most girls’ schools, the summer dress is the default garment during months of dazzling sunshine.
Paradoxically, the closest thing I feel to summer is an undeniable rage that demands my identity to be acknowledged.
Image: Robin Worrall
Last year I came out to myself as non-binary. Before then, I struggled. I felt uneasy being labelled as a girl. I recall vividly confessing to a friend that I wished I was a gay man, which, I would come to realise later, was my way of expressing my attraction towards an androgynous self.
Non-binary identities made sense to me. I didn’t want to be associated with the expectations and stereotypes of ‘male’ or ‘female’.
One of the ways in which I express this is through my choice of clothing: a mix of “skater boy” and “struggling to make ends meet artist”. That is my normal.
However, my school, like many other schools, has its own ideas on how people should express themselves based on their sex assigned at birth.
Current school uniform policies are discriminatory towards transgender and gender diverse students.
Any arguments for school uniforms have long been outweighed by how uniforms can negatively affect students who feel disconnected with the gender roles schools attempt to perpetuate.
Despite this, some educators continue to justify school uniforms by hanging onto the perspective that it prevents students from feeling “left out”.
Surely educational institutions should be teaching students to embrace each other’s differences rather than forcing everybody into the same closet?
According to professor Jennifer Craik from the Queensland University of Technology, school uniforms are used to “not only control the body and its behaviour but also actively produce the particular attributes of the self that are deemed desirable by the school.”
It’s no wonder that when I’m at school, I always feel as if the 146-year-old buildings are too old to circulate air. I feel like I’m suffocating.
Every school day means having to go into an oppressive environment where my identity is rejected, due to a societal obsession with reinforcing outdated perceptions of gender.
This feeling of being trapped has had a negative impact on my mental health.
Sadly, my experience is almost synonymous with being a transgender and/or gender diverse student. We are a group of people already more prone to mental health issues, due to the likelihood of discrimination and other devastating factors.
Furthermore, according to the National LGBTI Health Alliance’s 2020 ‘Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Statistics’, “74% of transgender and gender diverse people aged 14 to 25 have been diagnosed with depression in their lifetime”.
How can schools like mine, that claim to champion diversity, remain ignorant of such jarring statistics?
It’s necessary for them to take the initiative to become informed and reform current uniform policies; not only because those policies suppress self-expression, but also because they influence parents’ perceptions of how their children should present themselves.
This may especially be an issue if a student’s family is ignorant about the queer community.
In 2017, my parents told me they had voted no for same-sex marriage. Although I wasn’t explicitly aware of my queerness at the time, I felt troubled.
I still remember conversations my mum had with my brother on the topic.
“They shouldn’t be allowed to marry. Their children would have very difficult lives,” Mum said.
“That’s only because some people are homophobic, it’s not their fault,” I replied.
Mum seemed to agree but stood her ground.
A year later, as I came to understand my sexual identity, I brought up same-sex attraction. Mum looked uncomfortable during our conversation.
She concluded, “I accept those people, but they’re not relevant to me anyway.”
So, when I expressed my contempt towards the summer dress, Mum found it difficult to understand why I would reject something “normal”.
I tried to explain how I felt uncomfortable wearing it. Yet she didn’t seem to understand or want to understand.
If schools took the initiative to introduce gender neutral uniforms, queer students would be one step closer to being understood.
Right now, schools are adopting the same attitude as my parents – deliberately ignorant of a community that exists everywhere: in schools, in workplaces, in families.
By implementing gender neutral uniforms in order to support gender non-conforming students, schools could potentially open up conversations surrounding gender identity and gradually dilute ignorance with education.
It would be much easier to reach an understanding with uninformed families if the concept of being non-binary was already prevalent in the school community through uniforms.
Schools, institutions supposed to educate, cannot afford to continue outdated ‘traditions’.
A good educator knows that progress occurs when they learn from their students. And a good student knows that those who refuse to change will be left behind.
Dean Amo is a writer and musician currently living in Naarm. Through this piece, Dean hopes to draw urgency to some of the challenges facing young gender diverse and transgender people, while acknowledging that their experiences do not speak on behalf of the group. They’d like anyone struggling to know that they’re not alone and encourage them to reach out to Switchboard on 1800 184 527 or the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.