Gender non-conforming children: well-being, mental health homophobia and bullying

Here’s the thing about bullying: it often exposes our darkest secrets. Bullies laugh gleefully while they cruelly humiliate and shame the target. People who have been bullied often think that this is an individual failure which is specific to them: they usually blame themselves. Often everybody else blames them too. 

The child who has been bullied often feels deep down that they have been viewed, judged and then stamped with the label “not good enough”. The anguish of being abandoned and humiliated by their peers often leaves many long-term scars, and the target of the bullying can feel a deep sense of shame. Their trust in other people’s goodness may ultimately be destroyed.

Bullies tend to exist in packs, seeking out any type of difference as they hunt for prey. The target might be judged to be too tall, too small, too clever, too stupid – the details don’t really matter. The only thing that matters is that the pack animals scent the vulnerability which comes from some tiny difference, and attack. 

Gender non-conforming children are much more likely to be bullied than their counterparts, as they are often perceived as different. Until the first day they are bullied, some kids may not have realised that they are different. Perhaps girl walks “like a boy”; perhaps a boy talks “like a girl”. They feel frightened and shocked when it’s brought to their attention that they have been judged and deemed “different” by a pack of bullies who want to destroy them. 

It is almost unbelievable that – despite all the Pride Flags, despite the extreme emphasis on the LGBT acronym, despite all the policies on inclusivity – homophobia is rampant in many schools today. For a range of reasons, mostly economic, children are often expected to live by increasingly strict and stereotypical gender-conforming rules. The boys are expected to have short hair and conventionally masculine clothes; girls are increasingly expected to have long hair, make-up and conventionally feminine clothes. And if these kids choose to break any of the very narrow stereotyping that is being offered to them, they are often quickly categorised as “trans” or “non-binary” or “lesbian”. These categories come with a strict hierarchy: trans is the coolest and most interesting, gay and non-binary are in the boring middle, and lesbian is secretly (or even openly) dismissed and derided. 

It is not helpful if the school celebrates the student’s identity, and inadvertently concretises and forecloses further identity exploration by the student by labelling a young person as “trans” or “nonbinary” or any other identity. The process of identity exploration takes place usually between the ages of twelve and twenty-five. There is little value in focusing on one identity over another during this process; free exploration is the more progressive way to handle this. This is why the parent organisation Genspect recommends a neutrally supportive culture that neither celebrates or condemns the young person.

Sadly, I have noticed in my work as a psychotherapist that internalised homophobia can cause extreme heartache for the gender nonconforming child. Schools can address this by providing positive gay and lesbian role models, either famous or perhaps closer to home, so that these students see a pathway form before them. 

When a gender nonconforming child breaks out from the strict stereotyping – perhaps by getting a short haircut or acting in a notable manner – time starts ticking, as the bullies are often getting ready to pounce. Cyberbullying is a significant challenge for schools: while the problems may have started in school, the behaviour is taking place online, and late at night. The fallout from cyberbullying is so extreme that it is worthwhile schools taking the time to teach students what is and is not appropriate online behaviour. This will help students see through fake identities, be savvy enough not to post potentially embarrassing pictures, and know never to join in on a pile-on. 

Prevention works better than cure when schools are handling bullying. It is most helpful if a school can welcome gender nonconformity without emphasising identities based upon gender stereotypes and categories. Schools can do this with history projects that focus on gender nonconforming people, such as Joan of Arc or Stormé DeLarverie, art projects exploring the work of artists such as Grayson Perry or Frida Kahlo, or music projects that celebrate gender nonconformity with gender exploratory musicians such as Grace Jones or David Bowie. 

Schools can also cultivate a culture of upstanding, by introducing British history, RSE, art and music projects that explore issues related to bystanding and upstanding. An upstander is a person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause – particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied. Bystanders, on the other hand, are those who see what’s going on, know it’s wrong, perhaps even wring their hands in concern, but tend not to do anything that will actually help the target. Research suggests that 90% of students don’t like to see bullying, yet these students only speak up 20% of the time

Bystanders have more power than they realise, as they are present at 85% of bullying incidents; sadly, however, they tend to inaccurately perceive themselves as powerless. Upstanders speak up: sometimes by simply smiling kindly at the target; other times by inviting the target to sit with them. The good news about bullying is that an estimated 75% to 90% of kids don’t bully; the bad news is that these kids are prepared to act as upstanders only 20% of the time

Schools can help. They can celebrate true diversity. They can prevent unnecessary foreclosure on identities. They can create a culture of upstanding, and show how the school community can be welcoming and accepting. While this takes time, it is perhaps the most worthwhile initiative any teacher – or school – can undertake. 

Stella O’Malley will be speaking at our webinar on Sat, 19 March 2022, from 10:30 – 13:00 GMT. Book your tickets here.