What Dee Whitnell and Kestral Gaian Think of New RSHE Guidance

With any discussions of ‘gender identity’ ruled out and other serious topics, such as sexual violence, not to be taught until Year 9, the New RSHE age limits are nothing short of another Section 28. LGBT+ activists warn that this guidance, should it enter schools, only serves to damage the safety and inhibit the accurate representation of trans pupils, both out and closested, in the classroom. Among those speaking out are sex educator Dee Whitnell and author Kestral Gaian, activists who agreed to interviews in which they told WTT what they think the guidance will mean for today’s queer youth. 

Last week the Department of Education published a draft of its updated guidance, imposing age limits on the material students are to be taught in RSHE (Relationships, Sex and Health Education) lessons. Discussions of ‘gender identity’ will be banned outright, whilst other serious topics, such as sexual violence and suicide, will not be taught until secondary school.

In their 16th May press release, the Department of Education made mention of the much-contested Cass Review, labelling gender identity as too ‘sensitive’ a topic, calling for a focus on pure science rather than disputed concepts, i.e., the gender spectrum. The release emphasises this new guidance as being borne from a genuine care for the safety of children, though a refusal to discuss the ‘contested theory’ of gender identity does anything but protect children, especially trans kids.

Whilst the guidance is still open to consultation (which closes on 11th July), I spoke with Dee Whitnell to gather perspective on, should it pass, what impact this guidance will leave not just on trans children but trans educators, too. 

Whitnell is a qualified sex educator, trans activist, founder of the Trans Kids Deserve to Grow Up campaign, reaching a wide audience of trans people and allies across their use of social media platforms,advocating and educating under the handle @s3xtheorywithdee on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter/X and YouTube. They are also the upcoming author of Beyond Bananas and Condoms: The LGBTQIA+ Inclusive Sex Education You Never Got at School, a ‘shame-free guide’ (complete with inclusive illustrations) for those who wish to educate themselves on ‘bodies, boundaries and pleasure’ away from the cishet confines of the standard UK curriculum – set to be released early next year. Though Whitnell no longer works in schools, as a trans person themselves (Whitnell is nonbinary) they stress the importance of representation of the trans experience in the classroom, both for students and staff members.

When first asked why they think sex education has always historically been such a precarious subject, Whitnell ascribed it to the government wielding it as a source of social and moral panic, directing anger and ignorance towards the scapegoat of underrepresented minorities:

 ‘During Section 28 it was LGB individuals, and now it is a target towards trans individuals – the only difference being that they’ve shifted the panic to a different group’ they explained. ‘At the moment, the reason sex education is causing such a stir is because Miriam Cates provided [here Whitnell uses air quotes] “sources” that specific resources were being used in the classroom. In fact, that wasn’t the case. These were adult resources that were detailing to adults how to perform adult sexual acts, such as blowjobs. Unfortunately—I say unfortunately but, in truth, we don’t know if it was deliberate or not—there was a miscommunication and Cates suggested that this was being taught in the classroom, which started this whole panic of “Oh my god, our children are learning about these sexual acts!” when in reality that wasn’t the case at all. However, from that moment it sparked the sex education review.’ In a March 2023 post on her website, Conservative MP Cates boasts of handing the PM a ‘dossier of evidence on the nature and extent of indoctrination in relationship and sex education in UK classrooms’. The hyperlink to this dossier however, interestingly enough, goes nowhere. Cates has also in the past accused the Proud Trust of producing a dice game that encouraged children to name erogenous zones, though this too has yet to be proved. Whitnell expands, speaking on the curious mentioning of the Cass Review in the guidance press release, which they found ‘very surprising as the Cass Review only came out a few weeks ago. So obviously, this has been in the works for a while. Now it’s targeting trans individuals, targeting “gender ideology” and an age limit has been put on sex education which, I think, is frankly dangerous.’ At the time of the interview, the Cass Review (published 10th April), was not even six weeks old. Moving on from affecting our healthcare, Cass is now desecrating our rightful place in the classroom.

Whitnell criticises the rushed, disjointed suggestions made by the guidance: ‘To be learning about sexual abuse, contraception, STIs, when you’re learning about conception four years previous makes no sense.’
So far, the guidance teaches ‘protected’ characteristics—sexual orientation and gender reassignment—but offers no leeway in teaching about gender identity. This guidance goes beyond putting the cart before the horse, opting instead to teach about the cart without making any reference to the existence of horses nor their necessity in cart-pulling. ‘How can you teach about trans individuals without first explaining what trans means?’

Whitnell worries that trans teachers have been utterly omitted by the guidance, either out of inconsideration or bigotry, or a classic Tory cocktail of the two.
‘As an ex-teacher, what would I have to do?’ Whitnell wonders. ‘Would I have to erase my own identity in the classroom? Not explain why I used they/them pronouns, why my honorific is ‘Mx’? Would I be fired for doing so? It makes no sense to me and it will lead to a decrease in gender-diverse teachers, leading to a decrease of trans representation in the classroom. From my own experience I know how important that representation is because I’ve had young people say to me, “You’re the first trans adult I’ve seen in the flesh.”’
As for trans students who may already be out to their school, the neglect is similar. ‘How will their identities be discussed in the classroom? Will they be silenced, erased? When talking about safe sex practices will anyone provide resources that are inclusive for them, or will they have to sit in a classroom with their “biological sex” and have to experience misgendering the entire lesson?’ Risks of being outed, misgendering and bullying riddle the guidance’s shortsighted and cis-centric substance, its instructions more protective of cis parents than already exposed trans youth.

Whitnell recalls the ‘battle’ waged during the 2020 RSHE guidance, which at the time included gender identity as a topic that ought to be, as stated, ‘explored at a timely point and in a clear, sensitive and respectful manner’, recognising young people who ‘may be discovering or understanding their sexual orientation or gender identity.’ In less than four years, however, this has been reversed, a significant step back from already meagre progress.
‘I would be fearful as a teacher, or especially as a teacher if they don’t have a qualification in sex education,’ says Whitnell, ‘if they’re just a PE or RE teacher and they have to understand the nuances between teaching gender reassignment but not gender identity. That’s a very complicated thing to understand if you don’t have the background information or you’re not from the community.’

Whitnell has an MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture from Birkbeck, University of London. When asked if they find the information surrounding trans bodies and experience to be as lacking as they are in earlier tiers of education, Whitnell expressed that a drought of queer representation, but trans representation especially, runs throughout the education system:
‘In my entire course that I did for my Masters degree I had no trans individual to discuss my piece with,’ they told me. ‘And as somebody who is writing about trans experiences, as a trans person, individuals who check over my work who aren’t trans—when writing articles or when writing my book—I’ve had pushback about certain topics and I’ve had to say ,“I’m a trans person and I know this topic more than you. This is correct, what you’re suggesting is not”.’

 It takes an unwavering level of bravery to challenge these academic authorities, bravery that Whitnell has had to develop to defend their valuable knowledge and contributions to the field as a trans expert. ‘I do think that our community and understanding of our community is a specialist subject,’ they acknowledge. ‘I think it can be difficult for those outside to kind of fully understand, in-depth, the issues that we are experiencing or the discrimination that we are facing. That’s why I’m so big on educating online and allowing the space to have a conversation because we aren’t born with these tools, we’re not born with this insight.’.

Whitnell’s writing and publishing of Beyond Bananas and Condoms was inspired partly out of a fatigue of the censorship they frequently deal with on social media. Those reading who have a social media account that veers even mildly off the course of pedestrian will be familiar with the censoring language employed by creators so as to not trigger the omniscient algorithm. ‘Unalived’ instead of killed, dollar signs and numbers substituting the letters in suicide and stripper, the abbreviation of sexual assault into SA, grape instead of rape, and the exaggerated mouthing of anything else vaguely taboo. This metaphorizing takes precedence in a classroom, too; today’s generation might recall being shown the infamous ‘Tea and Consent’ YouTube video in secondary school, which allegorises sexual assault as pressuring someone to drink a cup of tea. In a book, at least, Whitnell is free from these awkward analogies.

 ‘I wanted to use actual language, not metaphors. I want to be as precise as possible. I use the words exactly as they are, I don’t have to put a 3 in “sex” or a hyphen or a little emoji.’ Whitnell says they use such frank language in their book because ‘[People] need to understand the words because it keeps us safe. It means that we are able to see abuse, understand abuse, report it, we are able to understand our bodies more, we’re able to go to doctors and speak to them and have authority over our own body because we’ll have the language to communicate’.
In the wake of this new guidance, though still not yet approved, its potential implementation speaks to the danger it poses to LGBT+ children, who might be deprived of safe, relevant information on how to safeguard their bodies and respect the bodies of others. ‘Sex education is lifesaving,’ Whitnell insists, ‘and we should talk about it the same way we talk about any other part of our life which can result in life or death, like any kind of medical care.’

Whitnell goes on to explain that a failure to educate children about their bodies will only serve to deplete them of valuable knowledge later in life. ‘The amount of people who I’ve spoken to who are adults who don’t know what their bodies look like, who can’t name body parts, who don’t know that, for example, AFAB individuals have three holes, is mind-boggling to me. And you don’t have to know every single scientific word of the body, of course not, but you should know how your body functions, you should know your normal.’
‘Let’s take the banana for example: the average size of a banana is much larger than the average size of a penis, so they’re suggesting that is what every penis is going to look like and that is just not the case.’ Indeed, whilst the guidance claims to be an advocation for science, perhaps it should first consider the repercussions of having children compare their bodies against whatever you find in a fruit bowl. ‘They’re being presented with one kind or normal but not their normal,’ Whitnell explains, ‘and I think it’s so important we teach young people that there is no one normal. There are so many differentiations of what normal means, and what your normal is, is unique to you [. . .] but the way we teach sex education, particularly in the UK, provides a one-size-fits-all photo or image or illustration that just is not representative.’
It also avoids conversations around intersex individuals and interphobia. Whilst I was writing my book, I didn’t really realise how interphobia [referred to also as ‘intersexphobia’, the dislike of/or prejudice against intersex individuals] was an essential part of my childhood. It was always the dick jokes, the “Oh, you’ve got a small dick” – I didn’t realise that was interphobic, because having a small penis may be an intersex variation, I didn’t know that.’

This new guidance preaches safety but simultaneously denies the education of children about sexual violence until they are in Year 9 (ages 13-14), neglecting to consider children who experience sexual violence at younger ages. ‘It’s so fascinating that they’ve decided that the age thirteen is this pinnacle moment that they have to learn about all of these parts of sex education. And what that boils down to is the fact that most social media allows them to log on at thirteen. But many of us have experienced puberty, or sexual harassment, or abuse, or discrimination way before that.
‘They teach conception in Year 5, young people will know how babies are created but they won’t know how to have safer sex, so what happens to the curious individuals who want to explore that, who don’t do that safely?’ Whitnell warns the guidance’s disjointed logic will encourage unnecessary risk taking. ‘It’s also stating that heterosexuality is the starting point of sex education, because it’s conception. And of course, they should talk about forms of conception and how LGBTQ+ families can conceive—and it does say you should include all families in that conversation—but in the language there does seem to be this push of heterosexuality that does mirror that of Section 28.’

The guidance has been heralded by groups like Parentkind as an encouragement of supposedly much-needed transparency between parents and schools, though the guidance seems more set on muddying the waters – restrictive instead of protective. ‘It’s so naïve for people to think that at age thirteen their brain switch on for the first time and I think that naivety comes into why parents want such control over their young people,’ says Whitnell on the matter, ‘because as with the conversation in regards to trans people and my campaign (Trans Kids Deserve To Grow Up), people see children as naïve, they see them as individuals who don’t understand themselves, who are easily indoctrinated by the LGBT community and that’s just no the case. I think many adults are not giving young people enough credit. Many adults are not sitting down with young people and actually having conversations with them, because when you sit down and have conversations with them you will understand that they are much more educated on these kinds of topics than many adults.’

‘As somebody who is not a parent myself but works closely with young people, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to provide your young people with as much information as possible so they don’t go onto the dark web, so they don’t have friends show them videos, so they don’t Google things for themselves, but also so they don’t feel like they can’t speak to me, that they have to hide things from me.’ With their experience, Whitnell forecasts that this guidance ‘will put a barrier between parent and child. That’s not what the guidance wants to do but I think that’s what the guidance will do, particularly for LGBTQ+ children.’

Whitnell doesn’t believe in totally neutralising gender in the classroom, nor do they believe in keeping AMAB and AFAB children in separate RSHE classes. Instead, they promote honest, inclusive, well-rounded talks.
‘Young people are so curious, and they want this information, and they will seek it out if you don’t provide it. But if you provide them with all the different avenues, all the different options people may experience, all the different body types, all different kinds of contraception, different experiences of families, young people will take what they want from it and leave what they don’t want and that is a better way of educating than saying, “This is what we’re going to teach you and there’s this grey area we can kind speak a little bit about but we can’t go into depth”, because as a young person I would want to know about that [the grey area], I’d go finding that!’

When asked what they think the impact this guidance, if implemented, will leave on future generations, Whitnell’s reply was sombre but versed: ‘I hope we don’t get to that point, I hope that we go through the consultation, and organisations such as Brook and Split Banana and Sex Education Forum speak up [. . .] If we do get to that point where it is compulsory, I think our young people will, in some ways, be at the same stage many of us were when we received sex education at school, where we have gaps in our sex education, that we are only taught elements that, apparently, the government deem as the most important parts, like conception and family—and obviously they are important elements—but there will be areas that just mean young people will leave education much like the rest of us did and have to research for ourselves.’
‘The difference for young people now, is that they have access to so much more than we had, and they have access to much more dangerous content as well, [. . .] if they want further information, they may not know where to go safely for that information.’

 Throughout the interview, Whitnell referenced a range of sex educational resources students and educators alike can use for further information, such as Brook, Split Banana, Fumble, and the Sex Education Forum, all of which provide safe, healthy spaces in which those curious can ask for important information about safe sex.

Unable to turn to teachers or parents, it is likely the next generations of children in schools will be deprived of knowledge and acceptance of their own identities, realised or unrealised.
‘I am fearful for what our young people will leave education without, and it means that many of them may also feel internal homophobia and transphobia against themselves because they haven’t been taught that their identities are valid and real’. Though no longer a teacher, Whitnell always encouraged emotions in their classroom, across the sensitive and the unserious, from giggles to blushes to tears. ‘There is a line between teaching sex education that is informative and also funny [. . .] I think we don’t allow young people to feel their emotions in sex ed because it can be an intense topic at times, it can bring up feelings and they should be allowed to feel that.’

As our interview concluded, it was in the final minutes that Whitnell’s statements perhaps hit the hardest: 

‘Sex is not controversial. Teaching sex education saves lives and it is everybody’s human right to receive sex education that reflects their experiences.’

I also interviewed Kestral Gaian, a trans writer, activist, academic and self-proclaimed ‘nerd’. Her nonfiction anthology, Twenty-Eight: Stories from the Section 28 Generation, is a collection of accounts of students from the 80s, 90s and early 00s speaking on the impact Thatcher’s Section 28 and the subsequent harm still felt by the LGBT+ identities it was enforced to erase; a topic that is of particular relevance in light of the new RSHE guidance.
Gaian, of a similar mind to Whitnell, thinks of the new age limits as downright ‘terrifying’. 

‘When I think about the people that I spoke with to create the book [Twenty-Eight] and when I think about my own experiences growing up during the original Section 28, the idea of returning to those times is a scary prospect.’

‘The past few years have seen such a backslide,’ Gaian laments. ‘The fact that the UK, once so highly rated internationally in terms of LBGTQIA rights, has since slid so far down that table.’ Then again, Gaian is fully aware that the UK, both in its law-making and societal attitude, is still neck-deep in the mire of Section 28. ‘We’re still dealing with teachers—headteachers in particular—who still have the spirit of Section 28 alive and well within them. [. . .] Those people are now vindicated as the law takes a turn for the archaic. We’re in a position where hate is, once again, on the agenda.’

‘The idea that now, twenty years later—when we still haven’t really got out from under the last one—this new Section 28 has come along to repress whole new generations of young people who are turning to their elders who are still scarred from the first Section 28!’ Gaian forewarns that the new age limits will have a ‘chilling effect’ on not just the LGBT+ community, but the whole country.
Like Whitnell, Gaian emphasises the necessity of trans representation, not just in the classroom, but in every space and industry.
‘A lack of role models is something that signified the first era of Section 28. When queer people did appear in the media it was all about deriding them, they were the subject of jokes and we are returning to that era. We’ve seen how trans people have been treated over the last decade, in print and online media, in the same way that gay people were twenty, thirty years previously.’

The treatment Gaian references is too extensive to name any one example. Beyond the prosaic whinging commonly found in rags like The Telegraph and Daily Mail, the trans community has been a comedic goldmine for bigots, axe-picked to rubble by the likes of Ricky Gervais or Dave Chappelle in their tedious comedy specials. What little mention there is of trans people in the media is as that of caricatures, predators, clowns, and what positive representation does manage to make it into the public eye is few and far between and subject to extensive criticism.
‘The only way we can combat that is by having positive role models in key places and even non key places. I mean, where’s my trans binman? My trans doctor? My trans waiter?’ Gaian wants inclusion that extends beyond schools, and that seeing trans individuals in every aspect of daily life is essential in our protection as a minority community. ‘You have to believe you can become something, that you can be whatever you want to be and the thing I think cis-het people take for granted and don’t really understand or empathise with is not having that. If you tell a cisgender heterosexual man that he can be anything he wants to be, he can look around at the world and see that that’s true. If you tell a ten or eleven-year-old trans person and they do the same, who do they see?’

When asked why she thinks trans people seem the latest victim in a trend of unchecked persecution by the UK government, she responded:

‘Everyone needs a boogeyman. Everyone needs someone to blame for something because it’s a handy distraction. It’s easy to whip up a moral panic around a minority group – It’s all about fearmongering and privilege and power and maintaining a status quo.’
‘We saw in the 60s, the 70s, the 80s that it was very easy to whip up moral panic around gay men in particular because it was a misunderstood, underrepresented minority. And then in the late 90s, the early 2000s, the 2010s, things softened and we saw a universal love and acceptance, in many ways, of gay men. So, it would be hard to whip up a moral panic around gay men now in the same way you could in the 60s, 70s and 80s because there are positive role models everywhere. When it comes to trans people now, we don’t have that same level of representation and so we are a minority group that is easy to pin things onto and that makes misinformation powerful.’

Gaian reflects on the deep shame she felt as a child surrounding her homosexuality listening to Margaret Thatcher’s damaging language during Section 28. Though now, when comparing Thatcher’s language to Sunak’s, Gaian—ironically—found herself thinking of Thatcher as the more moderate of the two. Sunak has called the guidance as a way of protecting children against being exposed to ‘disturbing content that is inappropriate for their age’ and that he was ‘horrified’ to hear reports of what goes on in classrooms with kids learning about gender identity.

‘Sunak’s words are so clear,’ worries Gaian. ‘And if Thatcher’s words in the 80s made me feel that much shame—something I hadn’t even dared speak out loud at that point—then I can only begin to imagine the shame that young people, who have already been so brave in talking about who they really are and sharing their identity with the people closest to them. Expecting trust from the people they are told they can trust implicitly, like teachers and doctors, to now be told “Actually, there is a reason to be ashamed because of who you are. You are an aberration in this world.” I cannot imagine the psychological damage that will happen.’

Considering the psychological impacts the Section 28 generations are still dealing with, Gaian can only dread to think of the difficulties this new guidance will instil in its students. ‘It took me a long time to come to terms with my own gender identity because of Section 28 the first time around. But we are going to have a whole generation of people who grew up and came out early on because they thought they had support there, only for that support to be taken away from them. That isn’t just shameful, it’s cruel.’
Gaian regards the new guidance as a form of punishment inflicted upon trans children, considering it on a par with corporal punishment, arguing the mental effect of the guidance will far outlast a child’s time in school. ‘[The cane] caused physical damage, physical scarring – the emotional damage, the emotional scarring that will come just from Rishi Sunak’s words, let alone legal actions, are reprehensible.’

Gaian cautions that without the safety of a classroom to healthily explore gender and sexuality, queer youth will only be shoved out from the security of their inner circle and into increasingly hostile spaces in search of acceptance. ‘You end up putting yourself in harm’s way because it’s the only way you can either find validation, or solace or comfort or, in some cases, a place to live.’

With an uptick in parent interference in education, germinated first out of an understandable want of safety for their children and a curiosity in their education, has since fungated into an invasive call for parental control over the goings-on in schools. With conservative groups like constitution-thumping Moms for America flourishing in the states, to Parentkind in the UK, the uptick in parent oversight verges on doing more harm than good. 

‘The worrying trend is that parents see themselves as the ones who are the be-all and -end-all of a child’s life. Parents see their children as their property and that is indenture. It’s essentially a form of slavery. It is abhorrent that people can ever claim that they are the sole arbiter of someone’s life. And yet we face a real growing trend of “I’m the parent, so what I say goes” and it comes from a universal assumption that parents know what they’re doing, or that they’re good, or that every parent has a child’s best wishes at heart, completely altruistically and not at all selfishly.’

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has said that the updated guidance will ‘enshrine’ the rights of parents to know precisely what it is their children are being taught, but Gaian fails to see how parent interference will effectively protect their children, particularly when you consider that not every parent may have their child’s best interest at heart. Gaian addresses the oxymoronic ‘doublethink’ between privately acknowledging the ineptitude of most parents whilst publicly heralding them as ‘the first teachers’. ‘Why, when we all know that parents are human, they’re flawed, they don’t have all the answers, and some of them are trying their best and doing an all-right job and some are not very nice people, why do we then have this mass consciousness of “Parents are amazing and have all the answers and can do no wrong”?’

If the government, then, is so willing to allow parents have their say on their child’s education, why is it then that they prefer to listen to those calling for an erasure of gender identities, rather than an acceptance of them?
‘There are countless stories of parents of trans young people who have had to fight the system to protect their children and their identity,’ says Gaian, ‘and that’s amazing, it always warms my heart to see that. But parents shouldn’t have to fight for their kid to be who they want to be. Parents also shouldn’t have the absolute power to do whatever the hell they want with their children. There’s a reason we have things like child services in the first place.’

‘I think sometimes we conflict protecting children with not educating children,’ Gaian goes on, though she’s not entirely unsympathetic to the concern expressed by some parents. ‘I think, genuinely, some of these things do come from a good place, from this idea that we should protect children from predators (which is absolutely right, we should) but we can’t possibly do that through ignorance and through stopping young people from learning about things. You can’t make a child trans by telling them that trans people exist. You can’t make someone gay by showing them that a gay person exists, and that was what was really at the core of things like Section 28 the first time around, [that] if you have a gay teacher in a school then “Oh my gosh, they’re gonna queer all the kids up!”’

‘There’s this idea that if we teach people these things [gender identity, the gender spectrum, different pronouns, etc.] it will suddenly make them those things. For some people, it might suddenly give them the language to describe how they’re feeling and that’s inevitable. When we stopped punishing people for being left-handed, suddenly the number of left-handed people grew. Was it because we converted people into being left-handed? No! It’s because they suddenly had the language and the ability to say, “Oh, actually I’m left-handed.  Can I have a pencil that works for me, thanks. [. . .] By not educating them, not only are we forcing people to be in the closet (they’re still trans, they’re just going to go through more trauma), we’re also denying everyone else the opportunity to learn, to grow and to keep themselves safe in different situations.’

The internet has come a long way since Section 28, with children adapting to technology and social media at younger and younger ages, something of which the guidance has accounted for, teaching them about the risks of being online as early as Year 3 (aged 7-8). Little to no thought, however, has been given to the trans children who, without a decent point of reference for their identity in the classroom, may resort to finding their own identity amongst the wilderness of the internet. ‘Someone who is searching for information about their gender identity, the things they’re feeling, “Am I normal?”, “Does everyone feel like this?”, “Does everyone feel like they want to be a girl, or that they’re actually a boy?”, “Am I gay because I find a boy attractive and I’m a boy?”, things like that, they’re going to find an unfiltered, unfettered view of everyone and anyone talking about that from content that is wholly inappropriate for children.’

As extensive as the internet and its offer of global community with LGBT+ individuals worldwide is, there’s nevertheless the rider of its actual safety, felt by both children and adults alike. With platforms such as Instagram allegedly shadowbanning its queer creators and any content it deems ‘sexual’, and TikTok restricting its LGBT hashtags, these online playgrounds are taking a decidedly unnuanced hammer to whatever they deem a threatening enough nail, eliminating queer voices and bodies in the process. With misinformation on the rise and unchecked AI entering the foreground of our internet use, never before has a generation been immersed in such a simultaneous wealth and welter of fact and fiction. By denying children the space to educate themselves they will resort to the internet, and all potential consequences of doing so being a direct result of the guidance’s erasure of trans presences in the classroom.

‘Schools should be a place where people learn about things in a safe, moderated, well thought out environment,’ says Gaian. ‘The antithesis of education is not teaching people things, which is why this bill is so insidious and so demeaning to young people. It’s basically saying: “You can’t handle learning about things in a safe way.” And that’s not going to stop people being curious, that’s not going to stop people wanting to learn. They will go online; they will find it themselves.’

Like the D:Ream song blasting over every recording of drowned-rat Sunak’s call for a general election on the 23rd, not even a week after my interview with Gaian, I too wanted to believe that ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. When I asked Gaian if she believed that things may have to get worse before they can get better, she had this to say:

‘If you’d asked me this question in 2003, when we were celebrating Section 28 being repealed, I would have said “Things can only get better from here.” And I think what we’ve seen over the last twenty years is that things did get better, and things do get better, but not for everyone and not all the time.’
‘I don’t think we can be as binary as saying “better” or “worse”, because, ostensibly, things do get better for some people some of the time and often that’s a trade-off, because things then sometimes get worse for other people. I think that we have seen a huge increase in queer rights over the last twenty or thirty years, not just in the UK but around the world, but that has come at a cost as well. The increased visibility we have as a community is part of what has fuelled the moral panic around trans people.’

Notions of better and worse are not so diametrically opposed these days as they perhaps once were, the adjectives, as Gaian puts it, ‘two sides of the same coin’.

 ‘Things do get worse, and things do get better. Are things going to get worse for young people, for trans people in the UK in the next five-ten years? Yes, I think so.’ 

‘I don’t think we’re at the peak of the UK institutional transphobia that we’re facing right now, and that sounds like a really sad thing to have to say, but at the same time if we acknowledge that things might get worse, then we can be there for each other, we can band together as a community and we can make sure that places to shelter from the cold by creating that community and being those safe spaces for each other. [. . .] All we can do is keep fighting and keep hoping and keep pushing forwards.’

For trans kids, it appears the government is set on suppressing every facet of their lives, beginning in the doctor’s office with Cass and now making its way into their schools. In times of increasing hostility, today’s trans youth may, understandably, feel hopeless. Gaian nevertheless commends their bravery, saying resistance extends beyond marches and protests and can begin as simply as taking care of yourself:

‘I think given the state of the UK and the state of the world right now everyone feels a little bit obligated to be an activist and there’s a lot of pressure on people to be an activist around their identities. But I think it’s really, really important we remember that it’s okay to not constantly stand up and fight for who you are and fight for your identity because that can be exhausting. This is why we need allies.’ 

Make no mistake, you can frequently find Gaian on the frontlines protesting for her rights, but even she is aware of the draining effect it can have if you neglect yourself in place of pure activism.
‘I think I have to spend time not at protests, I have to spend time creating, doing other things, and sometimes I just need to have a pizza and watch a film and switch off for a bit and turn off social media and not engage with things – because selfcare is the most radical thing a trans person can do for themselves right now. It’s not being an activist, it’s not holding up a placard at a protest, it’s surviving. Being yourself. Trying to live true to your goals, wanting to achieve the things you want to do in life. These are the radical acts that really show transphobes we’re here, we’re not going to go anywhere, that we have valid lives and we are living them. ‘

As we concluded, I asked Gaian where we all might begin in terms of arming ourselves against these worsening laws, guides and proposals, to which she championed the power of reading. ‘I think the biggest tool any of us can have in our tool belts right now is to read. Read everything you can, read about these new laws, learn about them. They might not be pleasant but if we can quote them we can be more knowledgeable than our haters and our detractors, if we can know the laws, know the history, know the names of the people that have gone before us, we have everything we need to be able to fight this at the dinner table and at the dispatch box.’

Gaian’s parting words were a paraphrasing of the lyrics from a Ramshackle Glory song, a touching call to action: ‘Our hearts are a muscle the size of a fist, so even by keeping your heart beating, you are keeping on fighting.’