A former Hull principal tells about transitioning at school and her campaign to support transgender pupils and staff.
A framed letter hangs in the dining room of Claire Birkenshaw’s neat Victorian terrace in Hull. Signed by the last education secretary, Justine Greening, it is a prized possession.
“My ambition is to build a society that is free from discrimination, in any form, and utterly free and equal for everyone,” the letter states. “You should feel proud that, through your openness about your own gender identity, you are directly contributing to this goal – it is going to make a difference to so many.”
To Birkenshaw, the letter is much more than ink on a page: it is recognition from the government of a life spent trapped in a stranger’s body. “It’s great, isn’t it,” Birkenshaw says with a wry smile.
Just over two years ago the then headteacher told her chair of governors she had gender dysphoria and was going to live as a woman. For years, the principal everyone knew as Mr Birkenshaw had been living a double life. “I was existing as Claire at home and coming into work as how I was previously. That was incredibly challenging psychologically,” she says.
It had taken a lifetime to get to that point. As a child, Birkenshaw would find reasons to visit her grandmother’s house, where she borrowed dresses and was Claire “in secret”. She skipped days at school so Claire “could exist at home” – but never felt able to tell her parents. An “internalised shame” grew, she says, especially since her grandfather, a retired coalminer, was visibly angry when men wearing makeup appeared on television (usually David Bowie or T-Rex on Top of the Pops, she says).
Eventually, her parents found out about the dresses and her father, a police officer, warned her about “a man in a dress” he had apprehended because it was “wrong”. “I distinctly thought I’ve got to stop this – I’ve got to stop being Claire. It was just a battle ever since.”
But in September 2015, after a 26-year teaching career at secondary schools across Hull, Birkenshaw began hormone replacement therapy while the principal of Ashwell academy, and became the first known headteacher in Britain to transition while in post.
In November 2016, she walked into a classroom for the first time as a woman. “Straight away, one kid was ‘Hi Miss’. It was brilliant. There were no sniggers,” she says.
Last year, though, Birkenshaw decided to take a break from the school to focus on improving the education experience of trans students across the UK.
As we talk in her living room a week before she addresses an Equality and Human Rights Commission conference in Liverpool, it is clear that coming out has not been wholly positive. While many friends celebrated her transition, others distanced themselves, she says. From some there was a “wall of silence” and some told her “We don’t know what to say to you” – a comment, she says, “that can feel like there is possibly an animosity there, a feeling of unease. That then adds to the stigma.”
One person (she won’t say whether it was a teacher) told her it would be “easier to transition down south than in Hull. Another (again, she won’t say who) said: “You know, Claire, you’re going to make people feel uncomfortable.” The reaction from some made her consider leaving teaching and Hull altogether.
Did she feel bullied? “I don’t have any comment to make about the school,” she says, after a long pause. “Everybody is shaped by experiences, things that you learn from and then advise people in future. While people may have been shocked when I came out – and I understand that – I learned: be mindful of your approach, be mindful of what you say, and listen.”
Since leaving Ashwell academy last year, Birkenshaw has visited countless schools and given speeches around the world, and is in discussions about a book deal with Ian Gilbert, the founder of publisher Independent Thinking Associates.
In the course of her travels, she says she has met a worrying number of LGBT teachers who feel unable to come out in school. As a result, she says, children are being deprived of role models because “they will be looking to members of staff who are like them”.
Asked whether she wants to return to teaching, Birkenshaw says she may be able to make a bigger difference by “being visible” to thousands of pupils in schools across the country, rather than just at one. But despite a career spanning 26 years and several senior roles, the former headteacher says the experience of coming out has made her feel she may be rejected from teaching roles in the future, simply for being trans.
“I don’t know whether I lack confidence that if I went for a job in a school whether really I would be employed. I just think they might think ‘OK, Claire’s really good but what are the children going to say? What are other teachers going to say? What are parents going to say? Is Claire going to make people feel uncomfortable?’,” she says, tearfully.
She adds: “If Theresa May has this ambition to eradicate homophobic and transphobic bullying and to make sure that LGBT issues are taught well then, as a society, we need to make sure that it’s safe for LGBT people to be able to teach in schools.”
The Gender Identity Research and Education Society estimates that about 1% of the British population are gender nonconforming to some degree. The numbers of trans boys and trans girls are thought to be about equal. The number of children being referred to gender identity clinics has rocketed from two a week in 2009-10, to about 50 a week in the past year, according to the NHS Gender Identity Development Service.
The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for any school to discriminate against a pupil, or a potential pupil, because of a “protected characteristic” such as gender reassignment. Many schools have introduced policies to support pupils struggling with their gender identity, but how they work in practice varies significantly. Some schools are introducing gender–neutral uniforms but, at the same time, many students still learn from books featuring only heterosexual couples.
Mike Whale, the Hull secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the first person Birkenshaw told about her planned transition, says trans issues have been “pushed under the carpet” in education, and even now many schools are “not really aware of how to deal with the issue”.
Birkenshaw says the volume and variety of guidance for schools on trans issues, drawn up separately by a number of teachers’ unions and LGBT bodies, has created confusion. She urges the new education secretary, Damian Hinds, to compile “overarching, comprehensive” guidance with a statutory backing for all schools. Teacher training on trans issues should be improved, she says, and Ofsted given a role in inspecting whether institutions are genuinely fostering equal opportunities for all pupils and staff.
The curriculum needs to be modified, she adds, to include textbooks that are more reflective of modern society and to stop teaching a solely heterosexual view, “omitting the needs of gay, lesbian or bi young people”, in breach of the Equality Act.
“For me it feels like the government wants to get this right. But I do worry that sometimes what may happen is yes, that’s what [the government is] saying, but how does that look in school environments? And are all teachers going to be confident in delivering LGBT issues, which Theresa May says she wants taught well?” she asks.
Despite the framed letter on the wall, Birkenshaw has yet to be invited to Whitehall to discuss her experience. For now, simply speaking openly as “a former headteacher who just happens to be trans” is important enough. “I have visibility because I want trans young people to gain confidence that there is a teacher like them,” she says.