by Kit Rackley, University of East Anglia
This is the first time I have made this experience public. I want to share it in order to encourage all educators who engage in fieldwork, field centres and tutors to reflect and consider the extent they create a safe environment for all children, in this case, gender non-conforming and transgender children. I won’t be delving into the ‘debate’ about trans kids: they exist, and they deserve support, respect and safety not just because it is our safeguarding duty to do so, but because it is also the right thing to do. A content warning before you read on regarding social trauma, abuse and bullying. If you identify or are close to someone who is LGBTQ+ and are affected by this post, please reach out to one of the many available support services out there via this link.
I’ve been proudly visible and vocal throughout my education work, including this blog. So most reading this already know I am transgender. But if you are new here, then hello! The vast majority of my work on Geogramblings doesn’t centre around my identity as a trans person at all, but rather my identity as a geographer and educator. But from time to time, those identities do intersect for the purpose of writing an article, and this is one of those occasions. I, like all transgender people, don’t owe anyone any information about my personal life other than what I am willing to share through self-consent. But in order to communicate my experience better, I do need to give a little context: I did not know I was transgender until I reached my thirties. However, I have always been transgender and what I am about to share are just droplets of evidence in a whole sea of tell-tale signs that I’ve now come to recognise.
I loved Geography in high school. It was one of my favourite subjects, and although cliched as it is to say, one of the reasons was because of the field trips. My first residential field trip was to Bude at the end of Year 7. It was the mid-1990’s and I was exceptionally excited but I felt very unnerved by the prospect of sharing a room with boys. I figured it was totally down to being bullied a fair bit by boys in school and never felt totally safe – and of course, I was technically at school on the trip 24 hours of the day. So there was not the safe haven of getting home when the bell rang at half-3. I was too shy or nervous to ask any adult if it was possible to sleep in my own room, and I just thought that it would be a stupid thing to ask since it must be the case that boys must share a dorm, segregated from the girls who have their own. I didn’t want to share a room with the girls, either, that felt just as weird but for other reasons. I managed to muddle through that field trip. I enjoyed myself enough despite making sure I was the last to fall asleep and the first to wake up. I didn’t feel comfortable at all at night.
Fast forward a few years and I’m now in Year 10. I’m taking a GCSE Geography and we’re on a residential field trip to Bradwell in Essex. With the exception of the precious moments when I was able to go out and do my data collection or squirrel myself away in some study room to work on my coursework, I hated every minute of that trip. I had deliberately chosen a topic that was as divergent as possible from all the other students just so I had as much peace as I could. That was easy enough, as the ones that gave me the hardest time had their clique and were doing more or less the same thing amongst themselves. My topic instead overlapped a little with one of the girls in my GCSE class, so we worked together a bit. We weren’t friends but I felt so much safer and comfortable with her. And because we were doing our coursework, at least I had a water-tight reason for hanging out with her during the day. But, it was the social and evening hours which were the problem. My ‘study partner’ was off with her clique of friends and so I was left to try and look busy on my own with my work or hang out with the boys.
The bathrooms and the dorms were the biggest issues. When we first arrived at the study centre I was actually very relieved to find that there was a room, with a door, with one bunk bed in it, while the rest of the dorm was open-plan. I figured it was for staff but the lead teacher (who I got on very well with and still think fondly of) said it was free and my ‘closest friend’ and I the time can use it. So we popped our stuff in, went off to do other bits as instructed, only to come back and find all our stuff tipped out on to one of the beds in the open-plan area. I’ve suppressed much of the memory of the hateful abuse that was arrowed towards us by our peers; towards me in particular. But us attempting to take the one room that had a door, well… you can guess. I didn’t complain to the teacher, for fear of reprisal from my peers, but I did manage to move to a bottom-bunk bed in a corner and find a spare blanket which I tucked into the frame like a screen so I had some sense of privacy. I cried myself to sleep that first night. No one mentioned it the next morning, maybe because it must have been in the early hours of the morning when I did eventually drop-off; maybe I did what I could to muffle my moans – all I can remember about that particular detail are the tears and no one noticing. After all, it’s not very ‘manly’ to cry, right? I did get as far as asking the teacher if I could use one of the staff bathrooms, so long as I checked in advance before I needed to go relieve myself or take a shower. At least that was one place I could feel safe and on my own.
I often think about how things might have been different if I had known I was transgender back then. Perhaps things wouldn’t have been much better, or perhaps even worse, given it was the mid-1990s. Instead, I like to think if I was that kid today in 2021, not only would I have known more about myself and all the confidence and security that comes with it, but I probably would have had some allies amongst my peers. I probably would have been able to have a conversation with my teachers about the real reasons why I wanted my own room and bathroom, or at least share one with a friend I felt comfortable and safe with. I would have been able to solely focus on the geography in my work, rather than use my work as a means to escape. That leads me to think how much better I would have done overall in school, in that respect.
I feel like I shouldn’t end this by giving suggestions or recommendations about what teachers, educators and field centres should do. Instead, I would ask all to reflect on what they have read, which is a very real experience, by someone who knows that the crux of much of the issues is related to their gender identity. And I would ask that everyone make efforts towards creating learning environments, be it the classroom, the playground, the field centre or beyond, that are safe for transgender kids. Share this article with the Educational Visit Co-ordinator (EVC) in your school, or the field studies centres that you regularly use. The bare minimum is to know that trans kids exist; that their experiences are real and if they approach you at the height of their vulnerability, then they should be listened to. Each trans person’s experience is unique to them. Listen and be guided by them.
About the author: Kit Rackley worked 13 years as a high school Geography teacher and head of department in Norwich, now working as an outreach officer and science communicator based at the University of East Anglia. They maintain a blog and resource bank for educators at Geogramblings.com and is a consultant to the Geographical Association and NASBTT.
Suggested further reading
While explicit and comprehensive guidance on supporting transgender children with fieldtrips is rather thin on the ground, here are some useful documents regarding supporting school students:
- Trans InclusionSchools Toolkit: Supporting trans, non-binary and gender questioning children and young people in Brighton & Hove educational settings – Does not contain reference to fieldtrips, but much can be taken from the general advice.
- Schools Transgender Guidance (West Berkshire Council) – Does include some direct guidance regarding fieldtrips.
- Design inclusively: Being inclusive in Fieldtrips (University of Worcester) – Aimed at higher education, but a well-structured advice document about inclusive fieldtrips.
For academic papers, see also:
Mearns, GW, Bonner-Thompson, C, Hopkins, P. (2020). Trans experiences of a university campus in northern England. Area. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12595
Brice, S.(2020). Geographies of vulnerability: Mapping transindividual geometries of identity and resistance. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12358
Bonner-Thompson, C, Mearns, GW, Hopkins, P. (2021) Transgender negotiations of precarity: Contested spaces of higher education. The Geographical Journal. https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12384