Very recently Cambridgeshire was ranked 4th in the country in the 2017 Stonewall Education Equality Index. This means that excellent schools in Cambridgeshire are doing consistent work to talk about LGBT+ issues in the classroom, and to ensure that school is an environment where LGBT+ folk feel included. Primary schools, as well as secondary schools, are included in this index. I was particulary delighted to see Arbury Primary School, a school I have worked with for some time now, mentioned in Stonewall's report as an exemplary practitioner.
Some would question why primary age children need to talk about LGBT+ issues at all. Why do schools educate children as young as 4 about this? And why do I open my counselling room to young people (from the very young right up to adolescents) with an awareness that LGBT+ stuff might be very much on the agenda? Surely children don't need to discuss sex-related issues until they're actually thinking about having sex, or at the very earliest as they go through puberty?
It's important to realise that sex and gender are two separate things. It's true that the average age a young person realises they're lesbian, gay or bisexual is around puberty. However, the average age a transgender child realises that their assigned gender (often referred to as their cisgender) is not the gender they feel most comfortable presenting as is much younger: age 4.
Children are aware of gender much earlier than many of us realise - around the age of 2, and certainly by the age of 3. Because gender stereotypes are ingrained in our society, children pick up the expected attributes of their gender very early. If those don't seem to fit who they are, they might enjoy rebelling against them, or worry that they're not like other boys/girls. Often, this is simply a sensible rejection of outdated stereotyping. Sometimes, it opens up a deeper awareness in the child that they feel more aligned with a different gender - that they might be transgender.
Schools with an LGBT+ sensitivity are superb at minimising the impact of gender issues in the way that they counter such stereotypes and work hard to ensure equality of opportunity. They make conscious efforts not to refer to "boys" and "girls" but rather "students" or "children" or "learners" to leave more space for a non-binary experience. In counselling, part of the work can be exploring what's brought about the child's awareness that their cisgender doesn't feel right. The child who's been born into a family who explicitly "wanted a boy" may feel uncomfortable as a girl for different reasons than the child who comes with a more intrinsic sensing that their assigned gender feels wrong. This can be sensitively and fully explored through play and talking.
So, what about the lesbian, gay and bisexual children, who may be into their secondary years before they realise they are not heterosexual? Why is it important that we include them in those earlier years of education and support? This is about visibility. Primary level relationships education is not about the sexual details. It's about acknowledging that not all relationships are hetero. Posters around school showing "Different families, same love" depict two dads, two mums, single parents, grandparent carers, foster carers - as well as mum and dad. Some of the stories in the choosing corner include characters who have two mums, or two grandads. Staff don't make assumptions when talking with children about relationships. Similarly, I am careful when working with children not to assume. It's easy to modify your language to leave space for other options.
When LGB teens or adults look back on their early experiences, they remember the times they felt included (and not), even when they were young children. Whether or not they knew any other LGB people, read any stories that included LGB characters, saw them represented on TV, learned about their existence in relationships education at school...all of that will be a factor in how easy (or not) it is to accept their sexuality and how able they are to be open about it. And obviously the same applies to transgender children, it's just that they're likely to be aware much earlier that they are transgender - making that early inclusion and visibility argueably even more crucial.
It's important that, in all our dealings with children, we don't present heteronormative and gender stereotypical assumptions. Leave a space for what else there might be, other than the norm. Counselling provides the perfect safe space for exploration, but it's not the only space that matters. LGBT+ children will feel safer and happier in a school, a home and a public space that remembers they are there and welcomes who they are.
Helpful links for further reading or support: