Respect for All: what does this mean for Malta’s trans, gender variant and intersex students?

Image: Gabi Calleja / Seminar for educators in Malta, February 2016

The EU LGBT survey (2014) found that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are experienced by 80% of students across all EU member states. It highlighted that we need to be doing more if we want to provide equal opportunities to LGBTIQ students.

I started my career as a teacher but given my preference for non-formal and informal methodologies, I transitioned to youth and community work shortly after. As an LGBTIQ activist, I strive to work with educators in ensuring that schools are safe spaces for all children and young people under their care. This is no easy task and requires skilled and committed educators – and administrators who are able to implement appropriate strategies that help to create inclusive environments where diversity is not only tolerated but celebrated.

In 2015 Malta launched its Trans, Gender Variant and Intersex Students in Schools Policy as part of its Respect for All Framework. The policy aims to foster a school environment that is inclusive, safe and free from harassment and discrimination for all members of the school community, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and/or sex characteristics.

Furthermore, the policy promotes the learning of human diversity that is inclusive of trans, gender variant and intersex students, and ensures a school climate that is physically, emotionally and intellectually safe for all students to further their learning and well-being.

It provides practical guidelines on:

  • Access to gender-specific activities and areas such as bathrooms and changing rooms; 
  • School documentation such as class registers and report cards; 
  • Appropriate use of names and pronouns based on self-determination: that is how the children or young persons identify themselves rather than what adults decide for them; 
  • Uniform provisions and dress codes: who can wear dresses or trousers, jewellery, have long hair; 
  • Student transitions and how to manage them: so that when Sally is presented as Sam his classmates would be prepared and accepting; 
  • Tackling bullying
  • Training of the school community, and 
  • School-community partnerships as a resource. 

In practice, it translates to a shift away from the often strict binary definitions and stereotypes of what makes a boy a boy and a girl a girl, recognising that traditional notions of gender and gender expression do not necessarily apply to all students.

To implement the policy, experts from the LGBTIQ movement and the Ministry of Education collaborated in delivering training to psychologists, counsellors, social workers, guidance teachers and other student support staff. All those working in schools need to have opportunities to discuss honestly, openly and respectfully on new realities they come across. Our experience was that teachers and other professionals are open-minded, willing to learn and become aware of their own assumptions and beliefs, and how these can influence their practice. This process, we found, often served to reassure professionals that the knowledge and skills they already possess combined with reflective practice are sufficient to support and meet the needs of LGBTIQ students.

The Maltese government has also enhanced the capacity of LGBTIQ groups through funding for service provision. For example, over the past two years the Rainbow Support Service, run by the Malta LGBTIQ Rights Movement, has increasingly been involved in delivering training and assisting schools in dealing with a number of trans children and youth who are transitioning. The smoothness of these transitions was achieved thanks to the collaborative approach between educators and the wider community. This allows planning of individualised approaches, developed on a case-by-case basis, within a sound legal and policy framework that adopts a whole-school approach. This takes into account a range of factors such as the age of the student, the support network available, useful educational resources, impacts on the student’s academic progress and the possibility of a school transfer if advisable.

The drivers behind this shift in educational policy have been the lived experiences of LGBTIQ children and youth often with the support of their parents and the activist community as well as the political will to do everything possible to leave no child behind. There is one ultimate goal: to create the conditions for safer and more inclusive school environments for all students.

Gabi Calleja is the Chair of Malta's LGBTIQ Consultative Council within the Ministry for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties since January 2015 as well as the Coordinator of the Malta LGBTIQ Rights Movement for the past 8 years. She has contributed to the development of three policies within the Ministry for Education and Employment addressing school attendance, bullying and the inclusion of trans, gender variant and intersex students in schools.