It is an irony that a school named after St Paul should have an ethos that so radically contradicts the Apostle’s views on the role of women. St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith is avowedly feminist, encouraging its pupils to go out into the world and not simply equal the achievements of men but surpass them. To judge by its academic results, it is the best school in England, and the list of distinguished Old Paulinas is impressive. But now this feminist ethos has run into trouble: around 10 sixth-form girls have decided not just to be equal with men and surpass them, but to be men, or, since they are not yet adults, boys; or, if not boys, then “gender neutral” – in other words, not girls.
This reductio ad absurdum of feminism was reported in the Sunday Times under the headline “St Paul’s lets sixth-form girls be boys”. The report included an interview with the High Mistress, Clarissa Farr. She appears to be relaxed about this development, taking “a neutral stance” when a girl says she wants to be a boy, “neither encouraging nor discouraging the decision”. The school allows girls exploring their gender identity to wear boys’ clothes, and their new boys’ names appear on lists for assemblies, sports, the school website and exchange visits abroad.
Apparently, St Paul’s is not exceptional in catering for pupils who choose to change their gender. The Girls’ Schools Association has advised its members to use gender-neutral words in assemblies (“pupils” or “students”, never “girls”); and around 80 mixed-sex state schools already have gender-neutral uniforms, allowing boys to wear skirts and girls to wear trousers.
Writing about a development of this kind is like walking through a minefield because the “T” in LGBT stands for “transgender” and the LGBT lobby is sensitive to any perceived prejudice. A misplaced observation can provoke charges of bigotry, something-or-other-ophobia and even a knock on the door from the Metropolitan Police. It must therefore be made clear that it is not my intention to question or criticise those teenagers who choose a different gender. I know next to nothing about chromosomes, and have no experience of teaching or the pastoral care of schoolchildren.
Some may say that Ms Farr, the Girls’ Schools Association and the head teachers of those 80 or so state schools are pandering too easily to fashion from the United States, but even to refer to it as a fashion could be regarded as insulting. Noel Annan, in his book Our Age (1990), referred to the homosexuality of so many in his generation – Keynes, Bowra, Auden, Isherwood, Spender, Forster, Britten, Bacon, Gielgud, Blunt et al – as a “cult”. “Homosexuality,” he wrote, “had all the thrill of being illicit … and all the pleasure of being certain to outrage the older generation.” Such a view would be unacceptable now. And certainly could not be said of those girls who want to be boys at St Paul’s. The thrill of being illicit? The pleasure of being certain to outrage the older generation? Impossible. It is all a matter of genes.
It is, of course, odd that such a cluster of genetic idiosyncrasies should be found in the sixth form of a single school. And what if such a cluster was found in a Catholic school? The Church, after all, has made it quite clear that at conception God made us male or female. It will have no truck with the choosing or changing of one’s gender. As a result, it seems unlikely that the headmaster of, say, the Oratory School in London or Ampleforth College in Yorkshire would permit their male pupils to wear skirts.
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