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Push for gender neutral school uniforms and bathrooms goes viral

Students at Dunedin North Intermediate Primary School. Photo: Heidi Hayward via The Guardian

When a teacher’s union in New Zealand updated its policy for schools to have gender neutral uniforms and bathrooms it did not expect the reaction it got to its decision.

The PPTA Te Wehengarua is the professional association and union of teachers and principals whose aim is to improve secondary education in New Zealand.

Last week it launched an updated and refreshed set of guidelines for schools to help them create a safe environment for all students.

At the time it said it believed that gender and sexuality should never be barriers to student engagement and achievement.

‘There have always been students with diverse gender identities and sexualities, that’s not new. What is new is we’re now calling on schools to develop safe and affirming practices to help these students thrive,’ said PPTA rainbow taskforce convenor and secondary school teacher Shawn Cooper.

‘PPTA is taking the lead in this work because we believe it is our role as teachers to bring out the unique strengths of each child, so they can make the most of every opportunity at school and beyond.

‘We want every school and every teacher to have the resources they need to build an inclusive school culture.’

Media sensation

What the PPTA was a simple update to its guidelines suddenly went viral and the association was inundated with requests for media interviews.

‘The coverage of PPTA’s advice to schools to have gender neutral toilets and uniform options has been full on,’ said the PPTA’s Tom Haig in a statement.

‘We’ve been rather surprised about the media coverage that this has received.

‘Why this blew up so much is that challenging binary gender identities is really ‘zeitgeisty’ at the moment. But it’s another example of PPTA being on the ‘right side of history’, and the main-stream media and the rest are just catching up with things we’ve been saying for years.’

New Zealand has long been a regional leader on LGBTI issues. It legalized same-sex marriage in 2013 and one of its biggest employers, the Countdown supermarket chain, enacted a ‘spectacular’ trans employee support policy.

Earlier this year a school in Dunedin changed its policy so that its uniforms were gender neutral.