The Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) should meet its promise to work in tandem with the advice given by professionals from the Ministry of Health by implementing and communicating “clear policy” on supporting transgender students in schools, urged a group of educators and social service professionals.

This is the first time that teachers, social workers and other professionals in the education and social work fields “have taken a stand publicly and collectively on any issue”, including for transgender students, they said in a statement on Friday (29 January).

In their statement of support for transgender students, published on 19 January, the group called on MOE to not only take into account healthcare professionals’ opinions in its policies but to also consult the relevant students and their families in the process.

Such a policy should include issuing guidelines for school leaders, teachers and counsellors to do the following:

  • Defer to healthcare professionals in all decisions pertaining to a student’s physical and mental health, gender presentation, and transition, without interference from school leaders, teachers or counsellors and regardless of their personal preferences or beliefs;
  • Avoid interfering or pressuring the student or their doctors to either withhold gender transition or to hasten medical procedures, such as rushing surgeries that would enable the student to change their legal sex, as administrative concerns should never take precedence over a student’s life, health, education, and well-being;
  • Make efforts to respect the expressed gender of students who have trusted teachers, counsellors and school leaders enough to share their transgender identities, as well as to avoid ‘outing’ or revealing students’ transgender identity to parents without the students’ prior consent;
  • Refrain from making institutional or personal threats made to any student, their family, or their doctors;
  • Proactively offer, though not mandate, supportive counselling and other mental health services to transgender students; and
  • Having in place mechanisms for greater transparency and accountability should any school leaders, teachers or counsellors were to go against these guidelines.

Noting that there are cases whereby transgender students who have tried to seek help for with their gender identity are instead punished as ‘discipline cases’, or referred to programmes aiming to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, the group called on MOE to work with schools to equip the latter with means to create a safe school environment for all students, including transgender students.

“This could, among other things, take the form of inclusive policies, training for all teachers and counsellors on gender dysphoria and LGBTQ+ issues, inclusive sexuality education and anti-bullying programmes, and having a statement of inclusion for schools and counsellors to abide by,” the group stressed.

“Many of us were afraid to write this statement or put our names to it because we recognise that it is still not safe for us as individuals and professionals to publicly express these views.

“Nevertheless, we are making this statement because we believe that it is the right thing to do, and because it is our professional duty to protect and care for all the young people we teach, counsel and guide,” the group said.

The statement of support has attracted 301 individual and group signatories as of 12.30 am on Friday.

Teachers, counsellors, social workers, and community & youth workers — whether current or former — who are keen on signing the statement as individuals may do so here, using real names or pseudonyms.

Education or social service groups seeking to sign the statement may contact [email protected] using a group or organisation email account, with the organisation name and preferred URL.

The group’s statement of support was made in light of the account of an 18-year-old transgender student named Ashlee, who alleged on Reddit that MOE had interfered with her hormone replacement therapy and that she was threatened with expulsion by her school if her treatment went beyond a reduced dosage.

Ashlee was also reportedly told that she could not attend school if she refused to cut her hair and conform to a male dress code.

MOE subsequently denied Ashlee’s allegations and issued a follow-up statement on the matter, saying that it is “not in a position to interfere with any medical treatment, which is a matter for the family to decide on”.

Clinicians at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), said MOE in a joint statement with IMH on 21 January, will often consult “a wide range of stakeholders” in the process of treating individuals diagnosed with gender dysphoria.

The final decisions on the use of HRT “rest with clinicians and their patients”, said MOE and IMH, adding that in cases where patients are minors, such treatments will require their parents’ written consent.

United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concerns over “persisting discrimination” against LGBT children in Singapore in 2019: Rights groups and organisations

In a separate statement, 61 groups and organisations — mainly LGBT — urged MOE and IMH to work with LGBT organisations “to clarify and implement a uniform standard of care for transgender students” and other LGBT youths across all schools “in order to ensure safe and nurturing environments for all students regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or sex characteristics”.

The organisations highlighted that the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 2019 had expressed concerns over the persisting discrimination against LGBT children in Singapore, despite the country having ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child since 1995.

The Committee, they added, had also recommended Singapore to adopt comprehensive strategies, including providing sensitivity training for teachers.

MOE, said the groups, has “since expressed their commitment to meeting the mental health needs of students, and implementing measures to combat bullying based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression at educational institutions”.

“It is thus profoundly troubling and disappointing that MOE’s official statement on Ashlee’s allegations refused to acknowledge her gender identity and chose to misgender her by using male pronouns,” they said.

Addressing MOE’s denial of any involvement in withholding Ashlee’s hormone replacement therapy, the groups and organisations stressed that “medical advice, in particular medical advice on hormone dosage levels, should be left to healthcare professionals”.

“Schools should not interfere with a student’s healthcare decisions and necessary medical treatments. In addition, schools should not punish — let alone threaten to expel — students for failing to adhere to gender stereotypes and binary gender roles, or invade their privacy by sharing their transgender identity without their consent,” they said.

HRT, said the groups and organisations, is “a life-saving treatment that has been proven to significantly reduce this prevalence and improve the mental health and quality of life of many transgender persons with gender dysphoria”.

“In Singapore, a 2016 study found that nearly half of transgender women have had suicidal thoughts.

“Millennia Institute’s ultimatum for Ashlee to choose between receiving an education or receiving medically necessary treatment violates her basic human rights to self-determination, privacy, personal autonomy and bodily integrity, as well as her rights to education and the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,” they said.

MOE must apologise for harm done to LGBT students by schools through discriminatory practices: Students and supporters involved in recent protest outside MOE building

Earlier, a group of students and supporters who assembled outside the MOE building to protest discrimination against LGBT students — in light of Ashlee’s case — last Tuesday said in a statement that discrimination and harassment against LGBT students “is a long-standing issue in our schools which damages their wellbeing and denies access to safe and supportive education”.

“Students themselves, human rights and civil society groups, as well as educators, counsellors and other professionals working with young people, have raised concerns about discriminatory and intrusive practices by schools, which hurt both LGBTQ+ students, as well as heterosexual and cisgender students, by undermining privacy, bodily autonomy and well-being,” they said.

The students and supporters also urged MOE to acknowledge and apologise for the harm done by schools to LGBT students through their schools’ discriminatory practices, and to clearly and explicitly commit to end such discrimination in the education environment.

“This must include working closely with students themselves and LGBTQ+ groups to understand their concerns, and to draw on and implement their existing concrete ideas and expertise,” they said.

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