In a positive step, a Catholic school in Ireland will introduce gender-neutral uniforms and restrooms to accommodate gender non-conforming youth. But wider questions of how gender and sexuality are handled in the nation’s church-run schools remain disputed.
St. Brigid’s National School in County Wicklow said that beginning in September, students will be empowered to wear the uniform most consistent with their gender identity. The Irish Times reported:
“Máire Costello, the school principal, said the move was prompted by the school’s student council and had been agreed by the school’s board of management and parents.
“‘We have children who are questioning their sexual identity. It is happening at an earlier age. We want all our children to have a happy experience in school,’ she said.
“‘If that means girls wearing trousers or boys wearing skirts, so be it. The most important thing is that children should feel comfortable and happy over how they are dressed.’
“Up until now the school’s uniform policy required girls to wear a green tartan school pinafore, while boys were required to wear grey trousers and a green jumper.”
St. Brigid’s will also begin transitioning restrooms so there are gender-neutral options. Costello said both decisions have been well received by the school community. Indeed, NewsTalk reported the chair of the school’s board, Tom Sherlock, said the policies were first proposed by students:
“‘Earlier this year, [the student council] came to our principal, Máire Costello, with a suggestion or request that the board of management agree to introduce a gender neutral uniform.
“‘It was clearly something they had considered very carefully – they had very well-developed arguments around it. It wasn’t just a flight of fancy.'”
But even as St. Brigid’s moves forward, LGBTQ issues in Irish Catholic schools, which comprise nearly 93% of the nation’s schools and are often government-funded, are still hotly disputed. Mostly recently, the Irish bishops have defended Catholic schools curricula on sexuality and relationships against critics who claim LGBTQ issues are not being adequately addressed. The Irish Times reported:
“In a statement following their summer meeting at Maynooth which concluded on Wednesday, the bishops said: ‘Catholic schools encourage excellence in relationship and sexuality education, and in all learning, while promoting human flourishing in line with authentic Gospel values.’
“They said: ‘Contrary to some recent negative commentary, in Catholic schools young people do [their emphasis] learn facts as part of their relationships and sexuality education.'”
Taking a wider view is necessary in this discussion. LGBTQ issues are but one concern in the wider tensions in Ireland about how religion, the State, and education interact. Schools were one of the three topic areas discussed in an early July structured dialogue between leaders of religious institutions, civic organizations, and the government. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has previously called for a new covenant on church-state relations, but the specifics of such an arrangement have not been released. LGBTQ issues will be greatly affected by any wider shifts.
But these tensions need not stop Ireland’s Catholic schools from acting on their own initiative to support LGBTQ students. Administrators at St. Brigid’s are showing it is entirely possible to live out a school’s Catholic identity by ministering to gender diverse youth. The school’s students provide an even stronger witness in how they carefully advocated for the changes. What a truly wonderful collaboration and model for other schools to follow!
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 21, 2019