Its easy for rich kids to break the rules. But its not how the world changes | Laurie Penny

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For all the staggering gains the transgender community has made in recent years, the people making headlines are often those with the most privilege

The English language is rich and complex but we do not have enough words for emotions. There is no word, for instance, to describe the strange and thrilling sadness of watching the world change for the better and knowing that the people who are young today will get to enjoy freedoms you barely dared to imagine.

Right now society is going through an enormous shift around issues of sexism, sexuality and gender. Culture is changing, and it will not wait, certainly not for progressives of previous generations, to set the limits of what is possible. Watching it happen, especially as a queer person and a feminist, is both bittersweet and breathtaking.

When I was at school in Brighton, nobody spoke about feminism or gay rights, even though just beyond the playground walls was Kemptown, arguably one of the gayest square miles of the British Isles, stuffed with special-interest sex shops and scattered with drag queens glittering up the pavements as we waited for the school bus in our stupid posh-kid uniforms.

Back then I didnt have words like genderqueer or non-binary to describe my spiky tangle of teenage feelings; I only knew that I didnt feel quite like a boy or a girl, and that I longed to wear a blazer and trousers like the boys, to cut my hair and call myself a different name. When I turned up in a suit and tie at a function to show off the scholarship kids to the governing board, I was told off by my teachers.

How times can change. Today, gender-neutral pronouns like they and xe are gradually slipping into common use; transgender and non-binary celebrities are all over the media; and Britain is considering whether to drop the requirement to state male or female on official forms. When I speak to young people I am stunned by how knowledgeable and progressive they are about feminism, gay rights and gender identity; how, thanks to the internet, they can find, support and educate each other with a speed and urgency that mainstream adult culture is struggling to match.

Even my old school, Brighton College, is in the news for relaxing its uniform rules to accommodate transgender pupils. The move follows pressure from parents and the realisation, according to the headmaster Richard Cairns, that while teenagers have a lot of problems their parents never had to deal with, a problem with queer people isnt one of them. Now every child at the college will have a right to wear the scratchiest, ugliest, most inconceivably silly school skirt ever devised by sadistic adults.

Its good news, of course, for transgender kids at Brighton College and at the other schools that will inevitably follow suit. Its better news as an indicator that culture has changed to the extent that even stuffy private schools have noticed and considered how gender issues might affect their branding and relationship with fee-paying parents. But institutions cannot be allowed to own social change. Particularly not institutions such as private schools which, however liberal, still exist to service and maintain social inequality.

It is shortsighted to talk about sexism and gender identity without talking about class. For all the staggering gains the transgender community has made in the past few years, the people making headlines are often those with the most privilege, such as celebrities or the rich, who are least likely to experience discrimination on the basis of their gender identity. Meanwhile, transgender people around the world still face enormous violence and prejudice, particularly if they are working-class or of colour.

The boys, girls and genderqueer kids of Brighton College may be free to choose a skirt or trousers but theyre still required to wear a uniform, which is an exercise in social control. Brighton Colleges uniform is designed, like most private school costumes, to set its pupils apart from the rest of the community where they live and learn, to remind them and everyone else that they are different, and special. Its a uniform that, if youre not careful, you end up wearing on the inside, wrapped around your sense of empathy like armour.

Rich kids find it easier to break the rules. Thats not their fault. But its not how the world changes. The world moves when we all learn, wherever we come from, to question the systems of power, privilege and prejudice in which we are raised, and to consider how we might best lend our energies and resources to shift those systems, to make life fairer and freer for everyone. Thats not a lesson they teach you in school. Thankfully, todays teenagers are teaching it to each other. The rest of us would do well to watch and learn.

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