Counsellors dismissed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison as "gender whisperers” have denied they are training teachers to spot potential transgender students in the classroom.
On Wednesday Mr Morrison tweeted: “We do not need ‘gender whisperers’ in our schools. Let kids be kids”. He posted a link to a Daily Telegraph story which claimed teachers were being coached on how to identify transgender children in the classroom, contributing to a surge in the number of children wanting to change sex.
However the Gender Centre, which was named in the story, issued a statement stressing it did not train school staff to identify transgender children.
Kimmi Everson, the vice president of the board of directors, said the organisation only provided training when contacted by schools asking for advice about students who already identify as transgender.
“The training that the Gender Centre then offers to staff is on how to accommodate the needs of existing transgender or gender diverse students within their specific schools,” she said. "The Gender Centre does not work with any school without the involvement of parents."
Ms Everson said the centre frequently clarified that not every child who expresses gender variances is transgender. A transgender person is someone whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.
The Daily Telegraph story claimed teachers were learning to identify key phrases such as “I feel different”, “I am androgynous” and “I’m born with two spirits”, indicating transgender leanings in students as young as five.
But gender counsellor Dr Elizabeth Riley, who was also named in the story, said those phrases came from a survey of transgender adults who were asked how they defined themselves.
“That had nothing to do with kids,” she said.
“I am certainly not getting teachers to identify children (who are transgender), it is just not how it works even in the counselling room. It’s not about teachers seeking out these children or finding them, it’s parents who come to the school and identify their children.”
Dr Riley said she provided education to school staff around supporting transgender students who were in transition and occasionally held parent information nights on gender variation.
“Mental health issues, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and self harm can all come from students not getting the support they need,” she said.
A report by the Telethon Kids Institute last year found 48 per cent of trans young people had attempted suicide and four out of five had engaged in self harm.
Dr Riley said she did not know what the Prime Minister meant by “gender whisperer”. “I agree with him we want kids to be kids,” she said. “Gender variant kids have special needs - it’s all about letting them be themselves.
A spokesman for Mr Morrison declined to comment.
Transcend founder Rebekah Robertson, whose daughter Georgie Stone transitioned to a girl when she was seven, tweeted: “This is sadly unsurprising from our new PM. You know the polls are bad when they start kicking trans kids around again. Another example of how wickedly toxic the political environment is when attacking kids seems your surest bet to win a few votes.”
Mr Morrison on Monday said gay conversion therapy, an umbrella term given to any attempt to change someone's sexual orientation or gender identity, is “just not an issue for me”. Mr Morrison went on to say he loved all Australians, including the gay community.
He earlier agreed with broadcaster Alan Jones that a Victorian program that contains material about teen sexuality made his “skin curl”.
Debbie Ollis, an associate professor in education at Deakin University, has worked with schools on sexuality education for 30 years and said teachers had not been taught to spot transgender children.
“There are no programs or resources or any professional learning for schools that cover that at all - nothing,” she said. “That is absolutely absurd.”
Jewel Topsfield is the national correspondent for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, based in Melbourne. She was previously the Indonesia correspondent. She has won multiple awards, including a Walkley for international journalism and the Lowy Institute Media Award.