Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
With every new school year, there must be a moral panic that contains, within it, a kernel of reasonable concern. In lieu of last year’s top-heavy shop teacher (who’s still teaching, having evidently neither been cancelled nor collapsed under the weight of her prosthetic protrusions), we have the less outrageous but more outrage-provoking topic of whether it’s okay for students who are minors to transition at school without their parents’ knowledge or consent.
At first, Canada was unified – legally, at least – in seeing it as a human right to transition at school without parents’ involvement. But then some of the provinces changed their tune, or are considering it, and are saying that no – parents need to consent before Jim becomes Susan.
It’s easy enough for most to look at this topic in the abstract and pick their team, as it were. But I want to set all that aside. On a practical level, I’m having trouble imagining how the secretly trans thing is even playing out. It’s not like the proverbial girl sneaking a miniskirt into school and changing out of her parent-approved modest attire upon arrival. It’s hard to picture that trans kids – that is, kids who are out as trans at school, not kids who are merely out as trans to themselves – aren’t already at least presenting themselves as gender non-conforming at a level that a parent would need their head unfathomably deep in the sand to not notice.
It’s also difficult to see how a school would even be able to keep a child’s new name and pronouns a secret. Someone would slip up – on a report card, say, or in more informal communications with a parent. It seems like a lot to ask of an already overworked teacher to not only remember a student’s newly chosen pronouns, but also who can and cannot hear those pronouns. That’s not even getting into asking this of a child’s classmates, who would not be under the same legal secrecy requirements, but without whose co-operation the jig is up.
But this debate actually involves a couple of different threads. “Trans” refers to a range of situations and identities, not all of which are wrapped up in the contentious minefield that is youth gender medicine. Transitioning to a non-binary identity, for example, is presumably less likely to necessitate medical intervention, and could indeed escape a parent’s attention. After all, the progressive party line is that there’s no such thing as looking non-binary – which is true (to a point). And I’m not convinced a school needs to inform parents that a child is using they/them pronouns, any more than they must report that a kid has certain politics, or likes a particular band.
But even where binary transition is concerned – that is, male-to-female or female-to-male – schools ought to be a place where young people can try out different identities to see what fits. If schools demand parental consent, they’re in effect asking students to make a transition more formal, more official, more irreversible (socially, if not medically). This kind of intervention almost makes me wonder how the parental-consent line became the socially conservative position.
Everything gets less fraught and culture-wars-ish, though, the minute you remember that the question of whether schools have a duty to keep a child’s gender transition secret from parents is not the same as whether a child needs permission to affix a “they/them” pin to their backpack. Recognizing this distinction, the Angus Reid Institute recently found that Canadians are divided, with nearly half thinking that parents need to consent to a child’s transition, but more than three-quarters saying that parents should be informed.
Indeed, a teacher immediately rushing to let parents know that a kid is questioning their gender is basically like outing a kid as gay or bi. Or worse, it’s like asking the parents’ permission to let a kid even have a minority sexual orientation. Schools’ refusal to do so is an example of them upholding the values of the state. But if you treat an established, open-at-school gender transition like a state secret, you’re effectively compelling parents to misgender their children for potentially years on end, and more or less asking for a situation where the kid is outed in unpredictable and potentially upsetting circumstances.
All of this would seem to point to inform as the correct way forward. A parent should know the openly-used name and pronouns of their own kids – not to be offered veto power on something that parents ultimately don’t control, but so that everyone can be on the same page, and that no one has to keep anyone else’s impossible-to-keep secrets.