Lee Airton is an assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies in education at Queen’s University. Scout Gray is an education and youth engagement specialist with the non-profit SOGI 1 2 3. Jake Pyne is an assistant professor at the York University School of Social Work. Mik Turje and Tracy Whitmore are social workers specializing in queer and trans community support.
This summer, the New Brunswick and Saskatchewan governments issued policies that require schools to secure parental consent before a transgender student under 16 is called by their chosen name and pronouns at school.
It makes sense that these policies poll well. Parents are scared that their own child might be living a different life at school than at home, gender-wise, and that everybody else knows but no one will tell them. But parents are also scared because politicians and partisans are telling an incomplete story, for political gain, about what happens when a transgender student comes out at school first: that parents are automatically excluded based on an assumption that they will harm their child if they find out.
Proponents of this incomplete story argue that parents are pivotal people in their children’s lives and must play a central role.
We agree. We are researchers and professionals with expertise in school policy and practices related to gender and sexuality, and in therapeutic support for transgender young people and their parents.
As experts, we know that a transgender young person’s best interests are served by a strong parent-child relationship, where they experience their parents’ unconditional love and care, and are affirmed in the gender identity that they are currently expressing. We also know that parents with questions and concerns – even those struggling with their own feelings and views – will not do harm simply because they have questions and concerns. They can have questions, be concerned, and be loving, caring and safe people in their child’s life. Parents of transgender or gender-questioning kids require empathy, compassion and support from other adults.
We believe a transgender student’s best interests are served when school staff take an active role in supporting parent-child relationships. This includes supporting a transgender student in coming to feel safe and comfortable sharing their gender information with their parents, whenever possible. In our experience, this is typically what happens in schools. In fact, it is very rare that school staff respond to a transgender student’s request for confidentiality only by taking steps to ensure that this information stays private. This typically happens when there is evidence that a student is at risk of harm from their parents.
This caution is not unwarranted. The 2019 TransPulse Canada survey of 991 trans youth (ages 14 to 24) found that one in four had family members who stopped speaking to them or ended the relationship due to the youth’s gender identity. Others reported being kicked out of the house, being threatened with violence, or experiencing violence from a family member.
However, the same study also found that six in 10 trans youth were respected and supported by their parents. We believe that school policy can guide staff in supporting a transgender student coming out to their parents without sacrificing safety, autonomy or access to supportive adults, in situations where there is no evidence that coming out could put them in harm’s way.
We support transgender students communicating with their parents in a way that centres the student’s agency and pace. The approach described in the Saskatchewan and New Brunswick policies risks non-consensual “outing” and will result in transgender youth simply not accessing supportive adults at school. We suggest an approach that involves affirming the student, supporting them and their parents simultaneously, assessing with the student their reasons for not yet having shared their gender identity, and – as long as there is no potential for harm – planning for this important conversation alongside the student when they are ready. This approach is outlined in our document No For Now: Guidance for School Staff on Supporting Transgender Students and Parent-Child Relationships, at nofornow.ca.
Polarization has produced a looming crisis for trans young people at school that is rapidly moving away from evidence, compassion and common sense. We will not mince our words. If the Saskatchewan and New Brunswick policies are defeated in pending court challenges that invoke the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and those governments use the notwithstanding clause to proceed, they will end up legislating harm to extremely vulnerable children and youth by forcing transgender students under 16 to either be prematurely outed or to experience circumstances that contribute to increased suicide attempts, including being called by a name and/or pronouns that do not reflect their gender identity. Research has made this link extremely clear.
This cannot be what happens in Canada. Another way is possible.