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Gender + Sexuality

How to Resist the War on LGBTQ2S+ Kids

An SFU panel on misinformation and parents’ rights suggested ways to make society safer by seeking common ground.

Katie Hyslop 26 Feb 2024The Tyee

Katie Hyslop writes about education and youth issues for The Tyee.

If you pay attention to the news, it’s impossible to ignore the growing backlash against LGBTQ2S+ visibility and support, Simon Fraser University sociology professor Travers told a panel audience earlier this month.

“Mobilizing Fear and Misinformation: Anti-SOGI & ‘Parent’s Rights’” took place on Feb. 7 and featured panel member and organizer Travers; Victoria E. Thomas, SFU assistant professor of media and public engagement in the School of Communication; and j. wallace skelton, assistant professor of queer studies in education from the University of Regina. CBC British Columbia journalist Michelle Eliot moderated.

SOGI stands for sexual orientation and gender identity. In B.C., SOGI 123 is a set of optional teaching resources, professional development programs and school and district policy templates. While it’s not part of the provincial curriculum, the learning resources can be used to meet curriculum goals.

The backlash is evident in policies introduced by governments in Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick that dictate parents must be informed if their child wants to use a different pronoun or name at school.

Alberta’s policy will prevent youth under 16 from using puberty blockers — designed to pause puberty — and hormone replacement therapy, and require parental, physician and psychologist permission to access for youth aged 16 and 17. It will ban gender-affirming surgeries for anyone under 18, even though “bottom” surgeries aren’t currently available for minors, and “top” surgeries for teenagers is quite rare.

Alberta’s new policies also ban trans women and girls from women and girls’ sports teams.

Critics of these policies, including medical professionals, provincial children’s advocates, teachers and LGBTQ2S+ groups argue they are dangerous for young people, not based in medical science and trample on kids’ rights.

These policies, alongside protests against age-appropriate LGBTQ2S+ content in schools, have created a palpable fear among young LGBTQ2S+ people, Travers said in their opening remarks.

Currently interviewing trans youth as part of their research, Travers spoke about what they say to encourage them.

“I was born in 1962. I never in my wildest dreams ever expected to have the quality of life and inclusion that I experience,” said Travers, crediting queer and trans advocates who came before them, and those who continue to fight for their visibility in public life.

“In a 50-year period, we have radically changed the way in which queer and trans people are viewed and treated in society. And we need to understand what’s happening, this current backlash, as a response to our success,” Travers said.

Panel members dispelled misinformation about SOGI content in schools, discussed the impact of this misinformation on young people and provided an opportunity for the audience to ask good-faith questions.

Only a few dozen people, including a reporter for The Tyee, were invited to attend the panel in-person. Due to safety concerns that protesters would disrupt the talk, the majority of the audience watched via livestream. A recording is still available to view online.

skelton, whose research includes interviewing kids of all genders, as well as parents advocating for their transgender kids, described the backlash as being about children’s agency.

“How do we as a culture recognize children as fully human, as knowledge makers, as whole people with things to teach us and share with us, and who need to be able to make choices about their own lives?” skelton asked.

The spectre of “parent’s rights” has been “weaponized” against queer and trans kids and youth, skelton added.

The framing excludes supportive parents of queer and trans kids, who “see their rights as parents as secondary to their children’s rights,” skelton said. It also excludes parents who are LGBTQ2S+ themselves or live in otherwise “non-traditional” families.

Thomas, whose research includes analysis of the representations of Black trans people in media, noted these policies send a message to LGBTQ2S+ youth: “We don’t want you to make it to adulthood with this identity.”

Learning about the existence of LGBTQ2S+ people does not prevent straight and cisgender kids from being who they are, Thomas added.

‘There are always going to be queer and trans people’

Travers, who wrote a book about trans youth and their parents in 2018, noted education that includes the existence of queer and trans people does not make children queer or trans.

“I don’t know about any other adult in this room who’s interacted with children, but trying to get them to be or do something that is not who they are is incredibly difficult,” they said.

“There are always going to be queer and trans people, there have always been queer and trans people,” they added. Teaching resources such as SOGI simply help make school “less hellish for queer and trans kids.”

Despite hundreds of anti-trans bills introduced in the United States over the last few years, Travers did not predict Canadian politicians would be able to introduce their own transphobic policies.

In Saskatchewan, the provincial government used the notwithstanding clause to override the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ protections against discrimination based on gender and sexuality.

That policy is currently being challenged in provincial court. Lawyer barbara findlay, who was in the audience, predicted if the policy is allowed to remain, other protected groups would see their civil rights “erased” by the notwithstanding clause in the future.

Conservative politicians, Travers argued, are using bigotry for political gain.

“Teachers are not trying to keep information from parents, they’re trying to keep children safe,” they said.

“If a child in your care tells you ‘If my parents learn that I am queer, or trans or non-binary, I don’t know what will happen. But I’m terrified,’ you have a duty to protect that child’s well-being.”

skelton noted many queer and trans youth face alienation and even violence from family members when they come out. LGBTQ2S+ youth are overrepresented among youth experiencing homelessness in Canada.

But even young people with supportive parents report being nervous to come out, wanting to “try it out” at school first, skelton says.

‘There’s space for everyone’

The good news is that research shows there’s a way forward to getting educators and parents to communicate in good faith.

“If we can recognize that both the parent and the teacher have the child’s best interest as their guiding motivation, that common ground makes it easier to listen to each other,” skelton said.

Teachers, skelton says, can frame the discussion by including LGBTQ2S+ rights in broader discussions of Charter rights and provincial human rights codes, to explain why it is important and necessary to talk about LGBTQ2S+ people in school. Teachers can also invite parents to join the effort to educate kids about the existing protections for all of these groups.

“When parents feel invited into the broader work, it’s really hard to be in opposition,” skelton said.

The University of Regina professor shared a story of a kindergarten teacher who supported gender diverse children in their class, including some whose parents did not approve.

When the school photographer arrived with roses “for the girls” and ties “for the boys” on picture day, the teacher told students to pick “what makes you feel most fancy.”

“They may have different understandings about what’s in the child’s best interests. But a belief that both sets of adults are there to create a caring, nurturing environment for the child is a really helpful starting place for those conversations,” skelton said.

As both a parent and an educator, skelton said, “Having children is a process of letting go. Because you’re making room for children to be their own people.”

Allies needed to help fight back

Travers, who had earlier discussed the initial fight to establish LGBTQ2S+ rights, stressed the need for strategic organizing around queer issues.

The political right wing often outflanks the left when it comes to organizing, Travers said. “They understand that when they lose a campaign, they keep going. It took 50 years to repeal Roe v. Wade, and the target is now on queer and trans people.”

“There are queer and trans people in every community, and there are also people who support them in every community,” said Travers, adding LGBTQ2S+ advocates must push back against the racist and colonial belief that only white people are politically progressive.

Thomas also advised the audience to pay attention to provincial and municipal elections, including the election of school board trustees.

“If we don’t know who those people are, then we wake up one morning and we have these bills passed,” she said.

Alberta’s anti-trans policy, which is not yet in place but widely viewed as the most restrictive in Canada so far, “will actually kill kids,” Travers said.

On the flipside, both LGBTQ2S+ youth and non-queer youth benefit from LGBTQ2S+ visibility acceptance in schools.

Referencing an incident last summer where adults in Kelowna accosted a nine-year-old cisgender child they suspected was trans, Travers said SOGI education helps “create a less polarized gender order, which results in less violence against girls and young women.”

Panellists agreed cisgender straight allies and LGBTQ2S+ adults have a duty to push back against the anti-trans backlash by participating in protests; donating money to LGBTQ2S+ groups challenging the policies in court or who are providing support for young people; and voting or running against transphobic and homophobic politicians.

And also by challenging misinformation they encounter in their day to day lives. Education curriculum is available online, and many medical centres that offer gender affirming care have webpages challenging misinformation, skelton said.

Allies and opponents can read this information together, skelton said. “I kind of love it as a strategy, because then the myth has just disappeared.”  [Tyee]

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