Creating Safe and Inclusive Schools for Gender-Independent Children: an Interview with Dr. Carys Massarella

Dr. Carys Massarella

In February 2012, Dr. Carys Massarella, a transgender rights activist and physician from Hamilton, spoke to the Representative Council about some of the issues facing transgender adults and gender­ independent children. An expert in transgender issues, Dr. Massarella is one of the few transgender doctors in Canada. She is also a clinical professor, emergency medicine division, at McMaster University, and teaches transgender primary health care to students, residents, and family doctors.  Voice caught up with Dr. Massarella this spring.

You recently gave a TEDx Talk at McMaster University under the theme of “Bridges and Barriers.” What was your talk about?

Dr. Carys Masserella: The talk I gave recently at TEDx was about the depathologization of transgender identity. The concept essentially was that for a long time being transgender had been associated with a diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder and that this was part of the reason that transgender communities had been consistently marginalized and treated poorly by the medical community, in particular. In fact, we have a safe, effective treatment for transgender identity: medically supported transition, which has proven to be effective and humane. This was the essence of my TED talk.

Where do you think we need the most change in relation to transgender issues?

CM: We need change in the perception of transgender identity. We need to understand that gender is not binary but fluid and that transgen­der identity is not an illness or something need­ ing to be fixed, but rather part of the rich diversity of human experience. We need to also improve training and understanding of safe and effective treatment for transgender individuals with our health care providers, particularly in medical and nursing schools. Finally, our education systems need to nourish transgender-identified children and adolescents in a supportive environment so as to reduce stigma but also, more importantly, to reduce the real risk of suicide that we see in this community.

At ETFO’s February Representative Council meeting you mentioned that you would always make time to talk to elementary teachers about transgender issues. Why are elementary teachers a particularly important audience?

CM: Gender-independent children are living in our communities. A large part of a child’s life is in school with their peers and teachers. They deserve to have a safe environment to live and learn in, and having support from a teaching faculty, and in particular a homeroom teacher, is tremendously important. We know that these children will do better in a supportive environment where they have the space they need to realize their potential.

How do you define gender-independent children?

CM: Gender-independent children are those children whose gender identity does not necessarily match the biological gender that they were assigned to. They could be the classic “tom boy,” which is an acceptable identity, or they may have a much stronger desire to live in the gender oppo­site to their assigned biological gender and may indeed insist that they are the gender opposite their biological gender.

What are some specific ways to create a positive and inclusive environment in the classroom


students wearing different colour shirts holding hands

At the 2015 Annual Meeting, delegates approved a Transgender Policy for ETFO.

teacher and students standing in hallway between lockers

I recently completed my sixth year of teaching in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), working with students from grades 6 to 8.