I’m writing this article in the immediate aftermath of the hate-motivated attack on students and a professor in a gender studies class at the University of Waterloo in early July. UW is my alma mater, a place where I first came out and learned to embrace my identity as a queer woman. I cannot imagine the trauma those students experienced that day, just as I struggle to imagine the dehumanizing hatred that motivated the perpetrator. I’ve been engaged in rainbow rights activism for three decades, and I never thought we’d slide backwards, yet I see it happening now. I’m not just watching, however. I’m also fighting back, and I implore all of you to fight to prevent this dangerous backward slide, too.
When I first came to UW, I joined their coming out discussion group, which was run by Jim Parrott, a gay rights activist and local icon who continues to spearhead 2SLGBTQ+ initiatives, even though he’s now in his 80s. Jim warned us, “Vigilance is the price of freedom. Rights can be won but they can be taken away too.” I was skeptical at the time, for I was young and had an optimistic view of history as steady progress toward equality. Clearly, I should have listened to my “village elder,” for we are currently witnessing an explosion of overt hate.
Inflammatory language and bigoted vitriol are creeping north from the United States. The religious right is well-organized and has learned to manipulate both social media and political networks to spread their messaging. Hundreds of anti-trans and anti-gay bills have been introduced in the US, and we’re seeing legislative pushback to 2SLGBTQ+ equality beginning to happen in Canada as well, most notably in New Brunswick, where a controversial new policy bans teachers from using a student’s preferred name and pronouns with out parental permission. In Canada, there have been mass school absences to protest Pride month, demonstrations outside of classrooms, disruptions to board meetings, and a decided uptick in violence towards the rainbow community.
Nonetheless, public schools have a responsibility to create a safe and inclusive learning environment for everyone. An increasingly large percentage of the student population is 2SLGBTQ+. In 2021, my board launched a student census that found that 4.4 per cent of students in grades 4 to 12 self-identify as a gender that differs from their sex assigned at birth and 23.8 per cent of students in grades 7 to 12 self-identify with a sexual orientation that is considered part of the 2SLGBTQ+ community. The stakes for these students are very high. Research shows that trans youth are five times more likely to consider or attempt suicide. Teachers are often the first trusted adult that a child discloses to. It is not an exaggeration to say that how we show our allyship and support can be life-saving.
What Can Educators Do?
Firstly, check in on your 2SLGBTQ+ colleagues because many are struggling. Show up for them. Listen. Educate yourself. Make your allyship known. In my school, students in our gender and sexuality alliance (GSA) went classroom-to-classroom to educate their peers about Pride month. During one visit, a student stood up and left the room, declaring “This is disgusting.” Those students needed care afterwards. I needed care. Trauma is cumulative. Every instance of homo/bi/transphobia we experience triggers us back to others.
While there’s a lot of talk about trauma-informed classrooms, I’m not convinced there’s been sufficient support for educators to know how to truly show up when trauma appears in the classroom. But it’s happening more and more. At my friend’s school, parents distributed hateful pamphlets during Pride month, and they had to have police presence at their Pride flag-raising. More and more frequently, 2SLGBTQ+ people are facing alarming levels of hostility and grappling with its impact. We need our allies to step up and be there for us.
In terms of the classroom itself, ask yourself how you are normalizing diverse forms of gender expression and making space for non-binary thinking about gender. Consider the resources and language you use. Do you address queer/trans realities throughout the year (not just during Pride month)? Have you moved away from saying “hey guys” or “boys and girls?” Are you modelling sharing your pronouns? Is there a gender-neutral washroom and change room? Are there open categories for sports activities? Can you start or support a GSA in your school? Can you make it intersectional by creating connections with other affinity-based student clubs?
As part of a wider equity unit, I teach a series of lessons I call “Gender Splendour” in which we analyze gender norms, critique gender-based violence, and celebrate human diversity. As part of this unit, we look at Sophie Labelle’s work. Sophie is a trans, French-Canadian cartoonist who’s best known for her Assigned Male comics, which challenge traditional conceptions of gender in provocative and funny ways. They centre trans realities and have led my Grade 7/8 learners to think deeply about gender policing and stereotypes. In my Core French classes, I’ve relied on another French-Canadian cartoonist, Elise Gravel, whose work is better suited to younger learners. She creates bilingual posters that touch on social justice and mental health issues. I know from instructing the ETFO AQ course Teaching LGBTQ Students that many French teachers, in particular, are struggling for ways to integrate 2SLGBTQ+ content into their classroom. I’d recommend checking out Gravel’s work, then inviting students to create a poster with simple French and drawings inspired by her aesthetic style.
Pushing Past Fear
Instructing the ETFO AQ has also taught me that the vast majority of educators want to show up for their students and engage in this work, but fear holds them back – fear of making a mistake and fear of pushback. However doing allyship “wrong” is better than doing nothing at all. Equity unlearning is a lifelong journey and mistakes will happen. That’s virtually unavoidable as language evolves and we untangle our own subconscious lessons from a biased culture. What matters is apologizing, learning from the missteps, and remaining committed to the work.
As educators, we’re faced all the time with changing responsibilities and many of us have had a moment of fear when assigned to teach a new grade level or subject that we’re not confident about. But we process our nerves and do what we need to do to become comfortable and competent teaching Kindies, or Grade 8 math, or whatever the challenge may be, because we’re dedicated professionals. The same attitude and process applies to teaching equity topics.
I’d challenge everyone to put the safety and well-being of children above the fear of conflict. Teachers tend to be conflict-averse, heart-driven people, so this fear makes sense. But you’re not just “allowed” to do this work, it’s actually an expectation of our jobs. So if you face pushback, you can simply reply that public schools are mandated to respect human rights and create safe learning environments for everyone. Refer anyone who keeps pushing to your school administration. You don’t need to engage in a full-on conversation if you don’t feel comfortable. Sometimes a heart-to-heart can really clear up confusion about what’s being taught, why it matters, how it’s age-appropriate, etc., but that only works if the person pushing back is open to learning.
The language being used by those pushing back can be deeply offensive. A teacher at my school, who is an ally and helps run the GSA, was recently called a “groomer” for her efforts to create 2SLGBTQ+ inclusion. This language stems from the debunked myth that gay people are “recruiting” for their “team,” pushing an “agenda” to “convert” children so they can sexually abuse them. This is beyond reprehensible as an accusation, and she was understandably upset.
Respected advocate for 2SLGBTQ+ rights Stan Mitchell is credited with saying, “If you claim to be someone’s ally, but aren’t getting hit by the stones thrown at them, you aren’t standing close enough.” I love this quote, because it captures the reality that allyship entails discomfort and risk, that there is real harm happening, and that allyship can’t be performative. You don’t just put up a safe space poster and declare yourself an ally. The community you’re supporting affirms you as an ally after sustained, meaningful actions that demonstrate your steadfast support, not only when it’s a fun party, but also when it’s a painful slog. There’s irony in the fact that protesters claim they’re trying to protect children, but they’re the ones that 2SLGBTQ+ children need protection from. Pushback only reinforces why the work is needed.
The language of parental rights is also being used to target the rainbow community. This is a blatant dog whistle for anti-trans sentiment in particular. Children have the right to determine their own identities and schools are often the only place where they feel safe enough to share their unfurling understanding of themselves. The queer community has a distinctive experience of growing up without role models. Sadly, our parents and our faith communities are sometimes our worst oppressors. So while a racialized child can usually look to their parents for role models of how to navigate a racist world, and a child of faith can turn to their religion for solace in times of struggle, 2SLGBTQ+ people don’t always have a place to turn. Even if our parents are fully supportive, they don’t necessarily know how to walk through the world with a rainbow identity. And even if our particular faith community is supportive, chances are there are plenty of others who claim that same religious identity who are not. So 2SLGBTQ+ people have to find “chosen family” and other role models. Teachers often play this pivotal role in rainbow children’s lives by modelling acceptance of everyone. Most of the trans students I’ve taught have shared how their parents don’t understand, don’t approve, or are struggling to accept their identity. It’s painful to watch their struggle, but as caring adults “in loco parentis,” we can hold space for their self-exploration, affirm their right to be themselves, and honour their courage in the process of self-discovery.
The time for silence or uncertainty is long past. The 2SLGBTQ+ students, families and staff in your building need you right now, arguably more than ever. As hatred is ramping up and becoming louder, our collective support and respect for human diversity must become louder too. We need to hold the line together as teachers, standing up for some of our most vulnerable students. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Public education is for everyone. 2SLGBTQ+ youth need us to stand with them, to stand up for them, to show that we mean it when we say that we all belong.
Melissa Sky is a member of Waterloo Region Teacher Local.