As someone who identifies as neither male nor female, 17-year-old Roan Reimer sees the world largely as a hostile place. Although surrounded by supportive family members and friends, the high-school student has experienced all kinds of abuse because of being “genderqueer”.
“I’ve been verbally and physically harassed by strangers around the city,” the Vancouver resident tells the Georgia Straight. “Someone once spit on me and called me a ‘fucking tranny’ when I was on the seawall. I’ve been kicked out of or asked to leave washrooms many times. I’m often given odd looks. The world is not a particularly safe or welcoming place for many people in the LGBTQ-plus community, and this especially so for transgender or gender-nonconforming folks.”
Schools can be just as threatening an environment, which is why Reimer supports the Vancouver school board’s proposed updates to its 2004 sexual orientation and gender identities policy.
According to the policy statement, the board “is committed to establishing and maintaining a safe, inclusive, equitable, and welcoming learning and working environment for all members of the school community, including all students and employees who identify as (or are perceived as) lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, Two Spirit, intersex, queer and those who are questioning their sexual orientation and/or gender identity”.
Ever since draft revisions were released in April, however, a firestorm has ensued, thwarting the board’s initial recommendation for approval at its May 20 meeting. Two public meetings have turned out to be so packed, and the debate so heated, that another is taking place on Thursday (May 29).
The board is expected to vote on the proposed changes in June.
The revisions call for a range of measures, such as providing trans students with the opportunity to participate in any sex-segregated activities according to their gender identity if they so choose and with washrooms and change rooms that correspond to their gender identity.
But those recommendations aren’t what have some parents so riled. Rather, it’s the suggestion that students who may be experiencing gender dysphoria (which is characterized by a marked difference between the individual’s expressed gender and the gender others would assign him or her) or other gender-identity issues have the right to confidentiality.
The updates state that district staff are to, “wherever possible and appropriate”, recognize and protect students’ rights “to discuss and express their gender identity and/or gender expression openly and to decide when, with whom, and how much private information to share”.
Cheryl Chang, who is the chair of the parents’ advisory committee at Lord Byng Secondary School and who has galvanized opposition to the draft policy, wants a vote on it deferred until the board consults with medical professionals about gender dysphoria and other gender-identity issues. In a letter to the VSB posted on her website, Protecting All Children in School, she describes the policy as flawed and says that supporting it would be using children “in some sort of social experiment that could have long-term negative repercussions”. She says that if a student discusses gender orientation with a teacher or counsellor, that staff member should divulge that information to the parents.
“The key concern is really about parenting issues, and what this policy does is take over the parents’ right to parent,” Chang says in a phone interview with the Straight. “This whole clause around confidentiality is just unacceptable to parents because we send our children to school to be educated, not to be parented. And what they’re doing with this policy is really taking over that role by saying, ‘We’re going to allow these children to act in a certain way that we think is appropriate, and because we don’t think parents might agree, we’re going to keep this information from the parents.’ That’s a breach of the School Act.
“The School Act says the parent is entitled to be informed about their child’s behaviour, so it’s completely inappropriate for teachers to take on this confidentiality relationship like a doctor-patient or a lawyer-client. Those are legislated. This is a policy that goes against the legislation.”
Chang, who says that she and other parents who share her views have been unfairly and falsely labelled as homophobic and transphobic, says that politics are fuelling the controversy.
“The Vision board is really using this for the politics of division,” she says, before later adding: “They’re just trying to drive a wedge so it’s parents versus the LGBT community, and therefore they represent human rights and parents are homophobic. This is all because an election is coming in November. It is appalling.”
She says that because adolescence can be such a tumultuous period, it’s especially important that parents be involved if or when their kids are dealing with gender dysphoria or related identity issues.
“Every story of success that we’ve heard in these [VSB] meetings, the parents were involved, the doctors were involved, the psychologists were involved,” Chang claims. “This policy removes all of that and lets the teacher make decisions about what’s right, what is the orientation, what is this child’s situation….We need the parents to be involved to be able to work with those children towards successes no matter what their situation.”
Others, however, say that it’s crucial that all youth have a safe place to divulge personal information if they choose to and that they’re able to trust that teachers or counsellors will respect their privacy regardless of what they may be dealing with: maybe they want information about sex or an unplanned pregnancy, for example. Privacy is especially important to those who are trans or “gender nonconforming”.
According to the National Climate Survey on Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia in Canadian Schools, a 2011 report by Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, 79 percent of transgender students regard parts of their schools, such as washrooms and corridors, as being unsafe for LGBTQ students. Seventy-four percent of transgender students have been verbally harassed about their gender expression and 37 percent have been physically harassed.
Youth with gender dysphoria have high attempted-suicide rates, according to the U.S. 2010 National Transgender Discrimination Survey Report on Health and Health Care: 45 percent for those aged 18 to 44, compared to the national average of 1.6 percent.
Gayle Roberts, coauthor of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation’s (CTF) Supporting Transgender and Transsexual Students in K-12 Schools: A Guide for Educators, says that breaching the confidentiality of youth with gender dysphoria or other gender-identity issues could have negative consequences.
“That could be harmful because some parents will disown their children,” Roberts says by phone. “School personnel—counsellors, administration, teachers—are trying their very best to support a child in all sorts of things; it doesn’t have to be this particular issue. They could, by revealing confidential information to parents, be putting that child in harm’s way.
“If students know that whatever they discuss with their counsellors will be reported to their parents, they may be less likely to talk about issues they need to address,” she adds. “So if a gender-variant student knows he has parents who will disown him or kick him out of the house…the student may not do so and may not get the support he or she needs. This may result in self-harm or suicide. Many street youth are LGBT and are there [on the street] because of nonsupportive parents. Naturally, if the counsellor learns that the child can talk safely to the parents, then the ideal situation can occur: interactions between the gender-variant child, his or her parents, and the school system.”
Roberts—who, in 1996 at age 55, was the first Vancouver teacher to transition genders while on the job and who taught at Lord Byng from 1983 to 2002—says that the proposed policy updates are in line with what’s considered best practices, including guidelines already embraced by the CTF and the Public Health Agency of Canada, among other organizations.
The New York City Department of Education adopted a trans-inclusive policy earlier this year, and she hopes to see boards elsewhere follow suit.
Roberts, who is the former chair of Vancouver Coastal Health’s advisory group to the Trans Health Program, says she wasn’t able to come out sooner because of the immense shame she felt about wanting to be female. Although her transition was smooth, that’s not the case for everyone.
“The important thing is we’re trying to support our children for the best possible outcomes in their lives,” she says.
Shelley Sullivan, department head of counselling and student services at Lord Byng, says the confidentiality clause is misunderstood by those who oppose it.
“The policy language simply puts what has already been in practice for a decade, at least, into writing,” Sullivan says by phone. “It’s aligning policy language with current practice. Essentially, students are afforded confidentiality and privacy and have been since I can’t even remember when.”
She says that common law, human-rights laws, and other laws inform the issue of confidentiality. The Infants’ Act, which is used by health-care professionals to determine confidentiality rights, for example, requires, among other things, that a child be able to understand a proposed treatment and its risks and benefits and must also have the capacity to give consent. Also, the treatment provider must believe it’s in the best interests of the child. Counsellors, like other professionals, are compelled to breach confidentiality if students are at risk of harming themselves or others or are being abused by others, or if a judge issues a subpoena.
“The counsellor has to determine: does the child have the ability to understand risks and benefits [of confidential counselling at school] to be able to give consent,” Sullivan says. “I would argue, and so would probably every professional in the province, that high-school-aged students absolutely have that ability.
“We know that LGBTQ youth experience more environmental stress…and a much higher prevalence of mental-health disorders…and stress that’s created by the environment, the community around them,” she adds. “What this policy does very well is ensure that trans kids and LGBTQ kids are treated in the same fashion as everyone else; they are recognized for however they self-identify just like everybody else.
“The bottom line is we want every child to feel safe; we want every child to feel that they belong…. It’s our obligation to all kids to provide them with everything they need to feel safe and secure here. It’s our obligation. It’s a statutory obligation and it’s an ethical obligation. The foundation of everything in the policy is in human-rights law, in the Charter [of Human Rights], in the School Act, in Freedom of Information and Privacy Act, and common law.”
Sullivan notes that if children don’t feel comfortable or able to talk to their parents, a key goal of counselling is to help them get to that point. “We help the youth repair that relationship and work toward the goal of involving their parents. We all know parents love their kids; the more supportive people in the kids’ lives the better. The point of counselling is not to exclude parents but to support the child until the child is able to include the parent.”
Fiona Chen is a “very, very proud” mother of a gender-nonconforming child. Her child used to suffer from severe anxiety and depression and at age 10 revealed that she wanted to be a he. That was six months ago. Chen and staff at his school have supported him from the start, and his mom says she’s seen tremendous improvement in his mental health and self-confidence as a result. She says the revised policy will help make the world a safer place for kids like hers.
“For a long time, my child had very dry lips, and I didn’t know why,” Chen says. “He would not drink any water at school to avoid using the washrooms….I strongly believe in the urgency in passing this policy. I…believe these policies will provide a safer learning environment for my child and other kids.”
Agreeing with Chang, meanwhile, is John Stackhouse Jr. Described on his website as a “leading interpreter of Christianity”, his letter to the VSB is posted on Chang’s website. In it, he says that teachers are already busy enough without having to “take sides in complex and unresolved social and medical questions such as this one”.
“Let them teach their subjects well, and refer troubled children to appropriate mental health resources,” Stackhouse writes. “Gender dysphoria is a matter disputed at the highest levels of psychological and psychiatric expertise. The most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) only begins to reflect the deep differences among the top experts in this field. For the VSB to run ahead of the experts here would be dangerous and arrogant. And it could well open up the VSB to lawsuits we can ill afford.”
Lawyer barbara findlay says that the proposed policy reflects human-rights laws and that antibullying policies aren’t enough to meet the needs of LGBTQ-plus youth in schools.
“Going to school as a trans kid is navigating a really hostile environment,” findlay says in a phone interview. “The school’s first obligation is to keep the child safe and educated. The most important thing is for kids to be safe.
“If a child were to say to a teacher, ‘I think I’m gay,’ that teacher is not obliged to talk to the parents,” adds findlay, who’s a member of the B.C. Safer Schools Coalition, which formed this month to show support for the VSB proposed guidelines.
“The same applies for kids wondering about their gender identity. What I would say to the families who are concerned is this: I feel confident that your families are loving and supportive families who would go to the end of the Earth to protect the interests of your child if your child was transgender, but you have to understand not all families are like that, because there are some who are not. There are some where a child faces danger. This policy keeps everybody safe.”
Michael Wilkinson, this year’s valedictorian at Lord Byng, identifies as gay and came out at the end of Grade 10. The first person he told was his school counsellor.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to say; I broke down in tears because of the emotion,” he adds. “It changed my life. I was able to tell my best friend and I told my parents….I received nothing but love and support.
“For someone who’s coming out, the sheer fact that that kid is sharing that shows the amount of trust they have in that person, and if that trust were broken… If my counsellor had told my parents, it probably would have been a different journey. I know they would have still supported me, but it’s something the student needs to be able to share with their parents when they’re ready.
“Coming out as gay or lesbian, I think, is quite different than coming out as transgender,” he adds. “I think it [the latter] is a harder process. Having a support system that’s an adult, someone who’s mature—who may know what it feels like or can still empathize to go through that process with—is absolutely important in a high-school setting. Some of the people I trust the most in my life are my teachers and my counsellors.”