Celebrating differences

Parents, teachers, and community all have a part to play in the discussion about gender and sexual diversity

By Suzanne Rent

When Adam Myatt visits schools to talk about gender identity, the students speak their minds pretty quickly. 

During his classroom sessions, Myatt, who is a community educator with The Youth Project in Halifax, creates lists of what items and activities are often associated with each gender: Boys like blue, trucks, army toys, and video games. Girls like pink, dolls, makeup, and shopping. But Myatt says those lists don’t sit well with the young children.

“It’s my favourite thing to do,” Myatt says. “They are so angry about what they are told they are supposed to do. They know what they like, they know what they want to do, and they’re not happy. It’s really great to see them challenge this stuff.”

For more than 20 years, The Youth Project has been a resource for young people questioning their gender identities and sexual orientations. 

Kate Shewan, executive director at The Youth Project, says 20 years ago, the youth looking for support ranged between the ages of 20 and 25. These days, they are between the ages of 13 and 18. Shewan says that signals a larger acceptance by society of issues surrounding gender and sexuality. 

“It’s more of a snowball,” she says. “Then more people come out, there’s more visibility and more destigmatization. Then it becomes much more accepted in society.”

That discussion has been taking place in schools, too, with The Youth Project serving as one of the resources used to help develop the sexual-health curriculum. 

In Grades Primary to 3, the discussions focus on stereotypical gender roles. For example, what activities, toys, and jobs are expected of boys and girls. 

“Those are easy ones for children to understand,” says Natalie Flinn, an active healthy living consultant with the department of education who worked on the curriculum.  

In Grades 4 to 6, the discussions revolve around gender roles in society, how those roles are presented in media and entertainment, and a better understanding that we all have of gender identity, but it doesn’t always match how we feel inside.

“What’s important is, first of all, naming it, that that’s what that is and it exists, and that it’s normal and OK to feel that way and there are places you can reach out to for help,” Flinn says. 

Flinn says these conversations are important during these later elementary grades because that’s when puberty begins its onset. And that can provide children who are questioning their gender with challenges. Suddenly, a young body is developing in a way that goes against how a young person feels internally or emotionally. 

“Not because it’s not normal,” Flinn says. “But because puberty can be presented in a way that is not inclusive for everyone.”

How gender is portrayed in the media is especially important for parents and children to understand. According to Joanne Syms, coordinator of anti-bullying and the Youth Advisory Council for the province of Nova Scotia, children are exposed to hundreds, if not thousands of images of gender and sexuality a day, all of which are bound to shape their larger understanding of it. 

Parents, she adds, often underestimate the media’s influence. “I think it’s become normal for all of us,” Syms says. 

For parents who worry their children are too young to be learning about gender diversity in the early elementary years, Syms says research says that even at age three, our gender is set and children have a sense of who they are. “It’s become a human right,” Syms says of gender identification. “And I don’t think children are ever too young to learn about human rights.”

“We never say a child is too young to teach them about the colour of their skin,” Flinn continues. “We need to think about gender in the same terms.”

Teachers play a key part in the discussion. Myatt says when he was in high school, he learned about the writing of Oscar Wilde. But he didn’t learn Wilde was gay. He says as a young person who identified as gay, that would have helped him understand there were others like him. Teachers, he says, should make gender and sexual identity a discussion in many parts of the curriculum.

“I think the biggest thing a teacher can do is not just talk about this once,” Myatt says. “They only talk about LGBTQ once, in health class. First of all, it sexualizes being transgender. Who we are and who we are attracted to are two different things.”

Teachers should be aware of the language they use in their classrooms, particularly if that language divides by gender. “It’s everything from, ‘OK guys, let’s listen,’ and it’s really about moving from that binary, male-and-female, and being more inclusive,” Syms says.

Students now drive the discussion around gender diversity and acceptance. “If you say male identified and female identified, it’s OK if it doesn’t match,” Flinn says. “And if a brave young person goes into the group that doesn’t match what people know and see how they present, most of the kids (what we are finding) say, ‘That’s cool.’”

More than 65 per cent of high schools in the province have gender-sexual alliances (GSAs). Students in junior-high schools and even elementary schools are forming GSAs as well. 

But parents remain a child’s first teacher on these issues. When children question their identities, it will be the little things parents do that count in terms of how a child feels supported. Shewan says parents need to listen to their children, tell them they love them and that won’t change. 

“I think the important thing for parents to do is follow their kids’ leads and support their kids,” Shewan says. “In how they are identifying and in whatever they are interested in. It sounds simple, but support them in what they are telling them, instead of challenging them and telling them they are wrong.”

Parents, Shewan says, have difficulty letting go of the decision-making they do often for their children. “It’s a major life decision where the parent has to take a step back and say, ‘Okay, I trust you,’” she says. “That’s a struggle for a lot of parents.

Shewan says the concern is greater for parents of children who are transgender. They often believe it’s a phase their child will grow out of. “If you start talking about medical transitions, that adds a whole other dimension,” Shewan says. “There’s a lot of trust needed by parents. A lot of parents struggle with that level of trust.”

And while it’s crucial for kids to understand and have support when they are questioning, they also need to learn to be a bystander. 

“Friendships are incredibly protective factors for children and youth,” Flinn says. “It’s very important to have those conversations about helping and supporting a friend who’s questioning. One of the key messages is around the responsibility of a bystander and what makes a good friend. Sometimes a friend will come to you first, or test you first to see if someone will still care for them. How we respond to that friend is very significant.”

Parents can help schools by supporting administrators who open the door for discussion on gender issues. When schools invite Myatt in for a talk, for example, Shewan says parents should tell administrators how much they appreciate the school opening the door to discussion. “I don’t think parents realize how much influence they can have on the schools,” Shewan says. “Typically, it’s parents’ [negative] reaction that administration are scared of.”

When talking about gender and sexual diversity, it’s best to just start talking. “The important thing to remember is no one knows everything,” Myatt says. “But trying to have a conversation is better than not having it at all.”   

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