Understanding pronouns

Helping the 2SLGBTQIA+ teen community better express its identity

By Lindsey Bunin

Photography by Bruce Murray/VisionFire

Early in the school year, my junior high-aged son came home from school to proclaim he “has a very rainbow class this year.” I asked him to explain, and he told me all about the various kids he’d had the opportunity to meet (since the junior high is a mashup of different elementary schools) and he now knows kids who are trans, non-binary and gay.

What a wonderful world, I thought. My son is having the important experience of learning about gender and sexual orientation in a healthy way and these differences are as common to him as one kid who wears glasses, versus one kid who doesn’t.

Then I wondered if all families received that information in the same way I did. 

I contacted Cynthia Sweeney, founder of Simply Good Form, a group that teaches about equity, diversity and inclusion. She and her family started their gender journey in 2017 when her youngest child expressed that they were transgender in the later years of elementary school.

“We didn’t know a lot about gender identity because we didn’t really have to think about that,” she says. “I’m cis gender myself. That means when they assigned my sex at birth, the doctor proclaimed, ‘It’s a girl!’ That aligned with my gender identity growing up and because of that I was able to take it for granted for so many years … but it’s not that way for so many people who identify under the trans and non-binary umbrella.”

Sweeney describes the moment when her child explained who they are as a “ground-zero point of learning for all of us.”

Their child had been learning about gender identity in school as their class read George, a children’s novel about a young transgender girl, by Alex Gino and it was a lightbulb moment for them.

Sweeney started the search for information and resources for both her family and her child, and immediately felt passionate about helping other parents.

As she learned more, she started to realize the systems in our communities were, in some cases, doing more harm than good. She originally started Simply Good Form as a blog to make information more accessible, and it quickly evolved to a full-scope educational consultancy for businesses and schools.

“Children generally know their gender identity from a really young age and the pressure to conform is so strong; it can feel necessary to suppress those feelings in order to be accepted,” she says. “So, I wanted to be able to educate businesses and schools because it’s really important that people understand how to be inclusive and accepting.”

She asked me if I’d been taught about gender identity when I was growing up in the ’80s and I said no. She hadn’t either. She made the point that a lot of parents were never taught about it growing up and that can lead to fears and uncertainty because it’s something many of us have never encountered. 

“I think a lot of people our age feel shame about what they don’t understand and are afraid to ask questions. They disengage because of fear and that ultimately perpetuates the isolation for the other person. It’s great to be able to be open and say, ‘I’m learning.’”

Cynthia Sweeney is the founder of Simply Good Form, a group that teaches about equity, diversity and inclusion.

Samantha Nielsen, a Grade 7 and 8 Healthy Living and Core French teacher at Sackville Heights Junior High, says she has recognized an increase of discussion around pronouns in the school setting in recent years.

“While I am a cis-gendered straight woman, I recognize that gender identity has become an important aspect of expressing teen identity for my students and young people everywhere,” she says. “In Healthy Living, we often discuss gender and sexuality as a fundamental aspect of our identity. Both my 2SLGBTQIA+ students and my cis-gendered students seem educated on this topic and are able to engage in this discussion.”   

Nielsen sees this distinction in her French classes as well, as students learn to apply pronouns appropriately in two languages. She explains that while English pronouns use they/them or ze/zir and other non-traditional terms, French uses the pronoun “Iel,” which is a combination of il and elle. 

Of her approximately 200 students, Nielsen estimates about 25 openly identify as non-binary, genderqueer or transgender, and use they/them pronouns or pronouns that differ from their sex assigned at birth. A number of students also use fluid pronouns, for example: she/he/them.

Correspondence with parents can be tricky, says Nielsen. “While we have many amazing parents who fully understand the importance of allowing gender identity expression, we also have parents who may not understand how this can be a large part of a child’s sense of self.” 

It’s common practice, Nielsen explains, for teachers to collect an “All About Me” sheet at the start of the year, and many educators have added a section about pronouns and preferred name at school and home. 

“One of the first rules of my classroom is ‘no intentional misgendering or deadnaming,’” says Nielsen. Deadnaming is when someone — intentionally or not — refers to a person who is transgender by the name they used before transitioning. “This is to show solidarity with my 2SLGBTQIA+ students. I also discuss why I think this is important and how my room is a safe space for all students.”

Beyond the classroom, some local business owners have chosen to create safe spaces
for customers.

Cape and Cowl Comics and Collectibles in Lower Sackville is a trans-owned business that makes acceptance part of its mission.

“Cape and Cowl is a bunch of my favourite things wrapped up into one place,” says owner Jay Aaron Roy. “It’s part comics and collectibles shop, part artist consignment shop, part youth drop-in centre, part community space, part proud social justice messenger and represents my whole personality.”

Cape and Cowl’s safe space is called “The Leighann Wichman Safe Place” after a friend of Roy’s who helped many find their path forward. The shop also has a separate office for a community registered social worker with the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

“The whole shop is a safe place, really. People can rest knowing they are in a space where they will be respected, their gender won’t be assumed, and we have lots of fun distractions if they are stressed. We also have an accessible gender-neutral washroom.”

Roy has been able to see first-hand the impact of safe spaces within his community. 

“It saves lives. I’ve received hundreds of messages, maybe thousands now, over the last seven years thanking me and telling me that my drop-in space made all the difference in the lives of their friends and family.” 

Roy says having a space like this was always inevitable. His mom created a space for him to be himself when he was a young kid, and Leighann helped him embrace “the me I knew was inside.”

Drawing from Leighann’s guidance, Roy believes it’s most important for us to listen to the youth around us and in our communities.

Jay Aaron Roy is the owner of Cape and Cowl Comics and Collectibles in Lower Sackville. The shop is a trans-owned business that makes acceptance part of its mission.

“Do you remember being young?” asks Roy. “Do you remember having something that felt really important to you that no adult would listen to? Youth still feel that about adults today. All the time. So, sit and listen to the youth. They will show you the path to a greater future; one that is more accepting and understands it takes nothing away from you to use a name and pronoun that makes someone else smile instead of frown.”

Nielsen says that in response to feedback from the students, her administration and the Halifax Regional Centre for Education have allowed the staff at her school to select professional development topics based on issues that are most suited to their school community. 

“We have a number of non-binary, genderqueer and transgender students, along with a thriving community of 2SLGBTQIA+ students,” says Nielsen. “Because of this, we invited the Youth Project to come in and discuss pronouns and other issues students within this community face at school.”

She says that because the presenter was a transgender woman herself, they were able to better understand and learn from someone who could identify with the kids. 

In addition to advocating for professional development opportunities, Nielsen also created a 2SLGBTQIA+ dictionary for her school to arm students with the vernacular to show respect
and acceptance. 

“Two of my non-binary students asked to look it over and felt comfortable enough to sit down with me and edit the pages,” says Nielsen. While Nielsen works to create a positive environment for her students, she recognizes that “there will always be parents who do not agree with or understand the choices their child makes. The work we do every day isn’t to change the minds of those who disagree, but to affirm, respect and show support for the students we work with directly every day.”

Sweeney agrees.

“It’s critically important to listen to our children, to respect them and support them as they show us who they are and who they want to be in the world,” she says. “As parents and caregivers, we have a tremendous ability to mold and guide our children and it’s so important to be cognizant, and to not stifle them from being their authentic selves.”

She acknowledges that it’s often hard. 

“We love seeing ourselves in our children and when our child shows us something different than what we expected or wanted, it can be scary,” says Sweeney. “When transgendered children are loved and accepted, they have the same healthy outcomes as cis-gendered children. Statistics of depression, anxiety and self-harm essentially go away when the child has the right support in their corner.”  

The Pink Balloon

Cynthia Sweeney co-wrote a children’s book with BriAnna Simons about gender identity called The Pink Balloon. She also recommends these books as resources for families looking to learn about gender.

  • It Feels Good To Be Yourself by Theresa Thorn
  • What Are Your Words by Katherine Locke 
  • My Rainbow by DeShanna Neil
  • I Love My Purse by Belle DeMont
  • George by Alex Gino
  • The Other Boy by M.G. Hennessey
  • If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

Simply Good Form has a lending library of books to help families learn about gender. For more information, visit simplygoodform.ca

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