With physical and legislative attacks rising against the LGBTQ2 community in Canada and around the world, advocates say education is the answer to removing the stigmas that lead to hate.
A record number of anti-LGBTQ2 bills have been introduced and passed in several states across the U.S., and protests against drag shows and diversity programs in schools are on the rise in Canada as well.
The United Nations is encouraging governments to update their education policies in order to combat the misinformation that leads to hate speech and discrimination, echoing calls to action by pro-LGBTQ2 groups like Egale Canada.
Their calls come as the number of police-reported hate crimes based on sexual orientation rose nearly 60 per cent between 2019 and 2021 to the highest level in five years, Statistics Canada says.
Global News spoke to members of the LGBTQ2 community about some of the most common myths about drag, transgender people and children’s education fueling much of the current discourse.
Here’s what they had to say.
The claim: Drag is always sexual
A key measure of the anti-drag legislation being pursued across the U.S. is to prohibit drag performances in public places where minors are present.
One bill introduced in Texas, for example, would extend the definition of “sexually-oriented businesses” to include places that allow performers to show a “gender identity that is different than the performer’s gender assigned at birth.” That could mean all-ages venues like coffee shops and libraries would have to get special licensing or stop hosting drag events.
But drag performers say classifying all drag as sexual is misguided, explaining there are many different types of performances — most of which are suitable for the whole family.
“You wouldn’t take your kids to see every single movie,” said Kendall Gender, a Vancouver drag queen who competed on Canada’s Drag Race. “You wouldn’t bring them to every single concert. … It is an art form, and there are different degrees of this art form.”
Synthia Kiss, another Canada’s Drag Race contestant, often performs all-ages content on stage or in videos to her social media. She recently partnered with the Metro Vancouver Regional District on a plastic waste awareness campaign dressed as a superhero, with not a hint of sexual content. Catering her performance to her audience is part of her job, she told Global News.
“We’re not just ambushing different spaces and pushing an agenda,” she said. “We just want to entertain and make people happy.”
While some drag performances can be sexual in an adult-only venue, events aimed at families or children are completely innocent, performers say.
“To me, it’s no different than going to Disneyland and having a cisgender woman dressing up as a princess, because I promise you, to these kids, that situation to them is exactly the same,” Gender said.
The claim: All drag performers are transgender
Some of the backlash against drag has been mixed into attacks against transgender people. But while there can be some overlap, they are two different things.
“The basic difference … is that someone who is transgender authentically lives as that gender all the time,” Gender said. “It is not a facade or a costume as it is in the drag world.”
Think of drag as playing a character, Gender adds — something exclusively different from gender ideology.
Some drag performers have later realized they identify as a gender more aligned with their drag persona, and some have even transitioned. But a majority of performers keep their character separate from their real-world selves.
Kiss says the “Venn diagram” between drag and transgender can confuse people because of the increased visibility of both groups, making education all the more important.
“It would be like saying every person who’s funny is a comedian,” she said.
The claim: Gender-affirming care is irreversible or ‘mutilating’
Several U.S. state legislatures and anti-trans activists have sought to limit or ban gender-affirming care for minors, sometimes describing the surgeries as “mutilating.”
But gender-affirming care is not just surgical, and can involve many other steps and procedures before reaching that stage. Those can include small changes like using a different name or pronoun and changing their style of dress, and also hormone therapies and puberty-blocking medications like Lupron.
Adrienne Smith, a Vancouver-based social justice lawyer who works with Trans Care BC — part of the B.C. Provincial Health Authority — notes Lupron has been used safely by cisgender girls for decades in the event of early menstruation, among other uses.
“There’s no one size fits all model for how to transition,” Smith said. “Not everybody transitions medically … and some people may never undergo any kind of medical transition at all.”
Allowing a transgender person to go through with some form of transition, whether it be social or medical, has been proven to reduce the risk of suicide and self-harm. That includes children, who Smith says may need something as simple as an acknowledgement from their family that they identify as a different gender.
“The consequences of waiting can be dire,” they said. “Puberty is difficult for everybody, but for trans folks — where it’s going to make your body develop in a way that doesn’t align with who you know you are — that can cause incredible psychiatric distress, which can be fatal.”
The claim: Gender-affirming care can be done in secret or without parental consent
For trans children, Smith says, “Obviously the health-care provider has a conversation with the young person and the family to make sure that (puberty blockers are) going to be appropriate for them.”
“If, for whatever reason, the young person decides this isn’t appropriate for them, we stop it,” they added, and the process is “absolutely” reversible.
Provinces and territories do, however, require patients consult with their primary health-care provider, which can be followed by subsequent assessments by specialists before a treatment plan is agreed to and started. The number of required consultations varies by jurisdiction.
People who seek gender-affirming medical care can also face lengthy wait times just for an assessment. For some procedures, patients are forced to wait for more than a year or even two — making the claim of secretive or forceful surgeries all the more frustrating to advocates like Smith.
“This is not optional or cosmetic,” they said. “It’s life-saving surgical procedures that people very desperately need.”
The claim: Letting trans people use gender-specific bathrooms poses a safety risk
Another common argument by proponents of restrictions on transgender people is the false belief they will use their gender identity to gain entry to gender-specific washrooms or change rooms to commit sexual assault.
The claim has fueled so-called “bathroom bills” requiring people to use facilities aligned with the gender assigned to them at birth. When North Carolina passed such a bill in 2016 in reaction to a Charlotte City Council nondiscrimination ordinance, the state’s Republican governor Pat McCrory said the local measure would put people — specifically women — “in possible danger from deviant actions by individuals taking improper advantage of a bad policy.” The bathroom portion of the bill was repealed a year later.
In fact, there is no evidence that allowing transgender people to use facilities that align with their gender identity leads to safety risks for others. On the contrary, transgender people are far more likely to experience sexual assault than cisgender people, according to multiple studies.
“It’s trans women and trans feminine folks who are most vulnerable in bathrooms because they’re likely to be assaulted by the people who are in those bathrooms,” Smith said.
“Trans people are particularly concerned about stopping sex assault because it happens to us at disproportionate rates.”
Other states including Arkansas, Idaho and Iowa have passed similar legislation this year alone that separates bathrooms based on biological sex, rather than gender identity.
Smith said such legislation “is going to force trans women into men’s toilet spaces, and that presents a danger for them.”
The claim: LGBTQ2 people are ‘grooming’ children to change their sexuality or gender
By far, one of the biggest myths targeting the LGBTQ2 community is that they are “grooming” children to join them and turn them queer or transgender. Some claims have even been made that LGBTQ2 people are pedophiles.
But advocates say the “scare tactic,” while effective, is “nonsense.”
“Nobody taught me how to be gay,” said Colin McKenna, executive director of PFlag Vancouver, an organization that helps educate families to accept LGBTQ2 children and support the community.
“Nobody recruited me, nobody came to my door and said, ‘Hi, we’re from the Blah Blah Blah Organization of Gay People and we’d love you to join.’ It doesn’t work that way.”
The problem, McKenna says, is that people are conflating the act of teaching kids how to accept themselves and others with an insidious plot to brainwash those children.
That ignores the real need for diversity and inclusion education that LGBTQ2 adults say would have helped them when they were younger.
When protests against British Columbia’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity education policy erupted in 2017, McKenna penned an open letter in the local media detailing how he would have benefitted from the program as a young student questioning his identity.
The policy, commonly known as SOGI 123, provides teachers with resources to help foster classroom conversations about diversity and inclusion for LGBTQ2 youth, including concepts surrounding gender identity and sexual orientation.
He tells Global News having that kind of dialogue in school “would have saved probably 10 years of my life in trying to figure out who I was.”
“It’s not a choice,” he said. “It’s not something that someone’s going to groom you to be or teach you or coerce you in any way. It’s just who you are.”