‘Life or death’: LGBTQ2 people warn on dangers of school pronoun policy changes

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‘Life or death’: LGBTQ2 people warn education policy changes on pronouns, names pose dangers
WATCH: LGBTQ2 people warn education policy changes on pronouns, names pose dangers – Sep 1, 2023

As debate continues over policies requiring parental consent for youth under 16 to change their name or preferred pronouns in some schools, members of Canada’s LGBTQ2 community say such legislation could put some at risk of abuse, harassment or even homelessness.

The concerns come as Saskatchewan and New Brunswick recently put in place such laws.

When asked earlier this week about whether Ontario will implement similar policies, the province’s education minister said parents should be “fully involved” in “life-changing” decisions involving their children.

But some LGBTQ2 youth say it’s not always an easy conversation to have.

Searlait Finley, a 19-year-old who recently graduated high school in Saskatoon, says while she had a positive experience when she came out to her own parents, not everyone gets that reception. Finley said she initially came out as bisexual in Grade Seven, before later coming out as both pansexual – meaning they are attracted to someone of any sex or gender identity – and demisexual, which means she also must have a friendship with the person before they will develop a romantic or sexual attraction to someone.

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“I’ve seen in several situations with my closer friends. When they do come out or when they are forced out it, can completely turn your life around and near-ruin your life if you can’t get back on your feet,” she explained.

“When parents don’t accept, they can either be verbally and physically and just emotionally abusive towards their child afterwards. And even around that age as well, when you’re like 16, 17, you can get booted out.”

Click to play video: '‘Parents must be fully involved’ in students’ decision to change pronouns: Ontario education minister'
‘Parents must be fully involved’ in students’ decision to change pronouns: Ontario education minister

According to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness — in collaboration with A Way Home Canada, a coalition that works to reimagine solutions to youth homelessness — LGBTQ2 youth are overrepresented  among homeless youth, with about 40 per cent of this age group identifying as such.

In addition, a book published by the two organizations in 2017 found LGBTQ2 youth were more likely to say that they were homeless or “street involved” due to an “inability to get along with their parents, compared to heterosexual cisgender youth.”

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What led to the policy changes

Saskatchewan was the most recent province to change its policy around pronoun use and name changes. In August, it started requiring teachers to first seek permission from those students’ parents.

The provincial government says the change originated out of concerns from parents and a desire to apply one uniform policy across all school divisions. 

However, a byelection in August in the riding of Lumsden-Morse saw the governing Saskatchewan Party keep the riding but lose almost 20 per cent of its support from the previous provincial election to the Saskatchewan United Party, which campaigned on the issue of “parental rights,” a topic that has often been a central point to these policies.

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New Brunswick saw an uproar when Premier Blaine Higgs changed the province’s policy in June this year, which had previously made it mandatory for teachers to use a student’s preferred pronouns and names.

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But following a scathing report from the province’s child and youth advocate, who warned the changes risk violating children’s rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the province made it so psychologists, social workers and other school professionals do not need parental consent, though it doubled down on other central elements of its policy.

Making decisions 'on their own timeline'

Being 19 and a graduate, Finley won’t be impacted by this policy change, but she says based on her own experience and that of her friends in the LGBTQ2 community, such policies won’t help youth.

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“There’s no good that can really come from it, especially towards the actual child themselves,” she said. “It can cause a lot of stress and possible suicides to occur within, more especially trans youth who this would be affecting a lot more as for, like, the name-changing.”

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Finley added that she lost a friend who died as a result of a “lack of familial supports and emotional abuse that led to them taking their life.”

In 2018, a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found transgender youth who are able to use their preferred names and pronouns reported a 34 per cent drop in suicidal thoughts and a 65 per cent decrease in suicide attempts.

Finley urged parents to be more accepting of who their child is because it can create a better relationship by going through their child’s journey with them.

“Instead of just completely shunning the idea of them changing in the slightest, you’d be able to get to know your kid more,” she said.

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Jaime Sadgrove with the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity, said opposition to the policies is not about preventing parents from being involved in their children’s lives.

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“I think it’s really important for parents to be involved in decisions around their children and how their children are identifying,” Sadgrove, who identifies as non-binary, said.

“It’s also important for kids to be able to make those decisions on their own timeline.”

They added there could be a lot of factors behind why the child is not ready to tell their parent.

“If a youth is not necessarily ready to tell a parent about that name change, wondering why maybe that is, and making sure there are safe environments where youth can explore their identity without having to think about the repercussions at home.”

Teachers and other in-school professionals at times also become a person who LGBTQ2 youth can speak to when they may not feel comfortable speaking with their parent, Ottawa-Carleton District School Board chair Lyra Evans told Global News.

Evans, who identifies as a transgender woman, said having those “trusted adults” is important, but these policies in turn take away that resource they may have turned to at school.

She added students who might be seeking mental health support or someone who can ensure they are feeling safe and supported won’t be able to get that support anymore.

“Those kinds of conversations can’t happen if you can’t talk to any adult in your life,” she said.

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“That’s going to have a detrimental impact on mental health rates, it’s going to have detrimental impacts on suicide rates … It will have real world implications if these kinds of policies are passed.”

Creating a safe space

One of the biggest issues coming from the policies in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan is that it could mean one less place where LGBTQ2 can find safety, says Alex Abramovich, a scientist with the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at CAMH.

Abramovich, who is also an assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, said the shelter system and health-care facilities are two locations that are not always considered safe for LGBTQ2 youth, and these policies could add school to that list of unsafe spaces.

“Everybody should be able to go to school freely and just be who they are and not have this added stress, this added sort of burden of not being able to just be yourself, to go by the name that you go by, or to go by the pronouns with which you identify,” he told Global News.

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Abramovich added that while in an “ideal world” parents would support the child for who they are — something he says is critical to the health and well-being of LGBTQ2 youth — not everyone comes from safe and supportive home environments and family rejection can have a lasting negative impact on a child’s life.

“Identity-based family conflicts resulting from a young person coming out as LGBTQ is actually a major contributing factor to youth homelessness in Canada as well as globally,” Abramovich, who also serves as Canada research chair in 2SLGBTQ+ Youth Homelessness and Mental Health.

“This sort of like family support for 2SLGBTQ youth is often a life or death situation.”

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For Anna Kinderwater, coming out to members of her family has been a positive experience, but she is not out to her parents because of the firm beliefs she said they have held. She said she identifies as queer.

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In the past, if there was something that they didn’t like, “they had no problem cutting it out of their lives,” she said. In turn, it’s something she is hoping does not happen but she bracing for it.

But Kinderwater would not face what some LGBTQ2 youth may deal with when coming out as she is now 29, lives on her own and holds a stable job.

“I think people should really be thinking about when they’re okay with these legislations, not only thinking about them in their family and how they would react to their kids, but thinking about the kids who do not have anybody or come from incredibly difficult homes,” Kinderwater said.

“Is it really worth putting something through that would harm hundreds of kids versus having a difficult conversation, and learning about something that makes you uncomfortable.”

with files from The Canadian Press

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