Transgender rights has been a popular topic in the media, as federal and provincial governments move to include gender identity and transgendered rights in legislation. Newly-NDP Alberta, led by Rachel Notley, joined the progressive movement by providing guidelines for schools about respecting and protecting transgendered students.
But, it’s been a challenge to get everyone on board. Protests erupted mid-May in Edmonton between transgender supporters and groups such as Parents for Choice in Education, trying to contravene transgendered rights in schools and the subsequent bill —Bill 10 —that allowed students to form gay-straight alliances in schools. This bill led the way for guidelines that were provided by the NDP government in January, which will be used as a benchmark for school boards to adopt and enforce in their respective schools.
Guidelines for Best Practices: Creating Equality for Gender Identities includes criteria to help schools navigate respectful treatment of transgendered students. Guidelines include respecting an individual’s right to self-identification, minimizing gender-segregated activities, providing safe access to washroom and change-room facilities, and responding appropriately to bullying behaviour.
Backlash of the new guidelines has mostly been centered on the issue of non-gendered washrooms in schools. Parents are concerned they are not being given the democratic choice to do what is best for their kids and there is anxiety around children with different sexual anatomy being in the same washroom. There has been backlash from the Catholic School Board, with Roman Catholic Bishop, Fred Henry denouncing the guidelines as anti-Catholic and the government as “totalitarian” for trying to impose them.
Trans Equality Society of Alberta (TESA), a non-profit advocacy group on behalf of transgender rights, is spearheaded by long-time activist, Jan Buterman. Buterman said he was not surprised by the backlash, but the protests and the intense comments are a new development. “We have been doing this type of advocacy for a long time and this type of pushback is new,” said Buterman. “This is parallel to the type of protests you see in Ontario with the changes in curriculum.”
This is not the first time that Buterman has seen transphobia in the school system. In 2008, he was fired by the Catholic school board for transitioning, and is still in a legal battle fighting the decision. Buterman’s mistreatment in the system led to forming the advocacy group Trans Equality Society of Alberta. Because of his drawn-out court battle and refusal to back down, Buterman has become one of the public figures of trans-advocacy and was even asked to look over the Albertan guidelines prior to their public release to schools.
Buterman said the guidelines were a move in the right direction, but there were key issues surrounding name documentation that were not dealt with. “The guidelines indicate [the students] would still use the name given on the birth certificate.” he said. “It is actually inappropriate that kids are being held to a standard that adults are not. The guidelines were a good idea in principal, but there were gaps and that gap specifically was staggering.” Children can choose to be called a different name under the new guidelines, but the name given on their birth certificate will remain as their official documentation in the school system.
Both supporters and dissidents have expressed issues with the guidelines, highlighting how difficult change can be to implement when it comes to gender identity. Recently, the federal government has joined the movement to include trans rights in legislation, which protect the legal and human rights of transgendered people in Canada.
It is clear that Canada is moving in the direction of protecting trans people and their rights, but some provinces are having more difficulties than others. It is about time that appropriate protection for this prevalent and vibrant community in the country is recognized and respected — and it’s unfortunate that so many people have a problem with it. Overall, trans-inclusivity in schools is a step in the right direction because it teaches a new generation that transitioning is normal and acceptable. Gender identity and expression are choices and provinces like Ontario and Alberta have led the way to promoting a more inclusive and accepting Canadian society.