New Sex-Ed Curriculum is Potentially Lifesaving for Gender Non-Conforming Youth
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New Sex-Ed Curriculum is Potentially Lifesaving for Gender Non-Conforming Youth

Amidst mounting protests, some LGBTQ advocates hope that the curriculum's introduction of gender non-conformity will give a voice to trans and genderqueer youth.

Photo courtesy of Star Harwood-Jones.

Yesterday marked the beginning of weeklong class boycotts across Ontario in protest of the Province’s new sex-education curriculum.

The reintroduced curriculum—which, if passed, will be taught across Ontario schools this fall—is the first update since 1998. Among the litany of concerns conservative critics have raised over the new curriculum’s material is information about same-sex relationships and different gender identities.

Protestors have expressed concerns that these changes conflict with their personal and religious beliefs. But for Ryan Dyck, the director of research and policy at LGBT advocacy organization Egale Canada, the new curriculum is a positive step forward, particularly in making transgender and gender-variant people visible.

“We know that there’s a lot of discrimination, harassment and violence towards trans people in our schools,” he says. “So when you’re trying to develop a sense of your own identity—that’s difficult as a youth at the best of times, when you’re experiencing significant harassment because of who you are or how you express yourself. It makes it even more difficult and that, of course, increases risks of mental health and suicidality.”

A 2011 report by Egale Canada shows that, in a survey of more than 3,700 students across Canada, 68 per cent of transgender students reported being verbally harassed about their perceived gender or sexual orientation, while 37 per cent experienced physical harassment. Among LGBTQ students, transgender youth also reported experiencing the most sexual harassment, at 49 per cent.

Dyck says that some of the backlash against the new curriculum is based on confusion as to what it actually aims to teach. “Contrary to some of the myths that are perpetuated, in no way does it teach you how to be cisgender or how to be transgender. It teaches you how to understand what gender identity means, and what it means for yourself.”

Along with providing a greater understanding of transgender identities and experiences, the new sex-education curriculum can also make an easier case to protect the human rights of transgender and gender-variant people, he says.

For Markus Harwood-Jones, the lack of understanding around gender identity in high school resulted in an array of negative experiences, many of which surrounded using the bathroom. Harwood-Jones, who interchangeably goes by the first name Star, is the coordinator of the Trans Collective, a group representing transgender students at Ryerson University.

“I was just banned from using the male or female bathroom at school,” he says.

“A lot of my experiences with bathrooms were at that point in my life when I was constantly being harassed by classmates—having stuff thrown at me in the classroom, being made fun of constantly, getting asked how I have sex, how I masturbate, being told no one would want to go out with me.”

Harwood-Jones says these experiences are still a reality in university, where using single-sex bathrooms are both frustrating and challenging. “The way I present is, I grow a small beard and I wear makeup, and sometimes I wear pants and sometimes I wear a skirt….I often get told I’m in the wrong bathroom, or I watch people take a double-take when I walk in—they’ll look at me and then they’ll look back at the sign.”

These “small interactions” are nevertheless a vulnerable experience, says Harwood-Jones, who knows friends who have been physically assaulted at school. “It comes with the knowledge that at any moment, this situation can turn violent, it could turn dangerous for me….That’s the reality that I’m living every day.”

The debate around transgender rights made headlines recently, following Conservative Senator Donald Plett’s amendment to Bill C-279, a bill that would add “gender identity” to the Criminal Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act. If passed, the amendment, which is frequently referred to as the “Bathroom Bill,” could prevent transgender individuals from using single-sex bathrooms, changing rooms, or abuse shelters under federal jurisdiction. The amendment would stop anyone prohibited from entering those facilities due to gender identity from filing a human rights complaint for discrimination.

Plett has argued that this amendment would prevent male sexual predators from claiming transgender status to gain access to a facility and commit an assault against women and girls.

Meanwhile, Harwood-Jones says washrooms are an institutional representation of the many battles transgender individuals fight on an ongoing basis. Many transgender students already try to avoid single-sex bathrooms, and feel safer using gender-neutral bathrooms, he argues.

But accessing those bathrooms around Toronto, let alone on campus, is a challenge, he says. “Many of the [gender-neutral] bathrooms are out of service, have been repurposed, or are spread out.”

As a result, Harwood-Jones says he often has to leave a building and walk up to 10 minutes in order to find an available bathroom.

“Ultimately the most painful part for trans people is largely the pain of being isolated—the reminder that you’re the only one of your kind in that space.”

Harwood-Jones says he’s glad to see greater recognition for transgender people in the new sex education curriculum, but would also like to see work done outside of the school system, and on an interpersonal level.

“Education is huge, totally. But I think it’s meaningless unless there’s action embedded with it.”