Defending the rights and wellbeing of transgender, non-binary, gender-expansive, and queer youth: A call to re-evaluate recent changes in school policies
All youth deserve the freedom to be their authentic selves, and to learn and grow in a safe environment, including 2SLGBTQIA+ students. Recently, changes to school policy have been enacted in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick that require parental consent for use of chosen pronouns and names for youth under age 16. And, on January 31, 2024, Alberta’s premier announced plans to enact the most sweeping gender identity policy nationally. These (proposed) changes are exclusionary and do not protect the safety and privacy of transgender, non-binary, gender-expansive (TNG) and queer students. Based on the best-available research evidence, these amendments are also not in the best interest of children and their caregivers (i.e., parent-child relationships), educators, and society at large.
- Requiring parental consent turns a complex multi-stage social and developmental process into a declaration that could harm children and parent-child relations.
- Children’s gender identity development is non-linear and evolves over time. It is normative for children to explore their identity through expression (e.g., clothing, hair) and identification (e.g., pronouns, gender labels). Prohibiting children from exploring pronouns at school will disrupt an important developmental process, with substantial negative implications for both developmental and health outcomes. In addition, Alberta’s stated aim of prohibiting puberty blockers for youth aged 15 and younger does not give youth the time and space to explore their gender identity, as without these blockers, the irreversible process of puberty will start. It is also highly distressing to experience puberty when your gender identity does not match the biological processes happening in your body.
- When TNG children navigate and solidify their identities, disclosure to family members is a highly individualized process, which occurs in multiple stages that – like most developmental processes – may occur over months to years. The complexity and length of this process is often due to fear of rejection learned through indirect (e.g., others’ reactions to 2SLGBTQIA+ curriculum content) and direct (e.g., others’ reactions to gender-expansive people in the community) experiences. We know that these experiences of rejection are far too common among Canadian TNG youth. According to a national survey, 66% of transgender youth in Canada have experienced gender discrimination, 36% have been physically injured, and 70% have been sexually assaulted.
- A requirement for parental consent to use chosen names and pronouns bypasses a fundamental process of gender identity exploration and disclosure among TNG youth, prohibiting their agency in the disclosure process and perpetuating historically harmful strategies that are rooted in “outing” culture. This forced outing can also compromise personal safety.
- Loss of agency in the disclosure process can lead to the breakdown of parent-child relationships as children may feel coerced, insecure, or rejected. Forced or coerced disclosure also makes the experience confrontational versus relational, which can have negative impacts throughout the life course. Instead, gradual disclosure allows parents and children the opportunity to build their relationship and share identities with each other in a relational way. In sum, parental consent for use of chosen names/pronouns imposes a universal “one-size-fits-all” strategy with underlying, untested assumptions of gender-supportive households.
- Requiring parental consent assumes family households are safe.
- According to a national survey, 70% of transgender youth in Canada do not feel understood by their family. Therefore, policies that require disclosure to parents on names/pronouns – before youth are ready to share this part of their identity – will harm many TNG youth by forcing disclosure to family members that are not supportive. LGBT adolescents that experience parental rejection are eight times more likely to attempt suicide, six times more likely to experience clinical depression, and three times more likely to use illicit drugs than adolescents from accepting households. Homelessness due to family rejection is also an all-too-common issue among LGBT youth. As TNG youth are a growing population in Canada, amendments to school policy that increase risk for family rejection are grounds for a public health crisis.
- Requiring parental consent can harm educators and youth-educator relationships.
- Not feeling connected at school can have life or death ramifications for TNG youth. Within the school, educators are key sources of support. However, feeling forced by a teacher or the school to disclose their pronouns/chosen name can lead to the breakdown of student-educator relationships and school connectedness. Educators also do not have training to navigate the aftermath of negative disclosure experiences on their own and their students’ mental health, yet are expected and are held accountable for upholding the rights and wellbeing of children. The public health and economic consequences of worsened teacher wellbeing for education systems, students, and society has not been addressed by these new policies.
We stand with the O’Brien Institute in challenging systemic and structural inequalities, and we believe that the rollback of inclusive education guidelines at the provincial level in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick – and similar policy proposals at the federal level – are a family, community and public health crisis in need of our collective attention and advocacy. We are also deeply concerned with the proposed gender identity policy in Alberta, as it directly opposes research evidence and will put children and youth at risk. Any path forward requires consultation with the families and youth affected by these policies, and collaboration between children, families, healthcare, and educational systems. TNG youth’s rights to gender identity disclosure (i.e., when, where, and how) and expression must be protected and supported with the ultimate aim of facilitating positive disclosure experiences between children and their caregivers. This outcome requires our collective advocacy to ensure and protect the wellbeing of every youth.
Dr. Kheana Barbeau, PhD in Psychology (she/they)
Postdoctoral Associate, Werklund School of Education
Deinera Exner-Cortens, PhD, MPH (she/her)
Associate Professor and Tier II Canada Research Chair, Department of Psychology
Brae Anne McArthur, Ph.D., R.Psych. (she/her)
Director, University of Calgary Psychology Clinic
Assistant Professor (teaching), Department of Psychology