By Kiersten Mohr
Here we are again. Bill-24, which is designed to protect our vulnerable LGBTQ2+ youth, has returned to the media undoubtedly causing some of our most vulnerable youth in this province to feel threatened and unsure. In less than a year since this bill’s passing, I find myself again worried about so many of these individuals in the process of figuring themselves out.
The political punches flying between parties regarding this bill are hard to ignore. The debate seems endless comparing public versus religious schools, and how this fundamental human right should differ in each. However, at the root of the discussion, I believe, lies concern about trust. Those who challenge Bill-24 argue that this protection threatens the trusted parent-teacher relationship and that parents have a right to know if their child has reached out for support. They say that by not having this information it is inhibiting their ability to love and support their children.
I do not want to add to any of the negative and ugly arguments flying back and forth in the digital world. Instead, I hope that by sharing my perspective, I can help people think more broadly about what loving and encouraging your child means in this case.
As a parent of two amazing kids (8 and 10) in school in Alberta, and as a transgender woman who has spent a lifetime figuring out my own identity, here is what trust means to me.
Trust unquestionably forms the necessary foundation of any meaningful relationship in our lives, and I agree that it needs to exist in the relationship between our schools and our families. For example, if my child is struggling academically and needs help at home, it is my responsibility to do all that I can to help them. If my child is behaving either negatively or positively in school, I expect to hear about it so that I can encourage good behaviour or understand poor behaviour.
The difference with this debate is that it is about removing a child’s fundamental right to discover, explore and communicate their own identity in their own time. It is unique in that by taking this fundamental right away from them, the consequences can be incredibly tragic. As an example, 81% of Alberta’s gender diverse kids, trusting that their parents care for them, still feel like their family doesn’t understand them. Consequently, because of this actual or perceived lack of support, statistics tell us that approximately 65% of these youth are having thoughts of suicide. There is simply no conceivable way that removing a youth’s right to self-identify is worth the documented risk to their wellbeing.
My spouse and I have raised our children in a very open and accepting home, consistently assuring them of our willingness to listen. However, we do this knowing that kids don’t always want to talk to their parents first about their sexuality or identity (among other things). I grew up in a loving and supportive home and was 34 years old before I was ready to talk to my parents about my transgender identity. I needed to build my network of support outside of my family. I needed time to learn vocabulary and a plan of how to approach and explain myself to them. I am confident that if anyone had taken that time away from me, my process would have been exponentially more difficult and I would have panicked and likely done something regrettable to harm myself.
Therefore, I want my children to trust that in the school they spend much of their time, they are safe. I want them to know that if they are struggling and don’t feel they can talk to their parents, they trust that they can confidentially reach out to a teacher, a principal, a librarian or any other trusted educator that dedicates their lives to helping us educate our children. I want to trust that no child in our community ever feels alone in their struggles.
For many youth, it is not that they want to avoid this conversation with their parents forever, but rather that this discussion carries with it a terrifying possibility of enormous loss. The prospect of losing the support of the closest people in their lives can leave youth paralyzed when considering to take the big step of confiding in their family. Much of the support that Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) settings provide gives youth the language and confidence to have those important conversations and leave them feeling supported and loved. Furthermore, when the child is ready to disclose, very often GSA leaders and organizations are also prepared to provide any additional support the family may need.
What scares me as this debate boils, is that there are kids out there digesting the negative news that will hesitate to reach out. It scares me to think of any youth out there left alone to try and navigate this complicated issue. Worse yet, I would hate for my child, or any other, to confide in an educator only to leave that educator backed into a corner, forced to break the child’s trust at an incredibly vulnerable moment in that youth’s life. Perhaps most of all, I am terrified that given this potentially tricky position educators are in, they do nothing at all.
Regardless of religion, political affiliation, or any other reason we have created to separate ourselves, statistics in this province make it very clear that we as adults are failing to support our vulnerable youth. If youth don’t get the type of support and community they need, then they are alone, which is a heartbreaking and scary place to be. We need to do better. Within the last 12 months, we have continued to put our kids in the middle of hate and fear-mongering arguments over Bill-24. We have created a seemingly never-ending stream of social media, newscasts, and newspaper articles that provide children with uncertainty as to whether or not they are safe to confide in trusted adults in their school. We have made ‘GSA’ a scary acronym and one that many of these youth want to avoid.
I have been to many GSA events. To my observation, contrary to what many want to make them out to be, they are simply supportive and safe spaces for our youth. I have witnessed youth walk in the room, and within seconds a visible sense of relief fills their face as they settle in to spend the meeting with others who share a similar personal struggle. I have seen them feel support and community for the first time as they laugh and relax with their peers. I have seen them, for a few blissful hours, take a break from the minefield that our world is currently creating for them.
My wish for anyone who is on the fence concerning the protection that Bill-24 provides is this: please do not get caught up in political agendas or any other superficial, meaningless distraction in this debate. I trust that you want to love and protect your child, but to do that, we need actually to focus on our children. We need to prioritize and continue to build a bond with our children and be sure they know, every single day, that they are free to be themselves. We need them to trust that if they don’t feel comfortable talking to us, then they have our approval to confide in safe places such as their school. We need to make sure they understand that there is no right or wrong way to move through their process of self-discovery and that, no matter what, we will be there to listen when they are ready for us. We need to believe that our children’s self-discovery isn’t about us and respect their right to figure themselves out in a way which is most comfortable and safe for them. When we can achieve this, then we are honestly doing everything we can to love and support our children.
Lastly, to our amazing youth. You are wonderful, and we respect, appreciate and support you on the journey you are on. Most of all, regarding all the news, social media posts, tweets, etc. trust that you are not alone. Remember that there are so many of us available to support you and assist you and your family as you navigate through your journey of self-discovery.
 BEING SAFE, BEING ME IN ALBERTA: Results of the Canadian Trans Youth Health Survey – http://saravyc.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2017/10/SARAVYC_Trans-Youth-Health-Report_Alberta-V2-WEB.pdf
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