Ara Morris, principal of Brock Corydon School, left, and Naomi Finkelstein, co-founder of Parents Family Friends of Transgender Individuals. (photo from Morris and Finkelstein)
The Winnipeg School Division recently assembled a panel to discuss ways to best support trans and gender diverse children and youth, especially in school settings.
Ara Morris, principal of Brock Corydon School, was invited to sit on the Jan. 22 panel, which took place at Prince Charles Education Resource Centre. “Our school has been very active in talking about gender,” said Morris. “We’ve been making changes to our school as a result of having children in our school who are transgender. We want all of our students, all of our families, to feel included, important, and as equal members of our community and so, to do that, sometimes we have to reflect on the different ways that we are speaking, the different language that we are using.
“We know that many times children identify themselves in all different ways,” she said. “We want to be respectful of that. We have had a lot of professional development for our teachers and that has included programs from the Rainbow Resource Centre,” which offers support, counseling and educational programs for LGBTQ2S+ individuals and allies.
Brock Corydon has invited the parent of a transgender student to speak with school staff, and teachers have led sessions among themselves, as well as having had other teachers come to share how they work on being inclusive in the classroom.
“Our school division has a policy and it was updated in June 2018 for diversity and equity,” said Morris. “With all the research that our school division has been doing, I’d be surprised if other school divisions weren’t doing the same.”
Morris has received many phone calls from other principals asking for suggestions, and she works with parents to identify any needs, such as the need for a gender-neutral bathroom, which the school now has.
Even though full-time staff has been educated on the topic, part-time or causal staff also need to be informed about the proper way for teachers to speak at the school, including the use of gender-neutral language.
Naomi Finkelstein, a retired teacher and the mother of a trans child, was also on the event panel. Finkelstein was dealing with the situation 13 years ago and recalled having tried to find proper supports, which were lacking. She started a support group with another parent, called Parents Family Friends of Transgender Individuals (PFFOTI).
“I had a daughter and, when she was about 20 and a half, she came out and shared that she was transgender,” said Finkelstein. “I knew that this was something I was going to have to get support for, so I went to the Rainbow Resource Centre.”
PFFOTI started out with the two founding members and is now providing support to 170 parents. “Of course, that many do not come to all the meetings and, really, what happens is people kind of grandfather out. Their children are older now, they’ve made their transitions … maybe some have had surgery and they don’t feel the need to attend anymore. We’re always getting new people,” said Finkelstein.
“Our group is specifically for parents,” she continued, “because there are some parents who have just found out and they need the support. And there are always Kleenex boxes on the table. For some parents, it is a real shock.
“I was shocked, too, but I did my crying at home in the shower, which was really very good. There was something, I don’t know why, it was almost like being in a womb, feeling protected in there…. We want the parents to be able to share their fears and concerns; you can’t do that if a child is there.”
Over the years, Finkelstein has developed a list of do’s and don’ts for parents who suspect that their child might be trans.
The do’s list includes respecting your child’s identity and following your child’s lead and listening to them about what trans is all about. Each child is different and there’s no right way to be trans. As Finkelstein pointed out, “some go on hormones, some don’t, and some just dress in what they consider the gender’s clothing.”
The list encourages parents and others to learn about the difference between sex and gender – gender is a social construction, whereas sex is biological.
PFFOTI advises parents to start by helping and educating themselves so they can better help their child. “This involves reading and coming to support groups,” said Finkelstein. “And parents need to take into account if there are other siblings. There can be issues for the other siblings, and they need to be educated, too.”
If the children are minors, parents need to take the lead in setting up doctors’ appointments, buying appropriate clothing, getting haircuts, etc.
“Truly, the key to success is offering the kids your unconditional support,” said Finkelstein. “One of the support groups online, their motto was, ‘Fake it until you make it.’ But, we also talk about what parents need to do within the school system and that they need to advocate for their children. Although the human rights law says that they have rights, not all school divisions are on board. Winnipeg [School Division] 1 is totally on board and they have a process. We need parents to take part in the process and get the school to take part in the process.
“And a critical thing is bathroom talk,” she said. “You have to talk to your child before you go to the administration, so you’re both on the same page as to what the child wants to do. Some schools now have non-gender-specific bathrooms, which is great. I wish every school would have one.
“And then they have to talk to the administration about what their rights are. They should know those rights before they go in.”
Setting up a safe person at the school, with the help of administration, who the child can go to, someone who affirms their identity, if they are having problems, is also important, as is talking about the school’s anti-bullying policy and how that is handled.
“Past the age of 12 and up, you’re also dealing with all these hormones that rage through the child’s body,” said Finkelstein. “So, some kids are going to have to get on blockers to prevent their periods and their breasts from developing, and stuff like that.”
Parents and others must understand that a child’s identification as trans is not likely a passing phase. Although some children identify as trans and later change their mind, that is uncommon. So, do your best to avoid calling your child by their previous name, said Finkelstein.
Parents “really have to make an effort not to misgender,” she said. “Misgendering kind of denies their existence as a person, and that’s a big negative. But, as a parent, if you screw up, you just apologize. I think kids are very understanding about that. As long as you don’t deliberately misgender a child, they are open to the fact that, you’ve had them for 13, or 18, or 20 years, and, yeah, that other name is going to come out. It takes you awhile to reformat.”
Another PFFOTI recommendation is to never out your child – let them do it when they are ready.
“Statistics have proven that, [even] with children who are trans who get support from their parents and their family … four percent commit suicide,” said Finkelstein. “The statistics are much higher – about 45% – for those who do not get support. This past summer, we lost four kids (three in Winnipeg and one who had moved to Vancouver).”
Finkelstein regularly checks in with her son to talk about his mental health and to assure him she accepts him as he is.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.