A panel discussion on how to improve gender diversity acceptance in schools at the Breaking the Silence conference. Lasia Kretzel/News Talk Radio
When Bailey Lindsay walks into some of his classes at school, he doesn’t feel welcome.
The Grade 12 transgender student at Walter Murray Collegiate says on several occasions teachers have made homophobic and transphobic remarks in class, creating an unwelcoming environment for some.
“There was a teacher who actually refused to use proper pronouns when a student asked, without written permission from their parents, who they were not out to. She also referred to trans-people as ‘cross dressing freaks,’” Lindsay said.
“It makes me feel very unsafe. It’s very frustrating when I’m outed by my teachers.”
Meanwhile, across town, Dani Despins says Tommy Douglas School has been the most accepting environment the Grade 11 student has ever lived in; so much so that Despins is willing to travel an hour and a half each way to get there.
Despins came out publicly as agender over the summer and upon returning to school in the fall approached the principle about starting a gay-straight alliance club. The club now boasts 20 members who meet weekly.
“Our school is now known as the most accepting school in all of Saskatoon and it’s wonderful. There’s still a lot of things to go like working on bathrooms and change rooms but as far as students and teachers, it is the most accepting,” Despins said.
“It’s crazy how much it varies in Saskatoon.”
The two students stood and told their contrasting stories to a crowd of more than 110 during Saturday’s Breaking the Silence (BTS) gender diversity conference at the University of Saskatchewan.
Celebrating 17 years, BTS is one of the longest running conferences of its kind in Canada, according to organizer Don Cochrane.
“We’ve had the highest attendance last night (and) the highest enrollment,” Cochrane said.
Despite ongoing struggles with phobias and discrimination, Cochrane said many great strides have been made for Canadian sexual minorities in the past two decades.
“Adoptions, pensions, hospital visiting rights, wills; hundreds of thousands of hours went into legal cases. That’s been a major catalyst and the big one was same sex marriage,” he said.
Lindsay and Despins said it’s not only the large acts that make a difference. Both said more works needs to be done to address language and pronouns in the classroom. The pair said using terms like ‘students’ or ‘class’ rather than ‘girls and boys’ when addressing everyone would go a long way to making their gender identities feel accepted.
“The more we invite people to come and ask questions, they have been more accepting to respond in the way we want,” Despins said.
Other suggestions included gender neutral washrooms and change rooms as well as school polices to prevent schools from blocking GSA group formations.
“We really want our staff to understand why it’s so important to create safety in our schools and understand what we’re hearing from our students,” Saskatoon Public Schools safe and caring schools consultant Pam Goulden-McLeod said.
“We want to hear the stories from students, we want students to come forward and share what’s going on so we can make it better.”
In November the provincial government released their anti-bullying strategy, to be implemented over the next three years. Saskatoon Fairview MLA and strategy head Jennifer Campeau said the province held several discussions gender diversity groups.
Goulden-McLeod said the school board has worked closely with GSA groups and currently has a GSA display up in central office. Teachers also have access to a safe and caring schools portal online, however professional development classes on sexual diversity are not mandatory.
“Professional development is very important to teach teachers that it’s not okay to use derogatory terms or even start with the little things,” Lindsay said, adding he’s still waiting for the true accepting school environment.
“One where everyone is accepted and a diverse one where diversity is celebrated and not just pushed to the corners. Where we don’t feel we have to parade around for our voices to be heard and for them to just be heard naturally.”