As I sit down to write this, my 16-year-old daughter is getting ready for school. The ease with which this is happening would leave most to believe this is a typical morning; simple actions repeated over many years.
But this is anything but typical for Alexis, and these actions, while simple, are steeped in courage. What it took to get her here — to leave home each day and enter a school where she feels both safe and welcome — was a years-long endeavour in education and understanding for those around her.
And now, much of that work may be coming undone — putting not only her well-being at risk, but that of thousands of other people across the province of Ontario.
My daughter is transgender. She told us in an email at 11 years old, bringing an end to unanswered questions we had for most of her childhood: Why was our middle kid increasingly anxious and depressed? Why was every day a challenge? Why was there such a reluctance to go to school?
When Alexis lived as a boy in an identity that didn’t fit, with a name and pronouns that felt all wrong, the entirety of her life was a struggle. Now that she trusted us enough to articulate it, we could do something to help. I didn’t know much about transgender issues, but I committed myself to learning. I stumbled over my ignorance and made plenty of mistakes, but I eventually grew into someone she considers one of her strongest allies.
That’s how it should be. That’s my job.
Having a transgender child gave me the opportunity to broaden my compassion and understanding well beyond my own personal experiences. Which helped when, just over a year later, the person I knew as my husband of 18 years told me she was also a woman. From my uncommon vantage point, I see the difference between the freedom a trans person can experience when they’re able to come out and find support at a young age, versus having to hide that truth well into adulthood. If a young trans person can be affirmed by their family and society at large, the outcomes are largely positive. Acceptance allows them to avoid much of the pain and struggle people transitioning later can face.
The progress made over decades by trans activists allowed for this societal shift to happen, we can now make space for young people to tell us who they are and subsequently affirm them.
But that’s what makes recent events so frightening. On November 17, 2018, the Ontario PC Party passed a resolution at their convention to open up the debate on gender identity. The resolution paints gender identity as a “highly controversial, unscientific ‘liberal ideology.’” If passed at next year’s convention, the resolution would enforce the removal of all “teaching and promotion of identity theory” from the Ontario curriculum and schools.
It was my daughter who first heard the news, bringing her phone over to show me. “Did you see this?” Alexis asked. “I was afraid this would happen.”
The Ford Government had already cancelled the previous government’s comprehensive sexual and health education curriculum, which was implemented in 2015, and reverted to the previous one, which was designed and implemented in 1998. The older curriculum doesn’t teach consent, cyber bullying, or, most importantly to those who disliked the 2015 teachings, gender identity or expression. Now, it seemed, the party was calling for the erasure of the lived experience of thousands of Ontarians.
My daughter’s fear is understandable. She came out in 2014, just months before trans issues were added to the curriculum. Alexis had never seen herself reflected in the school system’s teachings, and neither had her peers. When she came out to them, they had no idea what being transgender meant. Because of this, they excluded her, bullied her, and left slurs all over her Instagram photos. After months of this, we pulled her out of school to homeschool her. Her safety had to come first.
Trans youth have some of the highest suicide rates in the world. The youth at greatest risk are those lacking the support they need at home, at school and with peers. Those who need medical support and don’t receive it are also at increased risk of mental illness and self-harm. Being trans is not the issue — being treated poorly by society is.
Today, my daughter is in back in school, comfortably walking the halls and attending a bustling diversity club. This is largely due to gender identity having been taught in school over the last few years, allowing for more supportive teachers and understanding peers. Education makes lives better. Removing that education leaves far too much room for ignorance and discrimination. Alexis lived it. That’s why she’s afraid for the trans kids whose peers won’t be receiving that education. What will happen to them?
School is one place where erasure of trans identities is risky, but policies as intended by the resolution could have other serious consequences. It’s a slippery slope into other areas where trans people need support.
Currently, the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) covers several gender-affirming treatments. Not every trans person needs medical support, but for those who do, it’s critical. If a government were to no longer recognize trans people, it could put trans-related supports at risk, from defunding gender clinics to privatizing surgeries. Given trans individuals are some of the lowest earners, fuelled largely by society’s ongoing discrimination, OHIP coverage is often the only way many can receive this life-saving health care.
Following a weekend of pressure from the LGBTQ community and its allies, Premier Doug Ford stated he will not allow the resolution to move forward. But it’s unclear how he can stop a passed resolution, and he has yet to publicly denounce the transphobia contained within it. It was a move in the right direction, but not a very reassuring one.
If political parties had a scientific leg to stand on when calling gender identity into question, that would be one thing. But they don’t.
Over the last several months, the Trump administration has waged a war on transgender people stateside, going as far as to consider redefining gender as a fixed biological truth determined by one’s genitals at the time of birth. In response, 2,617 scientists (and counting), including several Nobel laureates and hundreds of biologists, penned an open letter opposing this idea. They are joined by multiple reputable organizations that support the affirming model of care for trans youth and adults, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Canadian Paediatric Society, the World Health Organization and the American Psychiatric Association, to name a few. While there will always be a handful of outliers in the scientific and academic communities, the overwhelming consensus is in favour of what trans people have been telling us for a long time. The world is not as binary and unchangeable as we once believed.
As my daughter goes off to school, I’m left feeling more worried for her future than I used to be. If we don’t start listening to those in her community, and if we don’t stand up against the bigotry they face, not only will we be standing firmly on the wrong side of history, but putting real lives at risk.
My wife is not a liberal narrative. My daughter is not a political ideology. They’re transgender human beings worthy of respect.
Amanda Jetté Knox is an award-winning writer, public speaker and LGBTQ advocate. She is the author of Love Lives Here: A Story of Thriving in a Transgender Family, which will be published in August 2019 from Penguin Random House Canada. She lives in Ottawa with her wife and four kids.