Opinion: Gender identity is more than pronouns; it’s about acceptance

When we turn to the available science, the evidence largely goes against the exclusionary decisions being made by our governing bodies.

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Back to school took a divisive turn this year. Protests and counter-protests erupted across Canada, including in Montreal. The uproar fuels an ongoing debate on whether gender identity and sexuality should be discussed in our educational systems.

New Brunswick and Saskatchewan have already enforced a policy restricting the use of students’ nonbinary gender pronouns in classrooms. In Quebec, Education Minister Bernard Drainville recently announced that mixed-gender bathrooms in schools are out of the question. Supported by Premier François Legault, Drainville proposed the formation of a panel of experts to conduct research on the topic. However, ongoing research already exists that can serve to inform many gender-related legislative decisions.

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As a PhD candidate in developmental psychology at Concordia University, my doctoral research looks at how children learn about gender stereotypes and how it affects their lives. When we turn to the available science, the evidence largely goes against the exclusionary decisions that are currently being made by our governing bodies. Instead, the consensus in the scientific literature encourages us to expose children to the beautiful complexity of sex and gender beyond the binary.

A commonly misunderstood reality underlying many gender-related debates is that gender is in fact different from sex. Sex refers to the genitals and chromosomes we are born with. Gender, on the other hand, relates to how we experience and present ourselves to the world. It’s important to understand that neither sex nor gender are binary. Conceptions of sex exist outside the typical biological configurations. In terms of gender, individuals can identify with various expressions along a continuum and beyond.

Put another way, someone’s gender identity may not necessarily align with their sex at birth. An important study out of Princeton University shows that transgender children’s gender identities stem from a powerful internal sense of who they are. Sharing bathrooms or reading stories with drag queens does not encourage children to become trans. The fear of indoctrinating our children by exposing them to gender-inclusive programs in schools is simply unfounded.

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The Canadian Charter of Rights includes the rights of all children. Yet, legislators are actively undermining the rights of transgender and nonbinary students — that is, their rights to safety by denying them inclusive spaces and disallowing them the freedom to self-identify in classrooms. Some may feel compelled to dismiss the importance of such decisions, but children’s lives are at stake. Data from Statistics Canada published in The Canadian Medical Association Journal show the risk for suicide ideation is five times higher for transgender kids. They are 7.6 times more likely to commit suicide compared to their cisgender peers.

When we look to initiatives that have implemented open, gender-inclusive approaches, we see positive effects across the board. For example, a 2018 study found that simply using someone’s chosen name notably reduces the risk of depression and suicide among transgender youth. In the same line of research, respecting one’s gender pronouns conveys trust and increases feelings of belonging. It’s about more than pronouns — it’s a matter of acceptance.

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At its core, teaching kids about gender identity and sexual orientation in schools promotes inclusivity. The aim is to create safe and welcoming environments that ironically leave kids alone to be who they are. Numerous studies find that exposure to greater diversity reduces prejudice and discrimination overall. Such practices boost open minded attitudes in children and develop their ability to adapt to new ideas and perspectives. Quite frankly, the fostering of such attitudes and adaptability is something we desperately need as a society right now.

The United Nations recently commented on the impossibility of attaining gender equality by 2030 if things don’t start to change systemically. If equality is indeed a goal that is valued by our own government, addressing gender rights in our school systems needs to become a real priority in the decision-making process of our legislators.

Maxine Iannuccilli is a PhD candidate and public scholar at Concordia University.

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