Parents, teachers, and doctors crowded into the library at Princess Alexandra Middle School not once, but twice last Wednesday to listen to Kristopher Wells talk about transgender youth.
For both the afternoon and evening sessions, school and health authority staff set out close to 40 chairs and needed to bring in more as participants kept filing in. Wells, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta and the director of programs and services at the school’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services, said the turnout was fairly typical.
“It shows how needed it is. It reflects that people are looking for that conversation,” he told The Hub. “They’re looking for spaces to connect and they’re looking for a change.”
Typically, Wells said, people don’t think of elementary school age children having to deal with gender issues, but it’s a growing concern across Canada. Parents have been fighting for the rights of their youth to be treated fairly by their schools, with Wells and Alberta at the forefront of change. He has worked with school districts in Edmonton, which became the first in Canada to implement policy changes that forced administrations to recognize transgender youth and their rights.
“A gender transition is always public,” he said. “It’s not like a sexual orientation, which you can keep a secret, at a great cost.”
There are several students in Hay River schools currently going through their own gender transitions.
“I’m reminded of how in a community, you take care of your most vulnerable,” said Jill Taylor, inclusive schooling co-ordinator for the South Slave Divisional Education Council. “It’s not our jobs. It’s part of being human.”
Young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans — the basis for the abbreviation LGBT — are far more likely to be ostracized in their communities, become victims of violence and suffer from mental health disorders that can lead them to take their own lives, according to Wells. A gay man himself, he began work in the field when he started volunteering at a group for LGBT youth. He said no matter what participants endured during the week, they knew they had a safe space to go on Saturday.
“Diversity is important to every living system in the world,” he said. “People are coming out younger and younger. Before, they were told to wait until they could leave. It’s not enough to tell them it gets better. It has to get better now. If our young people are leaving, that’s a problem for the community.”
Wells explained that for gay and lesbian youth, first awareness of having a different sexuality comes at about 10 years old, with 15 being the average age for coming out. For transgender youth — the name for when a person does not feel they were born the right gender with the correct parts — the first signs present themselves around two years old and six years old is when they can fully express what they are going through.
“Education is how we change society,” he said. “There are 4,000 suicides per year in Canada. First Nations, Metis, and Inuit and LGBT communities are most at risk, not because of who they are, but because of the situation they’re in.”