The time has come for educators and concerned parents to start challenging the myths and misinformation circulating about LGBTQ2 youth with facts that are based in evidence and research, to break through the fear and silence that still surrounds LGBTQ2-inclusive education in our schools.
In 2005, Canada became the fourth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. Since that time, our nation has taken great strides towards the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and two-spirit (LGBTQ2) people in Canadian society. Despite these progressive moves forward, students in our K-12 school system still experience significant bullying, harassment, violence, and discrimination. In particular, our transgender, two-spirit, and LGBTQ2 youth of colour often face some of the most hostile and uninviting environments. Much of this discrimination and prejudice is rooted in stereotypes, fear, and misinformation that continues to be perpetuated by those opposed to LGBTQ2 equality.
This article provides the straight facts on LGBTQ2 youth by addressing the eight most common myths and misconceptions that surround sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression in schools.
1. It’s just a phase
Being LGBTQ2 is an identity, not a choice, lifestyle, or phase someone grows out of. Nor does someone become LGBTQ2 because they were physically or sexually abused as a child. Much of this misinformation is rooted in the belief that LGBTQ2 people are abnormal, disordered, or mentally ill. No credible medical or psychological association in the world continues to validate these harmful stereotypes. In fact, sexual orientation and gender identity are considered to be so complex that the exact origins are unknown. However, what is widely known is that any attempts to “fix,” “cure,” or “repair” a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity is not only unethical and unprofessional, it can cause great harm and lifelong damage.
Children report being aware of their gender differences at early ages. Research shows that youth who later identified as transgender or gender diverse reported first recognizing their gender identity as different at an average age of 8.5 years old.1 Sexual orientation is also identified early for many young people. On average, lesbian, gay, or bisexual youth become aware of their different sexual orientations around age ten, yet often do not “come out” and share this information until about age 15 or 16.
Unfortunately, prejudice, discrimination, stigma, and fear all contribute to youth feeling they have to hide or deny who they are.
2. You can tell who LGBTQ2 youth are
I once had a school principal say to me, “There are no gay or lesbian youth in my school.” What this principal didn’t realize is that there were no visible LGBTQ2 youth in the school, most likely because it was not a safe place. Visibility and safety are tightly interwoven together, especially in any school-related context.
The belief that you can tell who LGBTQ2 youth are by simply looking at or by listening to them is based in old, unfounded stereotypes and beliefs. Just as not all gay men are hairdressers, and not all lesbians are truck drivers, not all transgender kids are gender non-conforming or cross dress. These stereotypes are rooted in powerful beliefs about gender and how young people should express their gender identity in typically masculine or feminine ways. For example, little boys who like to dance or do ballet are often called “sissies” or “faggots.” Girls who like to play sports or climb trees are frequently called “lesbos” or “dykes.” In these examples, homophobic bullying is used as a weapon of sexism, targeting children who are deemed to be different from the norm. These kinds of stereotypical beliefs often keep young people trapped in “gender boxes,” which serve to regulate and limit the full expression of their identities, hopes, and dreams.
3. LGBTQ2 youth are too flamboyant
“Why can’t you just keep it to yourself? Why do you have to flaunt it? If you didn’t wear those clothes, this bullying wouldn’t happen to you.” These are all-too-common messages that many LGBTQ2 youth hear on a regular basis. This victim-blaming positions LGBTQ2 youth as a problem that needs to be fixed, rather than focusing on the environment of homophobia, transphobia, and heteronormativity that creates a climate where it is OK to discriminate against and target those who are perceived to be different.
A person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is often still thought of as an invisible difference that can or should be hidden. But at what cost? The cost to LGBTQ2 youth when they feel they can’t be out and visible is well documented. Having to hide or deny who you are can lead to depression, self-harm, increased use of drugs and alcohol, and suicide ideation.
Sadly, in Canada, the three most targeted groups for hate crimes are the Black, Jewish, and LGBTQ2 community. Here we can clearly see the impacts of racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia and transphobia. Of all the hate crimes committed, the ones that are the most violent in nature, and often require serious medical attention, are targeted toward LGBTQ2 people. This illustrates the power of stereotypes and the processes of dehumanization that position some individuals not as people, but as objects to be hated and destroyed.
No one should be targeted or discriminated against because of who they are, how they act, or whom they love.
4. Parents have the right to know
There is no doubt that parents play an extremely critical role in the health and well-being of their children. Research indicates having a supportive family is one of the most important resiliency factors in the lives of all young people. Without strong parental support, many LGBTQ2 youth experience poor psychological well-being, lower self-esteem, increased post-traumatic stress disorder, and much higher rates of suicide.
Recently there has been significant debate about parents having the “right to know” if their child comes out as LGBTQ2 at school. Some parents suggest that they should be immediately notified, for example, if their child attends a gay-straight alliance (GSA). Others maintain that it should always be up to the child to determine who should know about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
LGBTQ2 youth should always have the right to “come out” on their own terms and only when they are ready to share that important part of their identity. In some provinces, it is a breach of privacy legislation to disclose a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity without their direct permission. The consequences of “outing,” or unwanted disclosure, can be life-altering. For example, research indicates that between 20-40 percent of all homeless youth are LGBTQ2. In Edmonton, recent statistics indicate that more than 70 percent of youth at one emergency youth shelter identify as LGBTQ2. Sadly, parental rejection is one of the leading causes of youth homelessness. For some LGBTQ2 youth, places like GSAs may be the only safe spaces that they have in their lives.
Ultimately, if a parent wants to know about their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity, all they have to do is ask them. If they are ready, children will gladly tell their parents. If they are not ready or don’t feel safe doing so, no child should be forced to come out. Likewise, no professional should ever share a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity without their direct permission. In fact, unwanted disclosure could be considered an act of unprofessional conduct with serious repercussions.
5. Gender-neutral bathrooms create unsafe environments
As the visibility of transgender youth has increased rapidly in mainstream culture, conversely, opposition to the inclusion of transgender students in schools has risen dramatically over the past several years. This opposition has been led by parental rights groups, far-right political parties, some conservative religious organizations, and even a few vocal school board trustees. One of the main arguments against trans-inclusive school policies is the creation of a perceived “loophole” for sexual predators to gain access to female-only spaces such as washrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams. The common refrain heard is that “men don’t belong in women’s bathrooms!” These opponents to trans-inclusion often frame their beliefs in opposition to what they perceive as “radical liberal political correctness,” and call for a return to traditional “family values,” which position and privilege cisgender heterosexual families as the moral bedrock of society.
Historical movements once designed to oppress and counter the advancement of lesbian and gay people have now changed tactics to focus on transgender people, especially in schools. While the focus of these oppressive movements has shifted, the tactics remain the same, with an emphasis on the potential harms of LGBTQ-inclusive policies and curriculum on vulnerable and impressionable children. The goal is to create a “gender panic,” largely fed by emotionally fueled stereotypes and sensationalized claims about transgender people. Similar tactics, for example, were used to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada with outlandish statements suggesting that legalizing gay marriage would lead to bestiality and the collapse of the family unit – none of which, naturally, have come true.
These arguments lack empirical validity. What research does clearly tell us is that fears of increased safety and privacy violations associated with trans-inclusive laws or policies are not empirically based.2 In other words, the claims of predators in girls’ bathrooms are a myth based more in transphobia and hysteria than any presumed reality.
By not having explicit trans-inclusive policies in schools, the real risk is to transgender students.3 Many who continue to be misgendered and made to feel unsafe in their schools, are scared to go to the bathroom (which can lead to serious health complications), and/or view their schools as spaces that do not support them.
Thankfully, every province and territory in Canada, and over 20 states in the U.S., have now passed non-discrimination laws or ordinances that explicitly include gender identity. Many Canadian provincial ministries of education have also issued best practices to support trans and gender-diverse students in schools.
6. School policies already protect everyone
A common argument is that LGBTQ2-specific policies are unnecessary, because anti-bullying policies already include everyone. Singling out LGBTQ2 students gives them special treatment that is not afforded to other students. This “one size fits all” approach to policy making is popular, but seldom effective in actually reducing risk and improving the safety and educational outcomes of marginalized students. For example, most school districts now have comprehensive standalone policies in place to support Indigenous students. Educators understand that because of colonization, historical trauma, the legacy of residential schools, and ongoing discrimination in society, Indigenous students have unique needs and concerns that ought to be recognized and supported by all members of the school community.
Research demonstrates that generic or “catch all” policies are not effective when it comes to supporting LGBTQ2 youth in schools. Effective policies must be clear and comprehensive if they are going to have the desired impact. For example, how do school trustees and administrators expect policies to work effectively if they can’t even say or use the words LGBTQ2? This form of structural invisibility, or silencing, tells LGBTQ2 students that their identities do not matter.
Thankfully, the vast majority of Canadian educators (85 percent) support LGBTQ2-inclusive education, including 83 percent of Catholic educators.4 However, far fewer educators (37 percent) report knowing how to create LGBTQ2-inclusive classrooms. This policy-to-practice gap shows that policies need to be supported by high-quality professional development and robust implementation plans if they are actually going to be effective in changing school culture and improving student outcomes. This is why many school districts in Canada have adopted the SOGI 123 (www.sogieducation.org) program to help equip educators with the knowledge, tools, and resources necessary to build inclusive school environments for LGBTQ2 students and families.
7. All schools are safe spaces
Ideally, yes, it would be great if all schools were safe spaces and all teachers were allies for LGBTQ2 students. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. The Every Teacher Project (2015) found that almost half of all Canadian educators surveyed (49 percent) heard homonegative comments (e.g. “That’s so gay”) weekly in their school.5 One in five (22 percent) reported that other teachers were using that same homonegative language at school. Likewise, when teachers hear homonegative comments in their classrooms, yet say nothing, their silence can signal consent to the discrimination. This silence sends a powerful message to LGBTQ2 students that their teacher may not be a safe person to reach out to for support.
To help break this silence, some school boards now require each school to appoint a “safe contact” who acts as a public resource person on LGBTQ2 issues. Often these safe contacts serve as advisors to the school’s gay-straight alliance (GSA). Gay-straight alliances are another important way to create safe spaces and to identify trusted teachers who can serve as important allies for LGBTQ2 students. Some provinces, like Ontario, Manitoba, and Alberta, have passed legislation to support a student’s legal right to start a GSA in their school. This legislation has led to a strong and growing GSA movement across Canada, which includes the creation of many new GSAs in private, Catholic, and faith-based schools.
Research demonstrates that in schools with GSAs, students report more supportive teachers and administrators who “made a real difference in their lives.”6 Students also reported increased friendships and fewer physical, psychological, and behavioural health concerns. Conversely, in schools without a GSA, students reported feeling more socially isolated and having fewer friendships.
It is clear that the more supportive practices a school has in place, such as comprehensive LGBTQ2 policies, safe contacts, and GSAs, the less homophobic bullying students experience and the more connected and supported LGBTQ2 students feel.7 GSAs, LGBTQ2-inclusive curriculum, and high-quality professional development all help to create a school culture that welcomes, affirms, and celebrates LGBTQ2 students as an important and valued part of the school community.
8. Sexual health education is inclusive of all students
In many schools, LGBTQ2 issues are completely omitted from sexual health education classes. This often happens because of personal discomfort, embarrassment, lack of training, and fear of parental backlash. There is a common misconception that by talking about sex, youth will have more of it; or that by including LGBTQ2 issues, youth will experiment and become gay. In reality, considerable research has shown that abstinence-based education actually serves to increase pregnancy and rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Likewise, no one becomes gay by talking about LGBTQ2 issues. What we do know is that sexual health education should be comprehensive (which means LGBTQ2 inclusive), age-appropriate (with key concepts and terminology differentiated by grade level), science-based (with evidence-based facts), and non-judgmental (not steeped in one person’s or culture’s beliefs).
Unfortunately, STIs and HIV are on the rise among youth in Canada. These are only some of the critical reasons demonstrating why comprehensive sexual health education is urgently needed in today’s schools. As an example, Quebec now requires all students to take sexual health education classes and offers very few grounds for exemption, while Alberta has the opposite approach and provides parents with the legal right to opt their child out of any sexual health classes without providing any reason.
The reality is that the vast majority of students want inclusive sexual health education, not from their parents but from their teachers. They trust their teachers to provide them with accurate information that is free from bias, prejudice, and stigma. And many schools are now approaching sexual health education as a public health imperative, with the belief that providing students with high quality, non-judgmental information is the best way to reduce risk and promote healthy relationships for all students.
Research demonstrates that hostile school climates and school victimization can have significant negative academic and psychological impacts on LGBTQ2 students – sometimes with lifelong consequences.8 Sadly, suicide is still one of the leading causes of death for LGBTQ2 youth who have been taught to hate themselves or have been bullied to death. No child should have to go to school in fear.
The time has come for all educators and concerned parents to start challenging the myths and misinformation circulating about LGBTQ2 youth with facts that are based in evidence and research. We must use these truths to break through the fear and silence that still surrounds LGBTQ2-inclusive education in our schools. Every child should have the right to be themselves fully and completely. Perhaps the greatest gift we can give our LGBTQ2 children is to tell them: we see you, we love you, and we support you.
Transgender Youth: The stats
Research estimates that between .07% to 2.7% of the youth population identifies as transgender.
The 2015 Canadian Trans Youth Health Survey Report, which included 923 trans-identified youth from across Canada, found that:
- Two-thirds experienced incidents of discrimination because of their gender identity
- More than 70% were victims of sexual harassment
- Nearly half of older transgender youth (18-24) reported cyber bullying
- Nearly two-thirds engaged in self-harming behaviours in the past year
- More than 1 in 3 attempted suicide
- 70% reported their families did not understand them.
LGBTQ2 Terms and Definitions
Language and identities are constantly evolving, especially among youth communities. If you’re unsure what a term means, just ask!
Cisgender: A person whose gender identity and sex assigned at birth are congruent.
GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance or Gender-Sexuality Alliance): Student organizations found in many K-12 schools that create safe and supportive places for LGBTQ2 students and their allies.
Gender Diverse/Gender Non-Conforming/Non-Binary: A person whose gender identity and/or gender expression do not conform to the norms and stereotypes society expects of their assigned sex. Youth may identify with neither or both genders.
Gender Identity: A sense of one’s self as transgender, genderqueer, woman, man, or some other identity, which may or may not correspond with the sex and gender one is assigned at birth.
Heteronormativity: A system or cultural bias that works, often unconsciously, to normalize behaviours and societal expectations that are tied to the presumption of heterosexuality and an adherence to a strict gender binary.
Homonegativity: Negative attitudes towards lesbian, gay, and bisexual people and relationships.
LGBTQ2: An initialism for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, two-spirit. Sexual and gender minorities is a synonymous term. LGBTQ2+ adds a “plus sign” to represent other constellations of identities such as asexual, pansexual, questioning, etc.
Misgendering: Attributing a gender to someone that is incorrect/does not align with their gender identity. Can occur when using pronouns, gendered language (e.g. “Hello ladies!” “Hey guys”), or assigning genders to people without knowing how they identify (“Well, since we’re all women in this room, we understand…”).
Rainbow Flag: An international symbol of the LGBTQ2 movement designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978. Each of the six colours has a unique meaning. Red for life. Orange for healing. Yellow for sunlight. Green for nature. Blue for serenity. Purple for spirit.
Sexual Orientation: Feelings of attraction, behaviour, intimacy, or identification that direct people toward intimacy with others.
Transgender/Trans: A person whose gender identity does not align with their sex assigned at birth.
Two-Spirit: A spiritual identity for some Indigenous people. This term implies the embodiment of both masculine and feminine spiritual qualities within the same body, and has different meanings for different Indigenous communities. Some Indigenous people use this term instead of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, etc.
NEW! Discussion Kit
Download the pro-learning session, Understanding Myths and Misconceptions about LGBTQ2 Youth at School.
First published in Education Canada, June 2019
1 J. Rafferty, AAP Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, AAP Committee on Adolescence, & AAP Section on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health and Wellness,“Ensuring Comprehensive Care and Support for Transgender and Gender Diverse Children and Adolescents,” Pediatrics 142, no. 4 (2018): 1-14.
2 A. Hasenbush, A. R. Flores, and J. L. Herman, “Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Laws in Public Accommodations: A review of evidence regarding safety and privacy in public restrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms,” Sexuality Research and Policy Review 16, no. 1 (2018): 70-83.
3 J. Veale, E. Saewyc, H. Frohard-Dourlent, et al., and the Canadian Trans Youth Health Survey Research Group, Being Safe, Being Me: Results of the Canadian Trans Youth Health Survey (Vancouver, BC: Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre, School of Nursing, University of British Columbia, 2015).
4 C. Taylor, T. Peter, C. Campbell, et al., The Every Teacher Project on LGBTQ-Inclusive Education in Canada’s K-12 Schools: Final report (Winnipeg, MB: Manitoba Teachers’ Society, 2015).
5 Taylor et. al., 2015.
6 T. Fetner and A. Elafros, “The GSA Difference: LGBTQ and ally experiences in high schools with and without gay-straight alliances,” Social Sciences 4 (2015): 563-581.
7 K. Wells, How Can Schools Support LGBTQ2 Students? (Fact Sheet: EdCan Network, 2018). www.edcan.ca/articles/how-can-schools-support-lgbtq2-students
8 K. Wells, “Generation Queer: Sexual minority youth and Canadian schools,” Education Canada 48, no. 1 (Winter 2008): 18-23.