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Editorial: Seven-year-olds should not be suicidal

October 6, 2015 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

"You don’t love to sit and listen to your seven-year-old child ask you to end her life. That’s not a parent’s dream."

I was driving my car when I heard these words. Tears started flowing immediately. I had to pull over.

Seven-year-olds should be excited, optimistic, hopefully exploring and learning about the world. They should not be suicidal.

Last month, the mother of a young transgender girl at the heart of an emerging and emotional debate within Edmonton Catholic Schools candidly shared her story with listeners of the Ryan Jespersen radio show on Edmonton’s 630 Ched.

Her name has been withheld to protect the privacy of her and her daughter, but her story is well known and has become the catalyst for an important issue.

The mother brought her story to the public eye last spring when officials with Edmonton Catholic Schools said that her daughter would have to use the gender-neutral washroom the school set up for her as opposed to the girls’ washroom she wanted to use. Since then, the board has been wrestling with a more comprehensive inclusion policy to better support transgender students. The debate over this came to a head at an emotionally charged public board meeting on Sept. 15.

Some school boards have already developed good policy on this issue, and yet others have done nothing. This is clearly a human rights issue that all school boards across the province will eventually have to deal with.

The stakes are undoubtedly high. The Canadian Transgender Health Survey, released in May, reports that two-thirds of transgender youth have engaged in self-harming behaviours and more than 30 per cent have attempted suicide.

There is no doubt in my mind that no person would capriciously choose to identify as transgender or to suddenly switch their gender identity. Unfortunately, being transgender comes with a great deal of added adversity and pain. The transgender health survey reports that two-thirds of transgender youth reported experiencing discrimination in the past year based on their gender identity, and more than 70 per cent reported sexual harassment.

So, why would anyone choose to change his or her gender identity? For that answer let’s go back to the girl at the heart of this controversy.

"Momma, I have a girl heart and a girl brain. I’m stuck in a boy body, though. Why would God do that to me?"

This is how that seven-year-old girl feels, her mother says.

Unfortunately, this family has now been exposed to a great deal of contempt and hatred. A priest with the school division questioned the mother’s disciplinary habits. A trustee said transgender people have a mental disorder. A listener of the radio interview said the girl was confused, the mother was confusing her and the situation amounted to bad parenting. He went so far as to say that her presence in the school would cause confusion among the other students and that she "should be removed from the school system until someone figures out what’s going on."

Trans students deserve to be treated with equality, but moreover they need our understanding, respect and compassion. The needs and wishes of individual transgender children must be held paramount in the decision and policy-making around these issues. Not doing so runs the risk of exposing these children to danger and violating their human rights.

While establishing gender-neutral washrooms was an important and valuable first step, restricting children from using the washroom that is consistent with their gender identity is segregation and discrimination. Forcing the child to use a segregated washroom risks "outing" the child and exposing them to the verbal and sexual harassment documented in the youth transgender survey.

Schools will have to adapt. School boards will have to show proactive leadership in establishing policies that eliminate discrimination and enable full inclusion. Some are asking the province to step in and establish such policies, but I disagree.

School boards need to take leadership in this area; they need to develop policies that reflect the local contexts; and they need to be at the forefront, advocating in their communities for inclusive, supportive environments.

If they are not willing to do this, then the province should intervene as it has done with Edmonton Catholic, but it is not acceptable for boards to shrug their shoulders and let the province do the hard work for them. Otherwise, why do we have school boards? Their leadership matters, and student lives depend on this.

I welcome your comments—contact
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