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So in my spare time (you know, outside of work, and parenting and going to grad school) I agreed to give a short talk for Queer Ontario, for their Greg Pavelick Memorial Public Forum in Education. Since then a number of people have asked me to share my talk. Here it is:

Only Cisgender Children Go Through Puberty: The Invisibility of Gender Independent and Trans Youth In the Health and Physical Education Curriculum

Background on the Curriculum
Currently, Ontario has the dubious honour of having the oldest sexual health curriculum in Canada. In Ontario we are still using an elementary curriculum from 1998, and a high school one from1999/2000. I’m only going to address the elementary (K-8) curriculum here.

Many people in Ontario remember that in 2010, an updated elementary curriculum was released, received significant negative media attention from a small number of groups on the Christian right, and was then withdrawn. While the vocal critics claimed the curriculum had been sprung on them without consultation, it was in fact the result of a two-year process of gathering evidence and best practices. Consultations had been conducted with “thousands of experts, parents, and for the first time, students themselves. In addition, the original version of the 2010 Health &Physical Education curriculum has the support of many different religious groups, administrators, principals, public health professionals and parent groups.”[1] One of the biggest frustrations is that in Ontario we know what an update could look like – but we don’t have the update. It’s like the once and future curriculum. In some ways this is great as we can point to a possible update, and in other ways it is terribly limiting – it’s hard to call for inclusion of things that were not included in 2010. And while 2010 is a significant improvement over what we have now, we need better still.

The 1998 Curriculum
Returning to the one we have, the overview of Growth and development in the 1998 curriculum states that:

Growth and development education is more than simply teaching young people about the anatomy and physiology of reproduction. For example, growth and development education focuses on an understanding of sexuality in its broadest context – sexual development, reproductive health, interpersonal relationships, affection, abstinence, body image, and gender roles. Acquiring information and skills and developing attitudes, beliefs, and values related to identity and relationships are lifelong processes.[2]

Which sounds expansive, but the challenge with the curriculum is sometimes less about what it says than what it does not say. Many of the curriculum expectations are vague and leave the interpretation to individual teachers. And while it’s appropriate to give room for a teacher to use their professional judgment, the vagueness of what is said is well beyond “leaving room for professional judgment”. In addition, a study released this year by People for Education found that across the province, only 45% of elementary schools have a Health and Physical Education specialist  (someone with specific training) – so in the majority of schools, there is a vague curriculum being taught by someone who is not a specialist in this subject area. Additionally:

  • particularly in issues of sexual health, individual teachers may fear parental criticism if they don’t have clear direction and be more conservative in their teaching.

  • 10% of LGBTQ students who responded to the Every classroom in Every School study reported hearing homophobic comments from their teachers daily or weekly.

  • 70.4% of all respondents reported hearing homophobic comments from peers daily.

  • and 22.5% of trans respondents reported hearing transphobic or gender policing comments from school staff sometimes or frequently.

Comparing to what might have been, 2010:
Measuring the number of times different words appear in both the 1998 and 2010 curriculum turned out to be a surprisingly effective way to give an overview of what is and is not talked about.

1998 Curriculum 2010 Curriculum
“homophobia” 0 1
“gender identity” 0 18
“transgender” 0 1
“vagina” 0 11
“penis” 0 5
“same-sex” 4 7
“relationship” 9 102

Please note that while “same-sex” appears 4 times in the 1998 curriculum, every time it is in reference to same-sex education, and how you might want to use that for aspects of human development. At no time in 1998 does it refer to same-sex relationships.

After the preamble, the word “relationship” appears only 9 times in the 1998 document.  The next time we read the word relationships is in the grade four expectations:

  • identify the characteristics of healthy relationships (e.g., showing consideration of others’ feelings by avoiding negative communication);

  • identify the challenges (e.g., conflicting opinions) and responsibilities in their relationships with family and friends;

Interestingly, the students who identified challenges in their relationships with family and friends in grade four, are not expected to develop strategies to address these challenges, until the following year, when the grade 5 curriculum states that students should be able to:

  • identify strategies to deal positively with stress and pressures that result from relationships with family and friends;

In contrast, in the 2010 curriculum, the word “relationship” is used 102 times, and is first mentioned in the curriculum section in grade one, where students are asked to “demonstrate the caring behaviors that are found in healthy relationships.”

Considering all this, what’s remarkable to me is that a 2011 study of students found that only “45% of students did not feel that sex education classes adequately addressed topics of a sexual nature that they had or expected to encounter”[3]

Certainly, in my experience of working with high school students, I have yet to meet a high school student who would tell me that their elementary experience of health education was adequate. Most have described it to me as being just the biology related to reproduction.

But you said you were going to talk about gender independent children and trans youth!

So, the current curriculum is failing to meet the needs of Ontario students. OPHEA, the largest Provincial Subject Associations for Health and Physical Education knows this and is publicly calling on the government to address the “urgent need” for an update before fall 2013.

45% of students were willing to tell People for Education that they know the current curriculum is inadequate. In the same study, “students report that their sexual health education doesn’t focus strongly enough on building skills related to different types of relationships for all students, personal experiences, positive sexual health and sexual emotions.” This matches the conversations I have had with students.

So, if the curriculum is failing all students, and students and teachers know this, why talk about the gender independent and trans ones? Simply because we matter too, and because we attend Ontario schools.

While there is no population data about how many gender independent and trans students there might be in Ontario, in the US, in GLSEN’s Playgrounds and Prejudice Study, 8% of grade 3-6 students reported that they “do not conform to traditional gender norms”. So for 8% of elementary students, this is about them. For a greater number of students, it’s about someone in their extended family, or a friend. For all the rest, this is going to help prepare them for the rest of their lives, for the trans and gender independent people they will meet. Including trans and gender independent people benefits those who feel seen and affirmed by such inclusion, but it also benefits those who learn more about the diversity of humans.

What might inclusion look like?
The Supreme Court Decision in Chamberlain v. Surrey District School Board No. 36 clearly stated that it is the work of education to prepare children to live in a world greater and more diverse than their homes. It reinforced that tolerance is always age appropriate. It specifically talked about the existence of gay and lesbian people and that it was appropriate to teach kindergarten students that gay and lesbian people exist and are deserving of dignity and respect. It is, by extension, always age appropriate to teach that gender can be understood and expressed in many ways, and that all people, of all gender identities and gender expressions deserve respect and dignity.

Additionally, since 2012, gender identity and gender expression are explicitly included as protected grounds in the human rights code. As I like to remind people, the human rights code supersedes the education act, so there are now explicit protections for diverse gender identities and gender expressions in schools. Let’s have a Health and Human Development that reflects that.

  1. Acknowledge we exist - all of us, including LGBTT2IQQA people.

  1. Acknowledge we have existed and continue to exist, here and now, in history, and across cultures.

  1. Acknowledge that we are all deserving of respect and dignity, and that diversity is normal. Being less common does not make someone abnormal.

  1. Teach that sex does not define gender. Teach that everyone has a sex, a gender identity, a gender expression and a sexual orientation, and that there are multiple possibilities for each. In age appropriate language for young children, that might mean teaching “there are no rules for who is a boy or girl, or both, or neither”, and “there are no rules for what a boy, or girl, or someone who is both, or someone who is neither, can do or be.”

  1. Teach that development of one’s gender identity is a life long process, beginning at birth. Teach that while one’s gender identity can change over time, those changes come from inside and can not be externally imposed.

  1. Teach that building health relationships is everyone’s business, no matter what their sex or gender. This is true not just for big R romantic relationships, but all manner of relationships.

  1. Don’t address students as boys and girls – that greeting tells some of us we do not matter. Don’t talk about body parts as “girl parts” and “boy parts”, use specific and accurate terms.

  1. Teach that everyone has the right to feel good in their body, and control who, if anyone, touches them. Teach children to talk about their bodies proudly, and with confidence.

  1. Challenge and address gender stereotypes. Phrases like “the weaker sex,” are slurs that only serve to teach girls and boys how they are expected to behave.

  1. Let femininity be fabulous. Don’t mock boys by calling them girls, and don’t let others do this. Celebrate femininity.

  1. Let masculinity be tender. Teach that there are many ways to be a man, and that not all of them are masculine. Teach that strength does not come from scaring or defeating others.

  1. While we are talking about physical education, make sure that everyone has access to safe change rooms. Make sure that students understand that policing other people’s gender is not appropriate. Make sure there are single-user accessible spaces for people to change.

So, how do we do this? How do we help build and implement a better Health and Physical Education curriculum in Ontario?

The easy answer is do something – because many of us have been doing nothing. We need to be loud and clear that what currently exists is not enough, and not meeting the needs of students. We need to be loud and clear that we are ready for more. When it is released, and vocal parties are loud in denouncing it, we need to be vocal in support – particularly those of us who are parents. We need to connect with others calling for more and better – like OPHEA and support their efforts. We need to target the Ministry of Education, not individual teachers or schools, because the change that is needed needs to be Ministry lead. And we need to stay rooted in the research that tells us that knowing about human bodies and human relationships allows children to better understand themselves, advocate for themselves, report abuse if they experience it, be more accepting of others, and make better choices.

Since the event in September, OPHEA has launched a crowd funding campaign to have an updated curriculum launched. You can contribute here. You can read more about their advocacy here.

[1] OPHEA Sexual Health Education in Schools Across Canada document (p.5.)
[2] The Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-8 Health and Physical Education.
Ministry of Education and Training. 1998. p.10.
[3]Ontario Student Trustees Association/People for Education. (2011). OSTA-AECO 2011 Student & Parent Survey Analysis & Results. Retrieved from www.peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/OSTA-P4EStudent-Parent-Survey-Final-Report.pdf


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
30th Oct, 2013 06:27 (UTC)
This is very well presented and interesting. I am part of a LGBT Quaker group in the Phila. PA area and a long time attender to the annual Phila. Trans Health Conference that is held here.
I am a 68 year old Cisgender Lesbian mother.
Is there a way that I can print what you wrote to share with my Friends off line. I can't seem to find a way to do that on LJ and if it would be all right with you if I could.

Mother of all things and all things should wear a sweater.
Ahavia Lavana

email address - ahavia@aol.com
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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