Reflecting on his experience as a transgender teen who was “not ready to come out to everybody all at once,” an MLA candidate is warning requiring teachers to disclose a student’s preferred pronouns is a matter of life or death for LGBTTQ+ students.
Parental rights have become a hot-button topic in the provincial election race, owing to Premier Heather Stefanson announcing early on in the campaign the PC party would, if re-elected Oct. 3, formalize and enhance rights for guardians in the Public Schools Act.
Trevor Kirczenow, a father who is running for the Manitoba Liberal Party in Springfield-Ritchot, said additional rights for parents sound appealing on the surface — but he’s wary the vague language is “code for violating children’s rights.”
“We’re talking about something really serious here. We’re talking, in some cases, about literal life or death,” said Kirczenow, noting recent developments in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan and their implications on the well-being of queer and trans students.
Starting this school year, teachers in those provinces must obtain parental consent to call children under 16 by their chosen name and use new preferred pronouns in school.
(A civil liberties group has threatened to sue the New Brunswick government over its policy, while a legal challenge has been launched in Saskatchewan.)
Kirczenow, 38, took to social media this week to share his coming-of-age story and express concerns about the prospect of Manitoba following suit.
Had there been such a policy in place when he was a student growing up in Western Canada, the MLA candidate said he would have likely kept quiet about his true identity and as a result, suffered severe mental health consequences.
“I was exactly the type of student who would’ve been targeted by this legislation,” he said during a phone call this week. “Coming out as trans, for me, was not a sudden or quick process, and it wasn’t exactly linear and I was certainly not ready to come out to everybody all at once.”
There was no trans representation at Kirczenow’s B.C. high school and gender-sexuality alliances were only beginning to gain traction in the 1990s.
As an early teen, he recalled asking peers in a martial arts extracurricular to call him “T” because he felt uncomfortable with his then-feminine name. He said he was either 14 or 15 years old when he made a disclosure about being trans to a friend and later, a teacher he trusted.
The teacher responded “really badly” and yelled at Kirczenow, he recalled.
Even still, Kirczenow said he was grateful to have done a trial run with an adult he did not live with nor was financially dependent on, and the teacher, thankfully, accepted his pleas not to inform his parents of their conversation.
It was not until the musician was in his early 20s and living in Manitoba, working as a violinist with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, that he came out as trans to his parents via email.
It took about one year for them to come to terms with the news, he said, adding he sought an aunt’s advice on the matter years earlier and she recommended he wait to tell them until he had moved out.
While Kirczenow hopes his children, who are in Grades 4 and 7, respectively, feel comfortable talking to him about any difficult issues, he indicated he wants other trusted adults in their lives to provide support upon request and respect their privacy.
Manitoba law provides parents with the explicit rights to: be informed regularly about their child’s attendance, behaviour and academic achievement; access a pupil file; consult with teachers; receive information about school programs; and participate in a parent council.
Stefanson has repeatedly declined to say what new rights will be added, and insisted parents must be consulted on updates.
“What we’re hearing from parents is that they feel kind of left out, that they don’t have a say in what’s going on in the schools right now and I think it’s important that parents do have a say,” Stefanson said after an unrelated news conference this week.
Fort Whyte PC candidate Obby Khan, the face of the parental rights campaign, did not address LGBTTQ+ issues when recently asked about the campaign. Instead, Khan pointed to concerns about bullying, online harassment, social media, sexual exploitation and cellphones in classrooms.
The term — parental rights — originated in the U.S. in the 1950s, amid concerns communism was infiltrating American schools, said Robert Mizzi, the University of Manitoba’s Canada Research Chair in queer community and diversity education.
It was revived when Amish families asserted they deserved their own form of education in the 1970s. In the 1990s, the phrase was taken over by an outspoken evangelical, conservative and anti-LGBTTQ+ crowd opposing public school curriculum on sexual and gender diversity in America, Mizzi said.
“In Manitoba, parents have always had the right to withdraw their student, their children or youth from content within the sexual education curriculum.”
Despite this reality, he noted the anti-LGBTTQ+ movement has migrated north and stoked fears among parents who are unfamiliar with the curriculum’s true contents and lived experiences of trans and non-binary people.
“It undermines the teaching profession. Teachers are already overworked and so, we should be focused on supporting them,” Mizzi said, adding the profession has worked hard to establish itself as one that embraces equity, equality and diversity.
Kirczenow said trans people have largely been excluded from policy-making discussions about parental rights.
“If Premier Stefanson were to listen to my story or the story of somebody like me, I wonder if she would understand better and if she would change her mind (about the need for more parental rights),” the MLA candidate said.
Inclusive washrooms, diverse learning materials and policies in place to protect student privacy are critical to ensure schools are safe spaces for trans youth, he added.
By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Sep 21, 2023 at 21:01