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Opinion

This Pride Month, Kids Should Be Free To Be Themselves—Not Political Pawns

Expressing who we really are, who we feel ourselves to be, is a fundamental human right.
By Margaret Eaton and Fae Johnstone
This Pride Month, Kids Should Be Free To Be Themselves—Not Political Pawns

(Illustration: Isie Yang)

When children are born, they are assigned a sex and given a gender to match. The world says: You are either a girl or a boy, and you must act like one. Children are taught to fit into one category or the other, and to express themselves in a way that is specific—and limited—to that gender. The way they dress, the way they play, the way they behave is all tied to an inflexible either/or. We teach them to conform.

Meanwhile, our society has evolved. We are more apt to see inequities and to embrace diversities. Although discrimination can still get in the way, we aspire to a future where children are free to be themselves—a future where all kids, no matter their heritage, skin colour, faith or gender, are free from discrimination. We recognize, across our diverse communities, that children shouldn’t be put in boxes. 

But for the past few years, Canadian governments and politicians have been trying to do just that.

Here’s the thing: Some kids don’t fit into the gender role they’re assigned. Across different cultures and communities, throughout time and in just about every corner of the world, there have been people who don’t fit into our neat categories of “man” and “woman.” In too many cases, and in our own Canadian history, societies have reacted negatively to natural expressions of human diversity, causing immense pain and suffering to vulnerable members of our community whose only “crime” is being different. 

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We have a choice to make: Do we want to afford all children the freedom to be themselves, to figure out who they are in supportive environments? Or do we want to force students to deny parts of themselves, to hide and suffer in a government-mandated closet? 

Right now, some provinces are politicizing children’s health and well-being through legislative and regulatory attempts to limit children’s right to the free expression of gender identity. In 2023, New Brunswick amended an education policy to restrict youth from using the pronoun, name and gender identity of their choice without parental sign-off. While we respect and encourage parental involvement, we must also afford young people the freedom to be themselves—and these policies take that freedom away. 

Following New Brunswick, the Saskatchewan government tabled legislation along the same lines, passing a Parents’ Bill of Rights and invoking the notwithstanding clause to override the charter-protected rights of trans youth. Then, earlier this year, the United Conservative Party of Alberta announced its intent to introduce even more draconian restrictions on the rights, freedoms and healthcare access of trans youth and their families, in addition to policies similar to those introduced in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan. 

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These political manoeuvers are rooted in ideology rather than evidence, as displayed by the lack of engagement with experts (who, from doctors to teachers to social workers, have vehemently opposed these policies), or consultation with those most affected by the policies—trans youth and their families. This legislation serves a chiefly political purpose: shoring up support among far-right and anti-LGBTQ2S+ groups, all the while using misleading slogans like “parental rights” to pit parents against children. 

And these policies don’t exist in a vacuum. They come at a time of resurgent homophobia and transphobia around the world and right here at home. Hate-motivated violence toward LGBTQ2S+ people is on the rise in Canada, with Canada’s intelligence agency warning that the “anti-gender” movement behind the rise of anti-LGBTQ2S+ rhetoric and policies in Canada poses a threat of extreme violence against our communities. The policies pushed by Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Alberta governments contribute to this increasingly hostile socio-political environment for LGBTQ2S+ people. Beyond the harmful impact of the policies themselves (which shouldn’t be underestimated), these governments are signaling their support for—and thereby encouraging—those groups and individuals who oppose the existence and acceptance of LGBTQ2S+ people. 

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This is incredibly dangerous. We know that youth who do not fit into gender norms and who do not have the love and support of those around them can develop low self-esteem and experience great stress. Trans and gender-diverse youth are 7.6 times more likely to have attempted suicide compared to other youth, and they are more likely to harm themselves. Their depression rates go off the charts. As many as 68 percent will suffer clinical depression, compared to a global rate of 3.8 percent.

In addition, when children dare step out of gender norms, they can experience discrimination—including harassment and violence. They may face rejection from their peers, their parents and the other adults in their lives. While we know most parents go above and beyond to support their kids, we also know that between 25 and 40 percent of young people in shelters across the country are queer or trans. Many are there because their homes weren’t safe for them.

Support and acceptance can change everything. Research shows that gender-diverse and trans kids thrive when they are safe and loved, at school and at home. They are protected from psychological distress, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicide and eating disorders. They are more likely to stay and succeed at school when they are respected and accepted there, and in their families.

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Children and adults alike must be free to be our authentic selves. This is not a whim. It’s not a trend or a bandwagon. Expressing our gender, who we really are, who we feel ourselves to be, is a fundamental human right—one protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and enshrined in the Canadian Human Rights Act since 2017. That’s what we’re protecting. Every child has the right to be their true selves, no matter who they are, where they are from or what they look like. This is as true for gender as it is for racial identity, religious expression and culture.

In support of children’s mental health, we call on policymakers, along with parents, teachers, caregivers, community members and healthcare providers: Let kids be who they are, without fear. Let’s accept them, whether they’re newcomers, from a low-income family, from a different faith tradition, transgender or different in some other way. And however they express their gender. Let’s love them, whatever their true colours.

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Margaret Eaton is the national chief executive officer of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). CMHA delivers community-based mental health in over 300 communities across Canada. 

Fae Johnstone is the executive director of Queer Momentum, a national 2SLGBTQIA+ advocacy non-profit organization working toward a more free, equal and socially just Canada for 2SLGBTQIA+ people. 

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