In the fall 2017 edition of Education Forum, I wrote a book review on The Transgender Teen: A Handbook for Parents and Professionals Supporting Transgender and Non-Binary Teens. Following the publication of that review, I felt that much more needed to be said about the importance of supporting transgender and non-binary youth in our schools and worksites. To gain a better understanding of the issue, I reached out to Vincent Bolt, Education Manager at TG Innerselves, a transgender social services program based in Sudbury, Ontario.
Vincent has a smile that could light up a room. I remember when that was not the case.
The first time I encountered Vincent he was a Grade 9 student at the school where I taught. I saw two girls sitting in the hallway across from my classroom. One girl was crying and the other was comforting her. I approached the girls, asked how I could help, and escorted them to the guidance office to make sure they received support. I did not know either student, and never did teach either of them during their years at that school.
It was about two years later that I next heard about the young person I had seen crying in the hallway. One of my colleagues, Ms. B., stood up at a staff meeting to tell us that one of our students had approached her for support in transitioning to a new identity. Ms. B. first explained that the student we had previously known by a female name preferred to be referred to as Vincent, and by male pronouns, because they now identified as transgender. She advised that Vincent was not comfortable using the traditional multi-stall student washrooms in our building, and had asked to use a single-use washroom instead. At that time, in the mid-2000s, the only single-use washrooms in our building were staff washrooms, and they all required a key for access. Our colleague stated explicitly that she was not asking for our blessing, but simply informing us that if we saw Vincent using a staff washroom, it should be treated as nothing out of the ordinary.
Five or six years later, I attended an event in Sudbury for students who participated in local Gay-Straight Alliances. One session involved a panel discussion on transgender issues, and Vincent was a participant. Not having seen him since his graduation, I was struck first and foremost by his beaming smile and positive aura. I remember listening to him speak during the panel discussion, and noticing how confident, secure in himself, and happy he seemed. I recall thinking that I had never, and I mean never, seen him smile during the years when he was a student at my school.
When Vincent and I sat down to talk, I asked him to tell me about life before and during his high school years. He told me that he was initially excited to start high school at Sudbury Secondary, because he had had a “really horrendous experience” at the last Catholic school he attended.
“When I came out as bi, I was met with a lot of hostility from teachers and from students,” Vincent recalled.
“Now I was very optimistic because I was finally at this point where I was in the public school system and at an art school, hoping that things would be a lot better. But in Grade 9, I realized that I was still miserable and really uncomfortable in my own skin. I was struggling with depression and had a hard time really understanding what was going on within myself. I did certainly make the right choice in terms of schools because I loved the program I was in. I was in the guitar program and I got along with most of my teachers. At the same time though, here I was in this really good program, at this really good school where I was allowed to be myself, but I was still so unhappy.”
Halfway through the year, Vincent began to understand his unhappiness. “It hit me that the reason I was so uncomfortable in my own skin, the reason I just couldn’t stand the sight of myself in the mirror, was that I was really a man, and living as a girl didn’t fit who I was. I had started Grade 9 wearing lots of makeup and wearing skirts. Midway through the year I started to change my wardrobe over. I wore less makeup and I shaved off most of my hair.”
It took some time for Vincent to change over his wardrobe, because he didn’t have a job and he couldn’t talk to his parents about it. He started buying pants and clothing from the men’s section whenever he received money at Christmas or Easter.
On his birthday that year, Vincent, along with his girlfriend Meghan and another friend, went to the park, where they took pictures of themselves.
In 2014, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) published the Policy on preventing discrimination because of gender Identity and gender Expression. In Section 6.3 of the policy, it states, “International human rights principles are clear that every person has the right to define their own gender identity. A person’s self-defined gender identity is one of the most basic aspects of self-determination, dignity and freedom.”
“There’s one of me standing on top of the monkey bars. I’m wearing my dad’s old leather jacket, I’m wearing pants, I have my hair up in a Mohawk and I’m wearing a t-shirt. I just look so cool. It’s one of my favourite pictures of myself because it was that first picture I had of me where I looked like a guy. And I realized, without a doubt, that this is who I really was on the inside.”
Although Vincent was in a committed lesbian relationship during the early high school years, he was not content. In Grade 10, he debated whether to come out as transgender at school, but was apprehensive because of the homophobia he had experienced while in a lesbian relationship. By Grade 11, he had made the decision. “I knew Ms. B. and Ms. M. were safe teachers for me to talk to because we often went to one of their classrooms to eat lunch. We did not feel safe in the school cafeteria. If there was a place where we were going to be harassed, that’s where it would happen.”
In the summer before Grade 11, Vincent felt he had enough men’s clothing that he could present as male full time. That was when he decided to start living exclusively as a male. He was already using men’s washrooms whenever he was in public, and now hoped to avoid the women’s washroom at school.
I asked Vincent whether he was ever concerned about his own safety when he used men’s public washrooms. He responded, “Every single time.”
“I was afraid every time I went to the bathroom that something would happen. I had experienced people making comments, I had been given dirty looks. I was escorted out by security. But for me, it was just something I had to do. I was not going to let a sign on a door dictate where my masculinity ends or begins. At that time, I did not have the legislative protection to use men’s washrooms. I was not read as male. I would be dressed in men’s clothing but people would just assume that I was a tomboy. I decided I’m just doing this anyway, I don’t care.”
I asked Vincent to explain why it was so important to have freedom of choice when it came to the use of a washroom at school. “I couldn’t use the women’s washroom anymore. It was just too stressful and too painful for me. I felt like every time I went to the bathroom, I was stepping back, when everywhere else I was using men’s washrooms.”
Human rights protection for transgender and non-binary people has evolved since 1999, when the OHRC established that the ground of sex under human rights law could be interpreted to include the right of transgender people to be free from discrimination and harassment.
A year later, the OHRC released its original Policy on discrimination and harassment because of gender identity.
In 2012, Ontario added the grounds “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the Ontario Human Rights Code.
For Vincent, the next logical step was to come out as transgender at school. “I needed that place where people knew me as Vincent, and used male pronouns. I needed that support. I needed it because I wasn’t getting it anywhere else. I was still living at home at the time and my parents did not know.”
During the first semester of Grade 11, Vincent built up the courage to come out to each of his teachers. One day, at the end of class, he went to each teacher and said, “I’m using Vincent as my name now and I’m using male pronouns.”
He described the reaction of one teacher in particular, who had a reputation for being very strict and sometimes came across as cold. “I liked her because she was strict. People didn’t talk in her class and I could focus. I got along with her, but I wasn’t sure how she would take me coming out as trans. When I told her, her response was just, ‘alright Vincent,’ and just no change in expression. And she was the only teacher to use my preferred name in the comments section of my midterm report card. It’s funny because you never know who is going to support you. But in that small gesture, she made a huge impact.”
Vincent explained that the conversation with Ms. B. had been very liberating because it meant that he didn’t have to worry about being confronted when going to the bathroom. He was relieved of the burden of having to constantly explain himself whenever he started a new class or met a new teacher. In class, students heard teachers referring to Vincent by name or using male pronouns, and would occasionally ask why. Vincent’s teachers often deferred to him and gave him the option of explaining himself if he felt comfortable doing so. Vincent notes, “I did not experience any issues with students after I came out as trans. I did not experience any transphobia or any homophobia from Grade 11 onward at school.”
In the second half of Grade 11, Vincent started looking for work, and he was hoping to legally change his name before finding a job so that people would stop using his birth name. He would need his parents to agree to this, but things did not go well when he explained to them that he was transgender.
“They freaked out. It was not a positive experience. My dad was yelling at me, my mom was crying. My dad told me I was ruining my life, that I’d never find a job and that I’d probably end up dead on some operating table. They really struggled to accept this. They would not call me Vincent and they would not use male pronouns.”
Not long after coming out to his parents, Vincent was hired for his first job, at a fast food restaurant. He told one of the managers that he was in the process of changing his name, and he would really like to have Vincent on his name tag. “She looked at me and said, ‘Why? That’s a boy’s name and you’re a girl.’ I told her that I’m transgender, and I’m transitioning from female to male. And she said, ‘Well, you look like a girl.’ That was incredibly hurtful. I experienced a lot of harassment in that job.”
When he arrived home, he again implored his parents to sign the necessary paperwork for a legal name change. He told them, “I can’t do this anymore. I need to have my name changed, they won’t change my name tag. I want everyone to know me as Vincent at work and now, because you wouldn’t sign those forms, I have to endure everyone calling me that name. Now I have to come out to everybody. Now is the best time to do it. It’s my first job, I don’t have credit cards, I don’t have to worry about my work history or my credit history. I don’t even have my full license yet.” Vincent’s parents ultimately signed the forms.
He told me that the date June 1, 2006 is imprinted in his mind because that was the day when his change of name certificate came in. On his next shift, Vincent went into work brandishing his change of name certificate and carrying a big smile on his face. “I went up to the manager and said, my name is now legally Vincent, please change my name tag.” Vincent acknowledges that the legal name change did not actually improve his situation at work, but it did mean that no new employees knew his old name. All of his pay stubs identified him as Vincent, and he was listed as Vincent on the work schedule. The legal name change also meant that all of his school documentation was officially changed as well.
In their ground-breaking book, The Transgender Teen, authors Stephanie Brill and Lisa Kenney discuss the impact of ignorance and bias on transgender and non-binary people. “Transgender and non-binary people face discrimination in every aspect of life. Injustice ranging from verbal harassment and denial of services to physical and/or sexual assault is all too commonplace… For many people who are openly transgender and those who are visibly gender non-conforming, bias-related events occur on a regular basis. The stress of others’ judgment, prejudice, and rejection becomes compounded over time and can lead to tremendous, often intolerable levels of suffering.”
I asked Vincent if he is ever just, “Vincent the man,” or is he always “Vincent the transgender man?”
“I think in my case it’s interesting because gender is a spectrum. It’s not something that’s just an either/or. It’s not a binary, and it’s not only a three-
option checklist. It is very broad and even though I identify as male and I have male on all of my ID, I really identify strongly with the label trans. Whenever I do have the option to list my gender, on forms or whatever, I say that I’m a trans male. It’s because all of my experiences over the years give me a perspective that I would never have gained if I’d been assigned male at birth. I feel that I don’t fall in that rigid male identity checkbox. And for me, for thirty-five hours a week, I am Vincent the education manager of a trans organization. During my work week I am working very much within the scope of somebody who is trans. Doing this kind of work, where I’m out doing presentations and talking about my experiences as a trans person, makes me feel like I’m professionally trans.” Vincent smiles.
“This is a conversation that comes up in a lot of circles where you have service providers who are also trans, who are working with trans clients or who are doing work professionally that relates to their lived experience. When I’m at work, that’s where that identity really comes into play. When I’m at home, I’m not watching I Am Jazz or Transparent. On my personal time, I am doing everything that has nothing to do with being trans or with LGBTQ cross identities. That’s how I’ve found that balance. There are a lot of people who work in the field, who for 35 or 40 hours a week are completely immersed in LGBQT-plus everything, and then they try to go to all the Prides or gay bars or community events on their personal time and they burn out. The way I balance the things that I can’t really avoid, that are part of being queer and trans while doing this as my full-time job, is not making every hour of my life about my identity.”
TG Innerselves provides education services in the form of workshops on trans inclusion for organizations and businesses who are seeking to develop trans inclusive polices. They also work with individuals seeking support during their transition, and address any questions or concerns regarding gender identity or gender expression. Services include running a Family Support Group and a Social Support Group. TG Innerselves receives support from a number of local agencies and organizations in the Sudbury area. While funding technically covers clients aged 12–29, the program works with clients of all ages. The majority of their clients are youth.
As we wrapped up our discussion, I asked Vincent for his advice to education workers about how best to support transgender and non-binary students in our schools. He told me that the most important thing is to support the student in their transition, and to ask them what they want. He stressed how important it is for staff to use the students’ preferred name and pronouns, and for guidance counsellors to be able to help the student navigate resources in the community.
“When trans youth have full support from their parents and their family in their transition, the suicide risk and rate of suicidal behaviour decreases by 93 per cent. But many kids don’t have parental support, so school is the only place where they feel safe. In my case, for the first year and a half that I was out, school was that only place where I was supported. Ms. B. saved my life. She brought me to a youth group. She also brought me to the hospital when things had gone south and I was very suicidal. Be the person who listens to students when no one else is listening. The 70 minutes a day that a student spends in your classroom might be the only time and place where that student can be themselves and hear their name.”
Vincent often tells parents about the statistics around suicide. “I tell them that the difference between your child living and dying might be you. But let me be clear that the parents who are coming to me and listening to me represent only the tip of the iceberg. The parents who absolutely reject their children are not coming in to see me. There isn’t even the option to have a conversation. Those are the kids who are at an incredibly high risk, and that’s when support in the schools becomes crucial. It’s access to the bathrooms, it’s using their names and pronouns in school. They need the staff to listen.”
Vincent points out that when a student is out at school but not at home, educators sometimes have to deal with parents who are unsupportive. Teachers and staff may have no problem using a student’s preferred name and pronoun, but the unsupportive parents are sometimes infuriated by this. Vincent explains that the student’s name and pronouns are protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code, and are now protected federally. “That student has the right to their name and pronouns, regardless of what it says on the birth certificate. They are 100 per cent protected, and so is anyone who is using that name and pronoun in addressing that student. The caution is, don’t write the name or pronouns on assignments or report cards unless the student has said to do that. Ask the student because you just don’t know what the home situation is.”
I was profoundly moved by his story, and by his work. In a time where there was little protection under the law, this courageous teenager took risks, asked for help, and found a way to navigate an extraordinarily difficult path to adulthood. It wasn’t just the sun shining through his office window that made the room glow. Vincent’s joy at being able to be himself, to support others in their journeys, and to effect change was evident in his radiant smile.