With Dr. Lee Airton, Assistant Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies in Education at Queen’s University. International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia is coming up on May 17.
The UN says that only one out of three countries legally protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Only one out of 10 protect people based on gender identity, and only a handful based on sex characteristics.
We can’t end gender injustice without ending discrimination widely faced by 2SLGBTQIA+ communities. A 2023 Global News story reports that, “Canadian LGBTQ2 community members and advocates say the past year has been difficult and scary amid a notable rise in hate crimes, threats and protests against drag queens and transgender people in particular.” This tracks with a rise in police-reported hate crimes based on sexuality and gender identity, which rose nearly 60 per cent between 2019 and 2021 to the highest level in five years.
Dr. Lee Airton (they/them) brings clarity in these tough times. Their research explores how Canadian K-12 education and teacher education are responding to gender identity and gender expression protections in human rights legislation. In 2012, Dr. Airton founded They Is My Pronoun, the first Q+A-based blog about gender-neutral pronoun usage and user support with over 30,000 visitors in 2017 alone. In 2016, Dr. Airton founded the No Big Deal Campaign, a national social media initiative that helps people show support for transgender peoples’ right to have their pronouns used. In 2021, Dr. Airton and their research team launched gegi.ca, the first bilingual self-advocacy resource for K-12 students experiencing gender expression and gender identity discrimination at school. Dr. Airton’s first book, Gender: Your Guide, offers practical steps for welcoming gender diversity in everyday life, and has been adopted as a key professional development text in teacher education programs, school districts, public sector and private sector organizations. With Dr. Susan Woolley, they recently edited Teaching About Gender Diversity: Teacher-Tested Lesson Plans for K-12 Classrooms.
Supporting gender diversity is core to gender justice. What can we do about it?
I’m Andrea Gunraj from the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
Welcome to Alright, Now What?, a podcast from the Canadian Women’s Foundation. We put an intersectional feminist lens on stories that make you wonder “Why is this still happening?” We explore systemic roots and strategies for change that will move us closer to the goal of gender justice.
The work of the Canadian Women’s Foundation and our partners takes place on traditional First Nations, Métis, and Inuit territories. We are grateful for the opportunity to meet and work on this land. However, we recognize that land acknowledgements are not enough. We need to pursue truth, reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship in an ongoing effort to make right with all our relations.
International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia is coming up on May 17. It was launched in 2004 and has become a global occasion for education and advocacy.
The UN says that “only one out of three countries legally protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation, only one out of ten protect people based on gender identity, and only a handful based on sex characteristics.”
We can’t end gender injustice without ending discrimination faced widely by 2SLGBTQIA+ communities. A 2023 Global News story reports that, “Canadian LGBTQ2 community members and advocates say the past year has been difficult and scary amid a notable rise in hate crimes, threats and protests against drag queens and transgender people in particular.”
This certainly tracks with a rise in police-reported hate crimes based on sexuality and gender identity, which rose nearly 60 per cent between 2009 and 2021 to the highest level in five years.
On digital media, I’ve witnessed abusive transphobic dialogue, even amongst people who would say they care about gender inequality.
Dr. Lee Airton, Assistant Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies in Education at Queen’s University, brings clarity in these tough times. Dr. Airton’s research explores how the education system is responding to gender identity and gender expression protections in human rights’ legislation.
Amongst other accomplishments, Dr. Airton founded the No Big Deal Campaign that helps people show support for transgender peoples’ rights to have their pronouns used. Dr. Airton and their team also launched gegi.ca [pronounced gee gee dot c a], the first bilingual self-advocacy resource for elementary and secondary students experiencing gender expression and gender identity discrimination at school. Dr. Airton’s first book, Gender: Your Guide, offers practical steps for welcoming gender diversity in everyday life. It has become a professional development text in teacher education, school districts, and organizations.
My name is Dr. Lee Airton, my pronouns are they/them, and I’m an assistant professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies in the Faculty of Education at Queens. I’m also a person who likes to take my research and make things for people, based on my research, things they can use. So a lot of my work is about translating research on the experiences of trans and gender non-conforming, and broadly gender diverse people, into tools educators can use. So I’ve made things like They Is My Pronoun, which is a long-standing blog now archived on how to support folks with they/them pronouns, which I established in 2012. I had a pronoun support campaign in 2016 called No Big Deal, nbdcampaign.ca, and most recently I’m a founder of gee gee dot c a (gegi.ca), which helps K12 students and their adult caregivers and allies advocate for gender identity and gender expression human rights protections.
When I’m not doing my research or teaching or working with my graduate students, I love puzzles. I’m quite a type-A person. I have a little puzzle sorting system with like different containers. I can’t do puzzles with other people because my whole life is collaborative, like my job and my research and everything like that. Puzzling is where I just like I don’t have to think about anybody else. I can just do my puzzle, I can sort it, I can get the edges just right and I can go to town being the Virgo I am. I have a lot of podcasts I follow, and I love being outside. In the winter, I cross-country ski and, in the summer, I windsurf when I’m not doing puzzles.
What are the intersections between gender justice and gender diversity? Why are they so critical to work towards in tandem?
We are seeing a lot of media coverage, a lot of discourse, a lot of public conversation, especially coming out of the UK and the United States, that is seeking to pit transgender people against the needs and interests and safety even of cisgender women. There’s a lot of scholarship that has studied how trans women in particular are written about and described, especially in media, as some kind of threat to cisgender women. We’ve known for a long time there is no research that supports that. We know, for example, that it is transgender women and transgender people who are at risk of violence in places like washrooms and changing rooms, not cisgender women from transgender people.
And we also have a lot of research showing us that many of the issues that cisgender women face, such as intimate partner violence, experience of sexual harassment and sexual assault, misogyny, systemic discrimination in the workplace, those are also things that many transgender women experience. So it’s very convenient for anti-feminist groups and voices to have this emerging sort of public consciousness of a separation between the issues that face cisgender women and transgender people. That means that the interests of cisgender women will not be advocated and will not be joined in coalition with others and made stronger.
Let’s pause here.
I’ve worked in gender equality programs for a long time. I’ve seen things. I remember key moments when Two Spirit, trans, and non-binary people in the City of Toronto had to clamber for recognition of abuse they face. I remember swells of support for them, as well as tides of resistance. I remember being so confused by it all – because the evidence is clear. Two Spirit, trans, and non-binary people face disproportionately high rates of violence and discrimination. Their safety is so important in gender-based violence prevention. I learned an important lesson back then: data alone doesn’t sway our beliefs and decisions about who we support and protect. Dr. Airton reminded me of how dangerous it is when we split up interconnected issues, slicing and dicing and trying to carve out little corners of unshared power. It ends up setting us all back. It ends up multiplying trauma and harm.
Expectations around what you should look like and how your body should move and what people should wear and how they should dress and groom and conduct themselves; what norms of professional behavior are. All of those expectations, especially in places like workplaces and schools, those things are generally coded in a way that makes it more accessible for men, in the workplace especially, and we have so much research on how those norms around what kind of behavior is professional or responsible or authoritative or leaderly, that is totally coded in ways that’s easier for men to be recognized as. Those things don’t just hurt cisgender women, they hurt a lot of people.
In my work, I focus a lot on the system and on the expectations that people are compared to and how different forms of oppression stem from that. My work in relation to trans people’s human rights and trans people’s well-being in education is inseparable from the experiences of sexism and misogyny that many cisgender women experience in education. Most of my research, I would say, is either in the area of how educational systems, particularly K12, are responding to the inclusion of gender identity and gender expression, human rights protections in the Ontario Human Rights Code. That is a process that is very complicated, but in many instances, many school boards are addressing it by adding those terms to lists of code grounds, not realizing that gender expression is a very transformational human right that is not only held by transgender people. There is so much ill treatment that has been called homophobia, for example, that is called workplace bullying, that is called all of these other terms that we now can look at and recognize as gender expression-based harassment.
So if we think about a girl who just isn’t doing girl in the way her peers are, right? She’s not dressing or grooming or behaving or having the same interests or needs or views even, or following the same TikTok stars, for example, as the other girls where she is. If she is experiencing ill treatment of one kind or a degree or another because of that and she’s in school and her school knows about it, then she is actually experiencing a form of gender expression-based discrimination. We can infer kind of the opposite situation about a gender non-conforming boy. We don’t have to care about the sexual orientation or the gender identity of these people in my examples. And we actually know that if we can give people survey questions that allow us to group them into gender non-conforming or gender conforming groups in our findings, we have very striking differences between those folks’ experiences and like garden-variety, gender conforming boys and girls, or men and women.
A lot of my research has discovered that gender expression, especially in school board policy, isn’t being sufficiently understood as transformational. I never walk around, talking to people in education, only talking about trans people, ever. I always am talking about how school systems expect certain kinds of boys and certain kinds of girls, and the ones who are harmed by those structures are going to be cisgender, gender non-conforming girls and boys, and transgender kids and transgender teachers. It is very challenging for a teacher to join the teaching profession if they are transgender and out, or if they are gender non-conforming. There’s a lot of inbuilt expectations around educator professionalism that greatly disadvantage someone who’s trans or gender non-conforming. This is not just a trans person thing.
That kind of switch – a lot of common-sense knowledge of boys and girls that teachers use, and that people use in their thinking about men and women to guide decision making and to guide relationship development, et cetera, especially in workplaces and schools, those are usually quite traditional in terms of: women like this, girls like this, men do this, boys do this. And so much of that knowledge is used to make decisions, and when that adds up to a pattern of ill treatment, regardless of intent, we have a whole different terrain of human rights violation.
The things we’ve always done and the ways we’ve always talked about something – we may be going afoul of law. And every teacher education program, so Bachelor of Education or similar, teacher candidates are instructed on how they should conduct themselves in practicum. And there’s practicum placements in social work and in nursing, and increasingly in different kinds of coop programs, and we are not good at realizing that we have to be very particular about where we place some folks, about what kind of environment will be supportive. We anticipate that we can put anybody anywhere and they will be okay, and we also make a lot of mistakes in telling them how they should look. In the next 10 years, I predict that we will not be telling anyone what they can wear anymore, but we are not there yet. And education is not alone in this problem. If we try to keep gender expression and gender identity just for trans people in our policies and in our language, then we’re giving our institutions an out to have to make structural changes. Quite convenient, right?
So gender expression for me, realizing the potential of that is like a zone of responsibility for an institution. And what it looks like to prevent that kind of discrimination, that for me is far more transformational than gender identity.
What can we as everyday people do to welcome gender and sexual diversity in our lives? Any tools and tips to take forward?
I’m interested in helping people to not need to know a whole bunch of stuff about somebody in order to have as welcoming a space, an interaction, et cetera, as possible. I actually go out of my way to say: “you don’t need to know why agender is different from gender fluid or different from non-binary or whatever.” Or like why some people like to say transsexual, single transgender. I actually say to my folks who I work with, “you don’t have to know those things,” because those are very community-based and changing and contextually dependent pieces of information.
What you actually have to know is how our ordinary patterns of interacting tell people who they are, even if we don’t mean to. We can stop doing that by taking gender language out of our small talk. And I talk a lot about this in my book, Gender: Your Guide, there’s a whole lot of tools and examples in there for recognizing ways we tell people who they are without meaning to.
So we can also tell people who they are without meaning to when we react in particular ways to the things they tell us that we didn’t expect to hear. Regardless of our intent, we can be a wonderful person, right, who’s like all on-board with gender justice and with making society accessible to people of who are trans, et cetera, in all ways, and we can still, through how we sort of show surprise when someone shares something about themself or their life or their name or their pronouns or something like that, we can tell them who they aren’t, as if we are the people who get to know that. And that’s not intentional, right? That’s just getting ahead of ourselves and recognizing that those reactions are going to close down this space. They’re going to close down this relationship because we have just closed someone in.
Trans-people are diverse! There’s lots of different kinds of trans people, like trans men have different ways of understanding and of living than trans women do, there are non-binary people, yes, there are trans people. Beyond that, let us get a handle on the ways that in all of our interactions, we shut down who the other person can be with our use of gendered language, and how we respond to each other. In my experience, when people understand that it’s not “you have to be an expert, you just have to stop doing some things,” that tends to calm people down. It’s actually less of an ask. It’s a very concrete starting place. It’s like you know how when you meet somebody you haven’t seen in a very long time and their body size has greatly diminished. It’s an example I have in my book and it’s something that I understand happens to a lot of cisgender women and people just comment on their bodies when they see them.
One of the ways that I’ve sort of thought and felt my way into that experience is to imagine that that person, maybe they have a critical illness, so I’m not going to say anything about that when I meet them. I’m going to keep my surprise inside if I haven’t seen them, and if it comes out in conversation and I can get a sense of how they feel about it, maybe I will step into that space in a way that mirrors and is respectful of how they feel, right? I’m going to wait until they share that with me, I’m going to get a sense of their affect and their relationship with that information, and then I may step into that space. That is what, like one of the many things I call a gender-friendly practice, and a lot of those similar ways of thinking are supportive of transgender people, but the examples I just gave you are extremely germane to the experiences of cisgender women.
Alright, now what? Check out Gender: Your Guide by Lee Airton, a guide offering practical steps for welcoming gender diversity in everyday life.
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