When Julia O'Dwyer met with the vice-principal at Lord Byng Secondary School six years ago to inform him that her 13-year-old daughter would be transitioning into a boy named Cormac, there was no policy outlining how to accommodate transgender kids at Vancouver schools.
"The staff was really supportive but they really didn't know how to go about it," said Ms. O'Dwyer, a mother of four. "Every time they would ask [the diversity consultant], 'So what's the policy on this?' The answer would be, 'Well there is no policy.' So we kind of had to make it up as we went along."
Parents of transgender youth expressed relief Monday night after Vancouver School Board trustees voted seven-to-two to approve changes to the board's sexual orientation and gender identities policy, a topic of incendiary debate. But the policy brings Vancouver in line with school districts in other Canadian centres.
Those in support of the revised policy say it merely codifies what is already practised at most schools, in order to provide clarity and consistency. But the amended provisions have also faced strong opposition from some parents, who have called for more time for consultation. Parents in support of the changes and those against them squared off during a board meeting Monday night that got so rowdy, VSB chair Patti Bacchus threatened several times to remove disruptive people from the audience.
The updated policy allows children to choose the name and gender pronoun they would like to be addressed by, and it gives transgender students access to a gender-neutral bathroom – for instance, a single-stall handicap washroom or one that is usually reserved for school staff. Kids who have transitioned can also get permission from their teachers to use the bathroom that corresponds with their new gender identity, Ms. Bacchus explained.
Many other school districts have similar policies. Edmonton Public Schools has had a policy on sexual orientation and gender identity that allows youth access to gender-neutral bathrooms for more than a year. "We're catching up to where our kids have been," said board chair Sarah Hoffman.
The Toronto District School Board introduced a similar set of guidelines in 2011, which call for teachers and students to find accommodations for transgender or gender-questioning youth on a case-by-case basis.
It's all part of what Ken Jeffers, the gender-based violence prevention co-ordinator at the Toronto District School Board, calls a cultural shift towards acceptance and inclusiveness in Canadian schools. "There's been momentum building," Mr. Jeffers said. "Schools reflect the societies that they're in."
But in Vancouver, the issue has been so divisive that it has prompted an ugly fight within the ranks of the parent advisory committee at Lord Byng, after the chair voiced her opposition in an open letter that others parents argued does not reflect their views as a group.
And two longstanding Vancouver School Board trustees – Ken Denike and Sophia Woo – who voted against the changes at Monday night's meeting were ejected from the Non-Partisan Association's caucus last week after hosting a news conference at a Chinese restaurant calling for more consultation. Ms. Bacchus, along with a number of other trustees, argued the policy has seen an "unprecedented" amount of consultation. Parents like Ms. O'Dwyer say there's no time to waste when it comes to helping vulnerable youth who may need assistance advocating for their needs. Cormac O'Dwyer, who is now 19 and has graduated from Lord Byng, says he was lucky to have support from his family and his teachers. "It was not a big deal to us because we didn't feel particularly strongly about pressing our children into traditional gender roles," said Ms. O'Dwyer, recalling the moment when her tomboyish daughter came home from school and announced she was transgender. "We didn't insist on pink dresses."
But not all children are so lucky. And even the helpful teachers at Cormac's school were sometimes unsure about how to handle the situation. "This policy writes down exactly what they needed to know six years ago," Cormac said.