An LGBTQ Youth Perspective on School

In honor of Pride Month we invited our occasional warehouse assistant, Leo, to tell us about his experiences at school.

Identified as a girl at birth, Leo was fortunate to feel no pressure to conform to gender roles. Leo grew up in a family and community open to all forms of gender expression. As a result, when Leo began to acknowledge his gender identity, he understood what he was experiencing to be perfectly normal. Most trans youth report being the victims of chronic bullying, report feelings of isolation and of being “outcasts.” While Leo does refer to his social circle as comprising of misfits, he portrays a loving, supportive group of friends who navigated the complexities of school together.

During middle school Leo still identified as female, but began to wear masculine clothing and behave in a more boyish manner. His friends started to call him Leo, and he adopted the name with pride. He even asked his teachers to use the name. The teachers were “chill” about the request, and none of them asked Leo why he wanted the name change.

But school bullies taunted Leo and called him “homo.” Leo does not feel singled out by bullies, but instead characterizes middle school as a place where bullying is the norm. “If it wasn’t for being gay, it would have been something else. Everyone is trying to figure out their ideals, and they are still very influenced by the ideals of their parents. Everyone is trying to work out different things.”

When asked if he ever spoke to a teacher about being bullied, Leo says there was “no point.” In Leo’s case, the bullies had close ties to teachers, so he felt he would not be believed.

In grade nine, Leo entered into a same-sex relationship with a girl named Mariz. A year into the relationship, both partners were exploring gender identity. Leo identified as male and his partner identified as genderqueer, not certain if one or another gender was the best fit, but certain that they did not conform to society’s expectations. While Leo knew he was a boy, his partner sometimes wanted to be Mariz and other times identified as Alan. Leo says school was far more difficult for his partner, who was reluctant to come out because of the stigma attached to gender fluidity.

Leo reflects that in our hyper-sexualized culture, there is an assumption that trans individuals want to be an ideal version of male or female, and that isn’t the case for most. Leo, for example, uses male pronouns, has had top surgery and enjoys a passion for make-up and clothing. His partner eventually chose to identify as Alan, and the pair celebrated their 8th anniversary recently.

Leo came out as transgender to his peers and family in grade ten, but it wasn’t until grade eleven that Leo was ready to make his gender identity publicly known. For his first “coming out,” Leo chose a photography teacher whose treatment of openly gay students suggested she was “open and a safe bet.” When Leo asked this teacher to use the name Leo and male pronouns because Leo identified as a male, the teacher’s response was an awkward “that’s interesting” followed by a promise to try.

Despite this lukewarm reception, Leo persevered and came out to all of his teachers. All but one teacher was “pretty weird about it,” he says. “It goes to show that gender is a new thing. Talking about acceptance and actually acting on it are different things.”

Leo had few difficulties with the other kids in high school. He looked and acted masculine, so his fellow students accepted him as a boy. There were bad moments, though, when a substitute teacher used his legal name during role call. “When your substitute teacher comes in too late for you to let them know your gender identity, and they call out your girl’s name, it can ruin your day or even your week. It’s incredibly embarrassing to have to come out in front of your whole class.”

Leo tried to have his gender updated on the school records, but his request was denied. He was told that it was school policy to use only legal names on school lists. Leo had to come out individually to each teacher throughout high school, and most of the teachers were ill-equipped to handle the conversation.

A major problem for Leo in high school was gym class. The teacher insisted that Leo use the girl’s change room. But the girls knew Leo as a boy, and Leo didn’t want to make them uncomfortable by changing with them. Leo couldn’t win. Either a teacher or student was mad at him no matter which washroom he used. He spent most of high school avoiding washrooms and getting docked marks for lack of gym strip. Leo eventually went to the principal about his marks in gym. The principal adjusted Leo’s grades but didn’t resolve the issue in any other way.

Today Leo’s old high school has policies in place to support transgender youth. According to Leo, the best thing a school can do to provide a safe environment for LGBTQ teens is provide gender-neutral bathrooms and an inclusive role-call policy.

Compared to North American statistics, Leo’s story is one success. Leo completed high school and, at 23, is in school to become a dental assistant. According to a UBC study, Leo’s family and community are the biggest factors in his success. Not all students are so lucky. This is where schools can make a difference by providing a safe space for LGBTQ teens.

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