Editors' note: Savannah Garmon is a physics researcher and queer and trans community activist presently based in Toronto. She studied both physics and creative writing in her birth state of North Carolina and later received her Ph.D. in physics at the University of Texas at Austin in 2007.
A firestorm of criticism has erupted in response to an ad that recently appeared in the National Post and Toronto Sun. Placed by Charles McVety's so-called Institute for Canadian Values (ICV), the ad features a wide-eyed young girl accompanied by the phrase "Please! Don't confuse me", followed by, "I'm a girl. Don't teach me to question if I'm a boy, transexual [sic.], transgendered, intersexed or two spirited [sic.]" (The original version misspelled "transsexual" and "two-spirited").
The ad attacks a new Toronto District School Board (TDSB) resource guide that provides teachers with an age-appropriate approach to sex education that incorporates both sexual and gender diversity.
For example, in an activity outline called "'Pink versus Blue' - Challenging Gender Stereotypes," students are asked to divide a group of toys into "girl toys," "boy toys," or those that are gender-neutral. Students are asked to question why they associate gender with certain toys. They are further asked how a child might be singled out if they do not conform with traditional gender norms, such as a boy who likes to skip rope or a girl who plays sports better than the boys, and how that might hurt the child's feelings. The lesson is clearly aimed to prevent bullying. It is not designed to convince a young girl she should consider becoming a boy, or vice-versa.
That being said, there is the possibility that someone in the class might have some such inclination - I did.
Growing up in rural North Carolina, I knew from around age six I was somehow different. I knew that while my body was 'boy' and others viewed me that way, I felt more like one of the girls. I didn't completely understand it or know what it meant (I first heard the word 'transgender' around the age of twenty), but I was a smart kid and I knew that if I shared my feelings I could expose myself to isolation and violence. So I hid myself and, though it wasn't intentional, I gradually internalized that fear as deep shame.
It took about twenty years before I could seriously begin the process of unlearning that shame, overcome (ironically) self-imposed isolation, and begin living as myself. That process was not always fun but I survived it, which is an immense source of pride for me today.
The ICV ad is meant to tell my story, only with the opposite conclusion: trans children, intersex children, anyone who does not conform should learn silence. Silence is often taught through bullying.
Consider the case of an intersex child, who has no choice whatsoever about the fact that their body may not conform to either female or male. There is no shortage of horror stories about surgeries performed on such children, combined with attempts to force conformity to either normative gender category-- only to have them reject such assigned roles later in life, often resulting in great misery or even suicide. This is why an intersex child must be afforded safe space to work out their own gender, which will not happen in school without strong classroom guidance.
The ICV ad attempts to undo that, calling on provincial party leadership to "stop confusing" the little girl in the picture. This effectively acts to silence intersex and trans children into shame and self-erasure, possibly even reinstating bullying as a means to accomplish that.
As a result of the backlash against the ad, the National Post was at least compelled to issue a ham-fisted apology (the apology itself confuses gender identity with sexuality).
Unfortunately, some responses even from LGBTI organizations have been less than stellar, with many describing the ad as "homophobic" or "anti-gay". The ad certainly does contain (mostly implied) homophobia, which must be condemned. However, the ad aggressively targets trans and intersex individuals. Make no mistake, this is intentional - the religious right believes that by attacking more marginalized members of the LGBTI community they will eventually create an opening to attack the entire community. The appropriate response is not for mainstream gay organizations to avoid discussing trans issues, but rather to stand up forcefully in order to disarm such an attack.
What's worse, avoiding the issue acts as yet another erasure of trans identities and trans and intersex bodies - ironic, considering that is the intent of the ad itself.
On October 2, the heat was turned up further when it was reported that Progressive Conservative candidates in recent provincial elections were distributing flyers projecting a similar message, claiming the TDSB manual promotes "cross-dressing for six-year olds." Such bizarre claims obviously represent an intense fear of trans and intersex acceptance that must be countered with a forceful response. We must call on both the Toronto Sun and the PC provincial party for a public apology, and for mainstream LGBTI organizations to stand unwavering in the face of anti-trans hate speech.
A version of this article appeared in the Varsity, a University of Toronto student paper.