This past May, New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative government sparked a national furor when it announced changes to a previously obscure piece of provincial education legislation. Adopted in 2020, Policy 713 required school personnel to use students’ preferred names and pronouns and to ask students for permission before telling their parents about name and pronoun changes. It was intended to protect LGBTQ+ students who could face abusive or dangerous situations at home.
The revised policy hinged instead on parental—not student—consent. School personnel now need to inform parents if students under 16 change their name, pronouns or gender identity. And teachers must get parents’ permission to use students’ preferred names and pronouns.
Following New Brunswick’s lead, Saskatchewan introduced a similar policy in August, and advocates have since lined up on either side of the issue. Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Education says it’s protecting the right of parents to be involved in their children’s education. Opponents of the policies say they endanger vulnerable kids. In August, the University of Regina’s UR Pride Centre for Sexuality and Gender Diversity filed an injunction against Saskatchewan’s government, alleging that the province’s policy violates Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The debate has since spread to every province; this week, thousands of Canadians nationwide protested what they perceive as the teaching of gender identity in classrooms. They were met in most cities by even larger crowds of counter-protesters.
Teresa Mead, a mental health therapist, and her 14-year-old son, Ollie Mead-Ramayya, live in Saskatoon, where Ollie is enrolled in his first year of high school. When Ollie came out as trans last year, the first adult he told was his teacher. Even though his mom had always been open-minded, he was still afraid that coming out to her could change his life at home. Now, Ollie—who got parental consent to use his chosen name and pronouns at school—believes that the new policy has changed everything, especially for students who don’t have safe situations at home and for teachers who support them. Here, Teresa and Ollie talk about the anxieties of coming out to family members and what the first day of high school is like when nobody knows what to call each other.
How did you first react when you heard about Saskatchewan’s new policy?
Teresa Mead: I felt really scared for the kids who are trans and those who may still be in the process of understanding their own gender identity. I feel like it instigates hatred toward my kid and validates people who don’t want to treat my kid the same as others.
Ollie Mead: Honestly, I was mortified. It’s going to affect a lot of people really, really negatively. It would have ruined my life a year ago; it’s going to ruin a lot of my friends’ lives. I don’t understand why they’re doing this to people or how it’s helping anyone.
What happened to you a year ago?
Ollie: Well, I wasn’t out to my mom or my dad. I wasn’t out to anyone. It’s a really personal process coming out, especially to your family. You don’t want to have a teacher from your high school or anyone else doing that.
Who did you first come out to?
Ollie: I came out to my two closest friends first. My teacher was the first adult I came out to, though. I think I made a joke about it, and he kind of got it from there.
Why was it more comfortable for you to reach out to a teacher than to your parents?
Ollie: They’re not your family, right? They’re not the people who you go home to, they’re not the people who you sleep in the same house with. I feel like there’s a comfort in knowing that if it goes bad, you can go home and get away. But if you come out to your parents and it goes bad, there’s nowhere you can go. You’re stuck. But your teacher can have a lot of power, if that makes sense. They can help you a lot more than your parents sometimes can.
Ollie: Well, before this policy, they could have called you by your preferred name and pronouns without your parents knowing. And it’s nice to have someone older who’s good to you about these things.
If this policy had been in place last year, do you think that would have changed your decision to come out to your teacher?
Ollie: Definitely. He wouldn’t have been able to call me by my preferred name or pronouns, and he would have had to tell my mom, and I wasn’t ready for that yet.
How did it go when you came out to your parents?
Ollie: I didn’t plan it. I just screamed it in the car and then cried in the grocery store.
Teresa, what was your reaction hearing Ollie come out? Was it unexpected?
Teresa: Ollie gave me lots of hints beforehand, and we’ve always had very open discussions about that topic. But there in the grocery store, I was surprised but supportive. And then we ran into the teacher who Ollie had already come out to, so that was pure coincidence. But I was surprised after that happened—you said that you were afraid I would kick you out.
Ollie: Well, yeah, that sometimes happens.
How did you react when you found out that you were not the first adult Ollie told about their gender identity?
Teresa: It didn’t bother me at all. I’m really glad my kid had a safe person to talk to, and I know that even for kids who trust their parents and speak openly with them, their outcomes will be more positive if they have another caring person in their life—like a teacher or a mentor. I was just glad that Ollie had someone he could trust with that information.
You protested the policy in Saskatoon in late August, along with hundreds of other people. What motivated you to go out there?
Teresa: I went as an ally to my child. I also have concerns as a therapist, because all the research shows that trans kids are much more likely to have suicidal behaviour and depressive symptoms and to self-harm. On the flip side of that, the research also shows that for every context in which a child’s pronouns and name are validated—like at school or at home or with friends—it cuts the risk of suicidal behaviour in half. They benefit greatly from having someone else they can trust in their lives, like a teacher or school personnel.
I’ve worked with trans youth whose parents really love them but can’t understand what their kids are saying about their identity, and it really increases those children’s risks for certain behaviours and emotional issues.
In your work with trans youth, what role has school played in their lives?
Teresa: I’m not going to speak as an expert because I’ve only worked with a few trans youth. But my concern is that school personnel can be a liaison to outside agencies and counsellors. That’s how we can find out about kids who are at risk. A neighbour can report on physical abuse or neglect, but in this case, it’s emotional abuse that might occur at home if parents don’t agree with what their kids are saying about their gender. And if kids feel isolated and there’s an increased risk of self-harm, these kids mostly have to rely on self-reporting to bring their home situation to the attention of outside support systems or counsellors. Often, that happens through a teacher or school personnel. But now we’re eliminating another avenue to find out about at-risk children.
On the other side of the issue, you have parents who say they want to be involved in big changes in their children’s lives, in order to support them at home. They also argue they have the right to know what’s happening with their kids. What are your thoughts?
Ollie: I just think parents need to step back a little, you know? Because if your child isn’t comfortable coming to you first, that’s for a reason. If they want to go to their teacher, it’s because they feel unsafe about telling you, even if you’re not a bad parent. You can’t always tell your parents everything first because it can be terrifying.
Teresa: I’m not a lawyer, but I think it also comes down to kids’ rights versus parental rights. Of course, as parents, we always want to be involved in the choices that our kids make. But children’s safety comes before that, and my kid made a choice.
In this situation, you find children’s safety to be the most important thing to protect.
Teresa: Yes. Children don’t always come out to their parents right away because that trust may not be there yet. The child may not trust that their parents understand what they’re saying about themselves, or what their experiences are. Kids need more time too, because there’s not always open communication in the home, or they’ve had altercations with their parents. So maybe they don’t feel safe telling their parents yet, but there’s still a lot of love there.
We also know that roughly 25 to 40 per cent of LGBTQ+ youth experience homelessness in Canada. The relationship between a parent and a child can be a really high-stakes one. There’s the risk of homelessness and being kicked out, but there’s also the emotional risk of rejection, which has implications for children’s self-worth. Not to mention the secondary losses, like with extended family members, who might find out about your gender identity as a result of you telling your parents. It can change everything.
Ollie, you’re back in high school now, starting Grade 9. How was your first day?
Ollie: It was kind of weird, actually. People in my classes got called out by their deadnames. And they came up to me after and said that’s not actually what they prefer to be called, but their parents didn’t sign off on it because they didn’t want them to be called that. It’s really sad. It’s really, really painful to hear a name that you worked hard to get rid of because that name makes you feel horrible. Then you hear it again, and your whole class hears it. Especially in high school, you’re supposed to get a fresh start, but you and everybody else hears that name again.
How have your teachers reacted? Do they know they’re calling these students by their deadnames?
Ollie: I think some people know. They can’t really do anything, though, right? They just have to go with it. I know some teachers would’ve happily helped people with their preferred names, but they can’t.
Have you heard anything about this policy from teachers or administrators? Has anybody brought it up?
Ollie: No, they’re not talking about it, which is not so great. If you’re going to do this, at least talk about it and explain it. But nobody is.
With this policy in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, what do you think the future holds for Canada’s LGBTQ+ population?
Ollie: I don’t think these policymakers have us in mind at all. They’re not thinking about our wellbeing; they’re not thinking about the wellbeing of anyone but themselves. They want Saskatchewan to be how they want it, and not what’s good for everybody else.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.