Talking about gender diversity and inclusion in Canadian education

Faculty of Education
Equity, diversity and inclusion
Pride
Teaching
Education

By Christine L. Cusack

Communications, Faculté d'éducation | Faculty of Education, uOttawa

Line art representing diverse group of people
This is a new and fragile time in education, says Lee Airton, assistant professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies in Education at Queen’s University. Even if we are becoming more accustomed to conversations about gender expression, gender identity and pronouns, polarized public debates about gender diversity in schools are intensifying in many places.

Back-to-school season means teachers across the country are getting ready for the new year and working on how to make their classrooms more welcoming for all. Supporting 2SLGBTQIA+ inclusion in schools is not only crucial for student wellness, Airton affirms, but also for building inclusive school communities, which include administrators, educators, and families. As an invited keynote speaker in the Faculty of Education’s Teacher Education program, Airton brings the latest research and thinking on gender and sexual diversity to professional learning events for candidates in the University of Ottawa’s Bachelor of Education program. These presentations are designed to deepen understanding of the role new teachers play in making positive change in Canadian schools.

Encountering diversity

According to Airton, teaching is a generational profession and the experience of teachers changes over time. The current cohort of teacher education candidates is more familiar with human gender and sexual diversity. They also regularly navigate gender and sexual diversity in their everyday lives. Airton affirms that even the English spoken by this generation differs from the English spoken by previous generations of teachers. Some millennials and members of “Gen Z” (those currently in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties) more easily use ‘they’ and ‘them’ as singular pronouns, while older teachers often experience transness and the call to use inclusive terminology for the first time in schools. “Even cisgender student teachers arrive with more knowledge of, and exposure to, transgender peers than their predecessors,” Airton notes. “This means that successive generations of student teachers arrive on practicum and graduate into teaching roles where they may carry the most current and accurate knowledge about transgender lives and issues.”

Historical gender issues in education

Controversies about gender in public education are not new. Airton tells the story of how their mother experienced discrimination as an elementary school teacher in the 1960s and early 1970s in British Columbia. Gendered dress code expectations at the time meant that women teachers wore high heels in the classroom, even on field trips with 40 young students. When she became visibly pregnant, Airton’s mother, like countless other women, was forced to leave her position. Leaving a teaching job when pregnancy was visible was a widespread experience for educators during that era, and one example of how the teaching profession has always regulated teachers’ gender expressions and bodies, Airton says. This included concerted efforts to “keep gender non-conforming people out of the role.”

Professor Lee Airton
Lee Airton, assistant professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies in Education at Queen’s University, presenting to teacher education candidates at the University of Ottawa.

Generational change and openness to difference

Thankfully, attitudes towards gender are changing throughout the education sector, and not just for students, but also for teaching personnel. “For the first time in the profession’s history, more people who are transgender and/or gender non-conforming (including cis-gender people) are seeing K-12 teaching as a possible career,” Airton observes.

Inclusive futures

In 2017, Airton made history as the first openly transgender academic to be hired as a tenure-track professor in a Canadian faculty of education. Their expertise and lived experience are sought after by school boards, government agencies, and private sector companies. Outside of education, Airton says that many invitations they receive from these organizations come from newly hired queer or transgender employees seeking culture change in their workplace, and some come from parents of transgender kids who worry that their workplaces will not be welcoming, such that their kids will never get jobs. “These are parents wanting to envision a future for their children,” Airton explains.

For the first time in our history, Airton emphasizes, parents of trans kids exist as a group, and “trans kid parent” exists as an identity that is shared with others. Much of Airton’s work focusses on helping to broaden perspectives in support of members of GenX, the age group of the majority of school administrators in Canada. “Gender expression discrimination is a matter of human rights,” Airton says. “Though for some, the struggle to make the shift is real.”  

Tools for becoming inclusion advocates

The importance of educating our pre-service and experienced teachers on how to become advocates for inclusion cannot be underestimated. Airton’s contributions towards this goal are plentiful. From the popular website Gegi.ca to the recently published Teaching about Gender Diversity: Teacher-Tested Lesson Plans for K-12 Classrooms, resources abound for creating welcoming spaces.

Meaningful change takes time and persistence. “This is all of our labour to do,” Airton says. 

 


 

Bio

Lee Airton is an assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies in education at Queen's University. 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, Professor 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, 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, Airton and their research team launched gegi.ca [pronounced gee gee dot c a], the first bilingual self-advocacy resource for K-12 students experiencing gender expression and gender identity discrimination at school. Airton's first book, Gender: Your Guide, which offers practical steps for welcoming gender diversity in everyday life, has been adopted as a key professional development text in teacher education programs, school districts, public sector and private sector organizations. Airton has been interviewed over 65 times nationally and internationally on topics related to gender diversity, and they were the first early career scholar to deliver the Annual Canadian Association for Teacher Education keynote address in 2022.