I remember, very clearly, the day my childhood best friend told me he was transgender. The tone of his voice blends in my memory with the image of his white knuckles resting on the table, and the immediate silence that followed, awkwardly suggesting our friendship would never be quite the same.
I remember not being surprised at all, but curious about how this next chapter of his life would impact our relationship. How could I best support him? What would happen to the memories we'd made as two best female friends?
J's experience was atypical. He identified as a woman for 28 years, growing up in our small Nova Scotia town as part of an even smaller tight-knit church community. He married into a heterosexual relationship at 22, found himself questioning his sexual orientation at 26, and eventually his gender identity at 28.
Our moms had been best friends before we were and he was a presence in my life literally before I was born. I had never known my life without this person, yet here he was, sitting quietly at our kitchen table informing me that I, in fact, knew nothing about his identity.
My ignorance became even more apparent when J attempted to explain the gender transition process to me. He had done extensive research and had talked to many others about hormone therapy and surgery. Some transitions were so successful that you'd never know the person had been assigned a different gender at birth.
"But you'd never actually be a real man," I distinctly remember saying at the time.
I was (literally) just thinking out loud, but when I looked at my best friend's face and saw him fighting back tears, it became clear that I really needed to educate myself. I was hiding behind all of the typical safety nets, trying to convince myself that there was nothing to learn. I'm young, I'm open-minded, I spend a lot of time on the internet, I'm relatively informed --
And I still knew nothing about gender identity.
Even now as this memory surfaces four years later I still really have no idea what I'm talking about. I do remember what it felt like during those brief moments of ignorance. I know what it feels like now, as a Nova Scotian in Alberta, to witness the same kind of ignorance as it manifests collectively across the province. And I can't help but feel the need to add my voice to the giant mess of dialogue that's been permeating my life since mid-January.
"Even with gender identity and gender expression now being protected under the Alberta Human Rights Act, the province is still the eighth Canadian jurisdiction to make it happen."
I agree that it's kind of scary to admit that many of our previous perceptions around gender were false. It's daunting to actually recognize that there are unlimited gray areas of something that's been so widely accepted as black and white.
Most of us will never have to spend much time thinking about gender. But when a loved one looks at you in pain because they're so desperately trying to get you to understand who they are? You have no choice but to listen and learn.
When the Government of Alberta released their set of guidelines to support school boards in developing LGBTQ-inclusive policies, I was hopeful, then immediately disgusted by the public response. This is something I'd been waiting for, something that I had desperately needed growing up, and it is undoubtedly of critical importance to anyone who loves a trans person.
It ranges quite broadly from mildly ignorant to extremely hurtful. Some have expressed concerns around their children being able to self-identify their genders. Others have communicated frustration around the idea that school board policies need to be completely revamped to cater only to the needs of a small minority group.
I would like to make something very clear -- these guidelines do not just cater to the few.
Statistically speaking, perhaps there are less individuals who identify as LGBTQ than those who do not. But those who oppose the guidelines seem to fail to realize that these people, like all other human beings, are deeply loved and widely supported.
So many of us would go to great lengths to try to understand what they're experiencing, simply as means of being able to support them better. So many of us are harmed by the hate and ignorance we see our loved ones exposed to. All of that harm could be reduced by increasing public dialogue, education and awareness.
J and I didn't go to schools with LGBTQ-inclusive policies. There were no resources to help us figure out who we were or what we felt. He did everything he believed he was "supposed" to do -- attended church regularly, got an education, got married. He was my (female) counsellor at church camp for years. But ultimately, no amount of religious teaching, no lack of public awareness could stop my best friend from becoming who he is.
People still question him all the time: "How did you manage to live to nearly 30 before coming to this realization?"
This is why it's so important for the government to take the lead on promoting public education and awareness of LGBTQ rights. As an adult, it's frustrating and uncomfortable to challenge mainstream public opinion. As a child, it's utterly terrifying. Watching J come out even at age 28 and seeing him struggle to try to educate close family, friends and colleagues by himself was still overwhelming.
Even with gender identity and gender expression now being protected under the Alberta Human Rights Act, the province is still the eighth Canadian jurisdiction to make it happen.
There couldn't be clearer indication that Alberta needs to do more, and these guidelines are an important piece of that. I'm grateful everyday that J was able to find himself and find happiness. The fact that so many people still can't is unacceptable.
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