Last week, we wrote about Larry Kowalczyk, a Catholic school board trustee in Edmonton who claimed transgender people are mentally disordered. The impetus for his demeaning comments: a seven-year-old transgender girl’s fight to be able to use the girls’ bathroom at her elementary school.
The girl’s mother reached out to Patheos to talk more about what her family has gone through: tumultuous closed-door school board meetings, biting criticism from clergy, segregation at school, a loss of faith in the Catholic church, and every other hurdle imaginable since they took on the school board in January.
The next episode of their fight will take place in October, when the school board will meet to discuss a trans-inclusive school policy that could finally allow her daughter to be treated just like any other girl at her school. Until then, the girl’s mother will stop at nothing to protect her child and urges other parents of trans kids to do the same.
To ensure her family’s privacy, the child’s mother has asked that her name be withheld. This interview has been condensed and edited.
How are you and your daughter doing in light of all this?
She is okay. She doesn’t know the extent of how much this has blown up, I’ve really kept her sheltered from that, and the school is doing a good job of being respectful. They’re keeping that side of it hidden from her. Me, on the other hand… I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
I’m so sorry to hear that.
Oh, no. I’m the one that decided to fight it, right? I read a lot of the comments on your blog, like, “Why doesn’t the mom just switch schools?” And it’s simple. Because there’s nothing wrong with her. By switching schools, that just furthers the thought process that transgender individuals don’t belong in the Catholic system, when they have every right to be there.
Is it important to you that your daughter is in the Catholic system?
I have no faith whatsoever anymore. After what I’ve been witnessing and dealing with since January, I have no faith at all.
Was your family Catholic and faithful before all this happened?
So at what point did you realize this was an issue that would make it into the news, and involve more Catholic officials, and go beyond a conflict at your daughter’s school?
The first indication would have been in January. I had a meeting at the school with ten [administrators], one of them being a priest, and when he asked me how I punish her, that was the first indication that things aren’t going to go as smoothly as I had hoped. And then he asked me why I let her “choose” this type of lifestyle, and why I wouldn’t give her stronger parameters to think within, rather than letting her think outside the box.
The second indication would have been in February, when they introduced the “third option” bathroom. They had an assembly where they introduced a gender-neutral washroom to all of the students in the school. They said, “Boys, you can use either the boys’ washroom or you can use the gender-neutral washroom. Girls, you can use the girls’ washroom, or you can use the gender-neutral washroom.” And then they turned to my child and said, “You can only use the gender-neutral washroom.” For the month of February I begged and pleaded and argued as to what their reasoning was. The three main reasons I was given were, first, it violates the privacy of the cisgender females, because some of the bathrooms in the elementary school apparently don’t have doors on the stalls.
When I further inquired, I told them that little girls aren’t poised when they go to the bathroom. Their legs are spread open, you can see what they’re doing, see their vagina, and you’re telling me that’s not more of a privacy concern than my daughter who has a penis being in the bathroom? I think we need to get our priorities straight. And then [the second reason was] that it’s a safety concern for the biological females. So I said, “You’re accusing my child of being a predator, and furthermore transgender people of being predators, and I’m not even putting up with that.” And then [the third reason] they turned it into was that it violates the human rights of the biological female. And that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Having a person in the bathroom doesn’t violate another person’s human rights. In the ‘60s, they said it violated human rights to have African Americans [in the same bathrooms], and we all know how that turned out.
At that point I appealed to all of the trustees and the superintendent, and I was given another meeting at the end of March. At that meeting I was told that the school board had done some investigation, and for the inclusivity of all students it would be decided that she would use only the gender-neutral washroom. It was at that point that I went to the media. I had gone to the highest of the high that I could, and I had also written to the then-minister of education and had no response. In May I was promised that a transgender-inclusive policy would be introduced to the school, and then they succumbed and said, “Okay she can use the girl’s washroom for the remainder of the year.” [But] in that time period, I learned she required an escort to go to the bathroom. So she wasn’t allowed to go to the bathroom by herself.
That stopped as well. The mother of that little girl [who was the bathroom escort] found out, and she demanded that her daughter stopped being used in that sense. So for the rest of the school year, with a month left, she was able to use the female washroom and she didn’t require an escort. The summer seemed to be more optimistic. The board developed a policy committee, and that included three of the trustees, myself, and another prominent transgender woman in Edmonton. We took all of the policies that had already been implemented because of human rights decisions in Canada and we made it iron-clad, so it included everything from education, sports teams, bathrooms, locker rooms, extracurricular activities, everything you could think of. It basically stated that you don’t need to have a doctor’s note, you don’t need permission, there’s no more asking where you can go if you’re a transgender or gender nonconforming child.
Every which way, we encountered resistance. At one point they put a halt to the development of the policy because they wanted to interview parents of non-transgender kids to see what their concerns would be about having a transgender child standing beside them. Then it turned into, “Well, the archbishop of Edmonton isn’t approving of this, he doesn’t like the idea, so he’s going to develop his own policy.” Then on September 8, the policy we had worked on was brought to a closed-door meeting of the trustees, and all but three voted against the policy. [At the] September 15 meeting, the entire board blew up, they were yelling at each other, calling each other names. And one of the trustees said, “We have given this girl a gender-neutral washroom, that’s good enough, that wasn’t discrimination. And if we let these people into our school system and we succumb to one demand and then we don’t succumb to all their demands, we’re going to be seen as discriminatory, so we need to stand strong on this decision.”
So what has the community response been like, particularly from your daughter’s classmates and the other parents?
The kids are amazing. No child cares. Not one of them has voiced a concern, and the parents haven’t, either. The parents have been amazing. In every social issue, you’re going to have that thin layer of trolls that have their own opinion, and that’s fine. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. I don’t expect anyone to understand what it is to be transgender, because I myself don’t understand. But what I do expect is people to respect it. And segregating and discriminating is not okay. It wasn’t okay in 1963 and it’s not okay in 2015. Once you get through that resistance, the community is amazing. They’re so welcoming and understanding and supportive. It’s just this thin layer that mostly are the right-wing extreme Catholics.
But of the kids and the parents who are being supportive, are they also Catholic?
You said you didn’t want to move to another school because that would be like giving in, but once your daughter graduates out of this system, have you thought about how the Catholic school system or the Catholic church will play a role in your life moving forward?
It’s not going to. And that’s sad, because for the last seven years I’ve been raising them as Catholic. They’re baptized, [but] they missed their communion because I don’t have the stomach to go into a church, let alone speak to any clergy from the church. Going forward, I think we just have more of an open mind. There’s something out there, there’s angels, you believe in what you want. At that point, it can be their decision.
I’m so moved and encouraged with how supportive you’ve been of your daughter as you take this on. We’re seeing more and more parents who are supportive of their trans children, but obviously there are still a lot of parents who are not as understanding as you have been. I’m interested in what it was like for you to learn that you had a trans child, and how you took on this role of being such an incredible advocate for your daughter.
I mean, was I always a supportive parent? I don’t know, because she’s been telling me she’s a girl since the age of two, and I didn’t know what [being] transgender was until September of last year. I always just assumed that she was going to be gay, because I thought “transgender” meant being a drag queen. That’s truly what I thought, and that’s to my own ignorance. But since she was two, since the time she could talk, she would say, “Mama, I’m a girl.” She would dress in play dresses, everything was girl toys. She would wear shirts or pants on her head and pretend it was hair, and so we never discouraged her. She’s been telling me for years, but I didn’t listen.
It wasn’t until September of last year, when she was cornered by two 15-year-old boys. She had her “hair” on and was playing with one of her Barbies when they called her very derogatory names. They asked her why she likes to be the f-word and why she likes being gay. So she came home to me and asked, “Mama, what do those words mean?” So I said, “Well, they’re not bad words. To be gay isn’t a bad word, but the way they’re saying it isn’t nice.”
So she said, “You know, Mama, I’m different.” And I said, “Well it’s okay, it’s okay for boys to like girl things, there’s nothing wrong with it. As long as you are true to your heart, that’s all that matters. We love you, your friends and family love you, and that’s all that matters.” And then she said, “No, Mama. you need to listen. I have a girl heart and a girl brain, and I’m stuck in a boy body. Why would God do that to me?” And I said, “I don’t think God did that to you intentionally. But Mommy is going to learn what that means, and we’ll go with it.”
So after I put them to bed that night, I typed that statement into Google, and that’s where I learned what the word “transgender” was, and as soon as I knew, I was on the phone the next day. When I became pregnant, it’s funny, because you’re asked, “What do you want, a boy or a girl?” And the response is always, “It doesn’t matter, as long as they’re healthy.” Well, at what point does that change? It doesn’t matter what I have. It doesn’t matter their gender, as long as they’re healthy. My child is my child, and as long as she’s healthy, mentally and physically, it doesn’t matter. Nothing else matters. And I will fight to move mountains for that kid.
You said that you’ve been sheltering her from the controversy and the media coverage of it all. Does she have any idea of the scope of it, and do you have any plans at some point to tell her about it?
No, she doesn’t. When she’s older, I will tell her. But from the beginning, I’ve been saying we need to let kids be kids, and that’s cisgender and transgender alike. That is my philosophy. She has enough to worry about and she has enough to process. Going to the bathroom isn’t going to be an issue, and I don’t want her at this point to know how much of an issue it is.
So what are the next steps for your family in terms of dealing with the school?
I had a meeting with the Education Minister in July and I know that he’s been supportive; he’s saying, “One more chance, they need one more chance to understand.” Well, they’re adults. They’ve had their chance. Now it’s time to act. There is a board meeting on October 13 where they’re going to be introducing their policy that they’ve developed, but I’ve been advised that the archbishop is still providing his input into the policy and that their basic plan is to leave the decision up to the principals. Well, if the principals are learning from the archbishop, and from this trustee who is a complete bigot, how does that help any transgender individuals? So the first step is to see what happens in October, and the next step is to see what happens with my human rights complaint, because I’m waiting for that decision right now. And then if that isn’t favorable, we continue going all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada. I won’t back down and I won’t stop.
The policy they’re introducing on October 13, that one is trans-inclusive?
I haven’t seen it. From what I’m told it is a “trans-inclusive” policy, but at the same time, it’s left up to the principals, which is mind-boggling all in itself. Who’s to say where the principals are getting their education from? What happens if the principal truly does believe that this is a sexual ideology that this child wants to use, and that they’re a predator and they’re going to violate the other gender in the bathroom that they go in? Well, they have the power to say, “No, you have to use the gender-neutral washroom.”
What policy do you think needs to be put in place?
There needs to be a province-wide policy that states that a transgender individual can use the washroom, can go on the sports team, can go in the locker room [that matches their gender identity]. There is no permission. It’s stated. And it needs to be province-wide. There’s 68 boards in this province; are you going to go through every board one by one? And what happens if it takes a child committing suicide when it could have been prevented?
So what advice do you have for other parents of trans kids who are facing adversity from school systems?
Keep on keepin’ on. You have to fight for your child. They didn’t ask to be this way. They need your love and support. And if you don’t want to be burying your child before they bury you, then you need to be their voice of reason.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell me about?
I think it’s just really important that as a society, we start thinking outside the box on this. Some girls have penises and some boys have vaginas, and it’s as simple as that. Your genitalia does not make you who you are. Your heart and your brain do. It’s no different than having an extra toe or missing a leg or an arm. Transgender people deserve to be treated just like any other person, and again, history has repeated itself so many times. Let’s just get on the right side of history, so in 62 years we can look back on this and just think, “Oh my gosh, I can’t even believe it was a problem.”
(Image via Shutterstock)