Western education professor Wayne Martino knew his next study would be important. But since he applied for grant funding last fall, his research on trans-affirmative education has become even more urgent.
Martino was disheartened to see anti-trans sentiment and attacks rise across the country. It also solidified his commitment to even deeper investigation.
Clearly, the safety of trans students at school – and Martino’s work on education equity, including an examination of the barriers faced by youth and teachers as they try to tackle those inequities – has never been more vital.
This is Martino’s second study on trans-affirmative education, this time amid what he describes as an “intensification of hate and transphobia fueled by far-right extremism and white supremacy.”
“We need this knowledge, we need the nuance and the Canadian perspective. We have legislative frameworks in place here in Canada that are supported by the Charter of Rights, but we know from history there’s still gross injustice here, not only against gender and sexual minorities but against Indigenous and racialized peoples,” Martino said.
“Parental rights are being mobilized by certain groups who are contacting school boards and requesting to have their children exempt from 2SLGTQIA+ curriculum and pride flag-raising celebrations and activities. From public media reports, we know some parents are claiming support for trans youth and trans-affirming education is indoctrination, that trans-inclusive policies are about supporting groomers. We want to investigate such discourses empirically and expose their harmful impact,” Martino said.
His latest research project will unfold between 2023 and 2027.
Martino’s study will examine:
- How far right extremism is impacting support for trans and gender-diverse students in schools across Canada and the U.S.
- The impact and effects of public and parental backlash to supportive school policies.
- Challenges teachers face while trying to develop or maintain trans-affirmative environments.
What teachers need
Martino and his research team work with both teacher candidates and those in the classroom. They want to help teachers bring equity and social justice into their classrooms and build knowledge around how to support trans-affirming education.
Support for trans and nonbinary educators is also key to their project and driving change in the school system, Martino said.
“We need more trans educators. We need to create spaces so they can live wonderful lives and be supported in the school system, not just strive to survive. Their presence in schools is especially important for trans and nonbinary students.” -Wayne Martino, education professor
But the best intentions from teachers can be stymied by lack of support from administrators, fallout from angry parents, or even loopholes in otherwise helpful policies, Martino said. Those findings emerged out of his last study, which uncovered the holes within various approaches to supporting trans students.
“At the end of the day, teachers were saying that implementing trans-inclusive policies and providing systemic support for trans students ultimately depended on the school principal.”
His team surveyed over 1,000 teachers and interviewed over 100 educators across Ontario to hear their perspectives. Many said they needed more training during teacher’s college and ongoing professional development, Martino said.
As for the student reality, results were mixed.
Some school boards have explicit guidelines around accommodations for trans students and many more are now including efforts under their overall equity and inclusion policies, which are required under Ontario legislation. Still others have firm policies, plus more allocated resources than others, to support trans students.
“While an official policy has a lot more weight, it does not ensure accountability. It often falls on the individual trans student to advocate for themselves,” Martino said.
Those policies aren’t a silver bullet. Students interviewed in the last study reported challenges with accessing and navigating basic spaces at school, such as going to the washroom or handling the attention from peers—curious or adverse—after coming out as trans.
“You could have an accommodation policy, but what we found is that it was often trans students who had to ask for the accommodations themselves. There was a gap between the policy and practice in many schools, where the policy was only sought out if a trans student was visible or chose to come out,” he said.
“What we found, which was quite upsetting and shocking, is the systemic nature of the lack of support and accountability. While there was a policy, there wasn’t always support for the education needed to implement the policy.”
That’s part of what’s driving Martino’s current research to gather further evidence about the realities for trans students and what they need to feel safe at school.
“We can have policy and law, but it’s enactment and lack of accountability that’s the problem. While we are in a better context legislatively in Canada, we need more empirical investigation into the impact of these resurgent anti-trans discourses on kids and educators,” he said.
The current context
Martino’s new study will compare realities in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Arizona.
“We want to map that network of intensification of transphobia,” Martino said. “It’s a clear and emboldened expression of hate that’s being reported.”
Comparing drag performers and trans people to sexual predators, the rise of far-right extremism, protests organized by leaders of anti-2SLGBTQIA+ groups – combined, these recent realities create a downright scary environment for students who are trans, nonbinary or gender noncomforming, Martino said.
A differing American context, where legislation has even changed in some states to restrict trans healthcare and its availability, is an important point of comparison, he added.
“Here, that’s not happening, but the whole point of the study is to further enrich our analysis of legislation here, and to the extent to which it was a resource for people in schools, or not – especially given the current resurgence of anti-trans hate,” he said.
It’s timely work. For Martino, it’s his life’s work.
“There are trans and gender diverse children in schools and we need to ensure they feel safe. We need to work harder to remove systemic barriers that prevent them from thriving. While there is a narrative of ‘things are getting better,’ it doesn’t represent the reality of the systemic problems both in the school system and in broader society.”