James Webster was the first person to come out in his high school.
If it wasn’t for his guidance counsellor, he would have had no one to confide in.
“I marched into his office and said, ‘I’m gay, what do I do?” he told a crowd of more than a thousand people in front of the Manitoba Legislature Sunday morning.
The space afforded to him by his counsellor at the time later helped him to transition and live his life authentically, he said.
Now, he’s fighting for that opportunity to remain an option in Manitoba schools.
“Children deserve confidential spaces to truly be themselves, so they may safely experiment and discover their identities, regardless of their family’s belief and reaction to them,” he said.
A massive crowd congregated outside the steps of the provincial legislature adorning themselves with rainbow flags and pins to throw support behind transgender youth, just days after a series of “1 Million March for Children” protests sprung up in major cities across Canada.
‘Million March 4 Children’ brings out many supporters, counter-protestors to Manitoba Legislature
That group was supporting policies recently enacted in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan that require children to get parental consent to use their preferred names and pronouns. They were also decrying alleged teachings in schools which push “gender ideology”, “gender theory” and “genderism.”
The event drew counter-protests which surpassed demonstrators gathered to support the policies.
Marching down Broadway to continue Sunday’s rally at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, demonstrator Rachel Friesen felt anger when she heard about Wednesday’s protest.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there and a lot of people don’t understand what’s being taught.”
In the two provinces which changed school policies, school personnel must inform parents if students under 16 change their name or pronouns in the school setting.
The move was seen as some as a way to keep parents in the loop regarding their children, but demonstrator Jocelyn Thorpe said the policies have instead created division across the nation.
“People want the same things, which is to keep their kids safe … I wish we could have that conversation.”
Thorpe says providing inclusive spaces in schools goes hand in hand with the slogan “Every Child Matters.” The banner picked up steam in recent years after Indigenous communities called for the rest of the country to reckon with residential schools and the discovery of unmarked graves at the former sites.
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“It’s a really great, fundamental principal.”
Union Station NDP candidate Uzoma Asagwara spoke to the crowd, pointing to the numbers that showed up versus last week’s protest.
“This is Manitoba, this is community,” they said.
Asagwara, who was voted into the provincial legislature as the first non-binary politician, also recognized the youth that were there.
“I know there are many people in our community that were scared,” they said, referring to Wednesday’s protest and pointing to claims some demonstrators were making which weren’t true.
“Shameful,” they repeated to the crowd.
Right now, no school policies requiring disclosure of a student’s gender identity, preferred pronoun or name to parents exist in Manitoba.
Jordan Anglin-Reimer, who serves on the Prime Minister’s youth council for transgender rights, said schools are meant to encourage exploration give children all sorts of experiences, so they should also foster exploration other aspects of a child’s life.
“If a child’s family is not safe, it’s the school’s job as a public institution to help the child,” she said. “If your child is not like you, you should be able to accept that. If you are afraid of what your kid might turn out to be, you might not be ready to be a parent.”
Stevie Sulyma, a teacher who attended Sunday’s rally and is queer, said they were there demonstrating to stand up for their students.
“They shouldn’t have to be dealing with the same stuff that we dealt with as kids,” they said.
“I’m being the adult that I needed as a kid.”
— with files from Katherine Dornian
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