As ‘out’ teachers and spouses, Chantelle Cotton (she/her) and Kim Brown (she/her) know firsthand the importance of making a school a safe and open space for everyone.

While schools have made a lot of strides in inclusion in the past few decades, as language and thinking shifts, the need for ongoing education remains.

“I’ve had people ask me, ‘Are we kind of done with all this inclusion? Are we good now with LGBTQ?” But no, we’re not. We’re never finished,” says Cotton, who teaches at Argyle Alternative School.

Cotton has taught workshops for educators and Brown presents to pre-service teachers in the Diversity in Education class at the Université de Saint-Boniface (USB). In the presentations they share their own personal journeys and offer resources and ideas on how to maneuver certain situations.

“I’ve noticed a lot has changed over the years with the university students,” says Brown who teaches Choir and English at Kelvin High School. “But we still get some students for whom it might be their first time speaking to an openly out gay person. And then there are other students who are very excited because they’re maybe recently identifying themselves in the queer community and wondering how that will work with being a teacher and queer.”

USB is home to a lot of international students who are coming from other French speaking countries and for some, the culture in Canada is very different than their country of origin. Brown says this can lead to some interesting questions and dialogues.

“One time someone asked me ‘Who is the man in the relationship?’ and there was an audible gasp in the room,” Brown laughs. “But it was just a question about gender roles and about how we manage our life, and it’s not malicious. People are just trying to openly understand and learn.”

Cotton and Brown take this philosophy to their own classrooms. They openly share their lives with their students – they are married and have a daughter – and answer any questions that might arise, but for the most part they’re just themselves.

“I try to create a space in my class where everyone can just be who they are,” says Cotton. “If I can be an ‘out’ educator and incorporate my life and who I am openly and honestly into what I do, it allows others space to bring who they are to the table. It doesn’t have to be within the LGBTQ+ spectrum, it can be any aspect of themselves.”

Pronouns and Names Matter

Cotton and Brown say that language around inclusion is constantly shifting and evolving, and teachers should be training to keep up.

“We need to move to a space where it’s not just students constantly letting their teachers know what their pronouns are,” says Cotton. “If adults are finding it hard, it’s up to adults to overcome their hard, not up to the child to reinforce and correct.”

And how teachers handle pronouns and names matters.

“We hear students being asked to fill out a form on their pronouns and teachers will say don’t worry we won’t tell anybody, and while that teacher is respecting confidentiality and trying to protect the child, what the student is hearing is that pronouns are a secret,” explains Cotton.

“A few years ago we were using ‘she’s’ and ‘he’s’ and then we moved everything to ‘they’. But now we know that those who are ‘they’ are ‘they’ for a reason. Some people have gone from a ‘she’ to a ‘he’ and they want to be a ‘he’. To them the ‘they’ is a slap in the face. We can no longer just use ‘they’ and mean that to be inclusive.”

Another aspect of pronouns that has evolved is the term ‘preferred’ pronouns. “For me, I know pronouns aren’t preferences, they’re a reality,” says Cotton. “It’s a shift in thinking, especially when you thought you were already doing it the right way.”

Brown says educators should also be mindful of ‘deadnaming’, which occurs when someone, intentionally or not, refers to a person who is transgender by the name they used before they transitioned.

With Human Rights You’re Never ‘Done’

Cotton says another way to be inclusive is to always be looking at what’s being taught and who is being represented and who is not. “Using names that are gender neutral when creating examples and resources is something that allows for inclusion in a really simple way.”

“Right now we’re dealing with non-binary and transgender realities and that where maybe gay and lesbian realities were 10-15 years ago,” says Brown. “There is definitely progress and better understanding, but I think with any human rights you’re never ‘done’ – there are always next levels and areas, and there’s also regression. Look at what’s happening in Florida and Texas. Canada is not immune to regressions.”

“How many educators are talking about what is happening in the States?” says Cotton. “Because to our family that’s a pretty big deal.”

Brown and Cotton are part of Winnipeg School Division’s “Inclusion Across the Rainbow” committee whose mandate is to keep the division supporting staff and students on everything LGBTQSIA+. They say they would recommend that every school division have a similar advocacy group.

“It’s time for PD that’s so much beyond the anti-homophobia training that we used to do,” says Brown.

Cotton recalls a workshop where everyone had to talk about their weekend without using any identifiers and keep their language as neutral as possible. After a few minutes, one person in the room complained that the exercise was ‘too hard’.

“They said that it makes them feel silenced, and I said ‘exactly’. If using pronouns makes you feel silenced, imagine being that person who doesn’t fit the pronouns they were born into. Then they are silent. Do we, as educators, want our kids to be silent?

As teachers it’s now time to move away from safe spaces to brave spaces. We need to move away from just talking to doing and being.”

– Originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of the MB Teacher

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