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Transgender youth experience bullying at much higher rates than their peers

A version of this commentary appeared in the Montreal Gazette and the Huffington Post and the Vancouver Province

Last week during discussion in the Senate about Bill C-16, a Bill designed to protect gender identity and gender expression in the Human Rights Code and Criminal Code, Conservative Senator Donald Plett stated, “I don’t think there’s any law in the world that will prevent children from bullying.”

With all due respect, Senator Plett is wrong.

In fact, laws can make a huge difference in the lives of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) youth and children — and yes — laws can even reduce the bullying they experience.

So what is bullying, exactly?

Bullying is not occasional teasing nor is it a one-off insult. Bullying is a sustained, targeted, and often profoundly violent (emotional and/or physical) form of aggression.

In most school policies, bullying is defined as negative behaviours (verbal, physical and psychological) targeted at another individual repeatedly, intentionally and over time.

Transgender youth experience bullying at much higher rates than their cisgender (non-transgender) peers. Indeed, a 2015 UBC study of 923 transgender youth living in Canada found that more than one in three younger participants had been physically threatened or injured
 in the past year (36 per cent) and nearly half of older youth reported various types of cyberbullying.

Given that many of these same kids also experience homelessness, poverty, and, in some cases, familial rejection, it is little wonder that 65 per cent of younger participants in the same study had seriously considered suicide and one-third had attempted it at least once.

Fortunately we have learned a lot about how to reduce bullying and school boards are putting resources into implementing measures to reduce the problem.

We know from research carried out by GLSEN, a U.S.-based organization with a mission to create safe and affirming schools, that LGBTQ students in schools that have an anti-bullying policy reported lower levels of victimization compared to those in schools without a policy.

Furthermore, students in schools with policies that clearly prohibited bullying based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity/expression reported the lowest levels of bullying compared to students in schools with no policy and students in schools with a generic policy.

Perhaps most important for the debate on C-16, the research shows how bullying towards LGBTQ youth is less prevalent in states that have clear protections against LGBTQ bullying and harassment in schools.

We have personally witnessed the results of dedicated professionals working to educate themselves and their peers to ensure the safety of transgender students in schools. We have seen schools at which the only out-transgender child walks the halls safe from bullying, schools in which diversity in all of its beauty is affirmed and celebrated rather than denigrated and destroyed.

But it is not just educators who are making the difference for these kids. Lawmakers can make a huge difference too.

When laws protecting our most vulnerable citizens are in place, they provide an additional layer of motivation and protection for educators and other professionals who are trying to save lives and ensure safety and respect for all students in Canadian schools.

While we agree that no law can wipe out bullying, it can surely help to move us in that direction.

Laws matter. Bill C-16 matters. We urge the Senate to pass Bill C-16 without delay.


Kimberley Ens Manning is an expert with EvidenceNetwork.ca, a Principal of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute and Associate Professor of Political Science at Concordia University. In her capacity as a founding Board Member of Gender Creative Kids Canada (GCKC), Dr. Manning frequently gives public presentations on transgender children and their families.

Elizabeth J. Meyer is the Associate Dean of Teacher Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is the author of Gender, Bullying, and Harassment: Strategies to end sexism and homophobia in Schools and Gender and Sexual Diversity in Schools.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.