Mason Jenkins is a 27-year-old transgender Calgary man who began his transition about six years ago.

"I just never really fit in those constructed ideas of what it means to be a little girl, what it means to be feminine in our society," he explained.

"Our school system is a very heteronormative system, so it doesn't really provide experiences of transgender, gay, lesbian, bisexual, two-spirit, LGBTQ identities."

So for Jenkins, a new guidebook to help teachers discuss issues around gender, sexuality and bullying, is welcome news.

The Alberta Teachers' Association developed the 150-page "Prism Toolkit for Safe and Caring Discussions" to help create a more inclusive environment for all students.

"This doesn't change the program of studies, but it augments it. It adds in examples where people are maybe a same-gender couple," Jenkins said.

Toolkit imposes 1 perspective, critic says

But the document also has its critics. 

Donna Trimble, executive director at Parents for Choice in Education, says the toolkit pushes one particular view of gender on all students.

Donna Trimble

Donna Trimble with Parents for Choice in Education said parents must know what is taught in the classroom. (CBC)

"There has been a conflation of the idea that, in order to care and accept children from all different perspectives, we also must agree on what gender looks like," she said. "That is an error that bleeds into the document in a very dangerous way."

Trimble's group rallied against the province's Bill 10 in May, saying at the time they wanted amendments to the school act and guidelines that would require parental notification when children required counselling or wanted to join clubs like gay-straight alliances.

The group feels parents have been excluded from being involved in decision making in their children's education.

"We speak for all parents ... from all different backgrounds in a diverse, pluralistic society," Trimble told Alberta@Noon Wednesday in a panel discussion on the new guidebook.

And Trimble says the toolkit could exclude religious students in particular.

"Diversity of thought should be welcome in the discussion, and no child in a classroom should feel isolated because they happen to sit in a space that believes in the sort of Biblical, I guess you could say, binary perspective," she said.

She wants the ATA to "put the focus on strong anti-bullying policies, without an insistence upon the imposition of a particular perspective of gender."

Teachers balancing on a 'knife's edge'

Calgary immigration lawyer Raj Sharma said that, while a safe environment is everyone's goal, this particular document could create challenges for teachers who are navigating classrooms with increasingly diverse student populations.

"Most immigrants and second-generation Canadians tend to be much more religious than native-born Canadians," Sharma said.

Raj Sharma

Raj Sharma, an immigration lawyer, says the ATA's LGBTQ toolkit could make some newer Canadians uncomfortable. (Twitter)

"You are going to have them deal with, perhaps an insinuation or unconscious, subconscious sort of assessment that their belief systems are primitive or they binary viewpoints of the universe are outmoded or outdated," he explained.

"Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims for example, Evangelical Christians may not be on the same page, and it is going to be a knife's edge for teachers to navigate this."

Gender spectrum a fact, says consultant

Edmonton-based gender equality consultant Cristina Stasia says education must be based on facts and evidence — not personal belief.

"[Gender fluidity] isn't a perspective. It's not something you can believe in or not believe in," she said. That's why she supports the toolkit as one resource.

Cristina Stasia

Edmonton-based gender equality consultant Cristina Stasia says education must be based on facts and evidence — not personal belief. (Twitter)

"We have to remember that we are teaching gender and sexuality every day. We teach it in our homes, in our religious spaces, through our institutions and of course through pop culture," Stasia said.

"We are already giving young people messages about what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, messages about sexual identity and attraction — but the place where we have not been having those conversations in a comprehensive, evidence-based way is in our schools," she continued.

"What this resource kit does is it provides a really comprehensive, accessible, clear explanation about the history of LGBTQ rights, updated terminology and really informed lesson plans about how to create a more inclusive space throughout education."

Trimble, meanwhile, says students on the autism spectrum could face backlash.

"Ten per cent of children at this point in the school system are being identified as being on this spectrum," she said.

"They have a really concrete understanding of their existence. They have a really difficult time going into another person's emotions and perspective and they also become confused quite easily," Trimble said.

She said a parent recently shared an experience that their child with Asperger syndrome had when a discussion of LGBTQ issues came up in school.

"Their child called out, 'That is not true. How can that person be a girl if they have certain genitalia?' That put that child in a position where they looked really uncompassionate. They looked really uninclusive," Trimble said.

Students unafraid to have beliefs challenged, advocate says

Stasia, who regularly gives gender presentations in schools, said she doesn't see the controversy.

"I don't think it's a polarizing document," Stasia said of the toolkit.

"Students want to have these conversations," she said.

"They are not scared to have their belief systems challenged or to listen to their peers, and I think we could learn a lot from them."

For Jenkins, it is about human rights for everyone.

"Inclusive education is not up for debate due to religion values, this is a matter of human rights."


With files from Alberta@Noon