'Happy, welcome, wanted and loved': Advocates say trans youth face unique challenges in school setting

When Thomas Wardell came out as transgender, he was already an adult living away from home. As a child, the 28-year-old said he didn't even know the words to describe how he felt inside. But that's changing.

Winnipeg School Division hosts panel on how to support trans, gender diverse children

Thomas Wardell, a trans man who works for the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba, says having resources in schools can help transgender youth tackle their mental health issues at an earlier stage. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Thomas Wardell didn't even know the words to describe how he felt inside when he was a child.

"When I was in school, I had no knowledge of anything queer. Anything gay, lesbian, trans, I had never heard of it," he said.

Wardell, who came out as transgender as an adult, joined a panel on how to support trans and gender diverse children and youth put on by the Winnipeg School Division for families and other community members Wednesday evening.

The two-hour panel included a psychiatrist, a school principal, members of the trans community and parents. 

It's the sort of thing that's changing the world for trans children, he said.

"The reason it took me so long to come out was really because I had no knowledge, so I had no words to put into why I hated my body so much. I had no words for why I was disassociating and why puberty was so hard for me. I just assumed that that was the case for everyone," said Wardell, 28.

"It wasn't until I got into the GSA [Gay Straight Alliance] at my university and met other trans people that it really clicked for me, and I was able to come out to myself and everyone else."

Having both schools and parents more informed about what it means to be trans and having supports in place will better prepare young people to maintain their mental health and fight potential depression or anxiety, he said. 

"That education is really showing up," Wardell said. "We have a lot more kids who are identifying as trans or just as non-conforming, non-binary."

Nearly 100 people take in an information session focused on supporting transgender youth on Wednesday. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Alba Lopez Gomez, one of the co-founders of the Winnipeg support group PFFoTI — Parents, Family, and Friends of Trans Individuals — was one of the parents on the panel.

Lopez Gomez, a mom of a transgender child, started the group with another mother 13 years ago.

"Their were a lot of struggles. Finding their own identity was difficult because there were no words," she said. "And for me as a parent was difficult too, because there were no supports available."

As schools become more aware of transgender children in their classrooms, they can play an important role as trans kids enter puberty, something that can be incredibly difficult for them, she said.

But there's still work to be done, especially as schools work to have more gender-neutral bathrooms and change rooms, Lopez Gomez said.

"Most of the schools, they want to work with the parents, but mostly it's the parents who are initiating and advocating in the schools. I think it will be great that one day the parent doesn't have to come to school and say 'This is what my child needs.'"

Her group meets twice a month, and every time they gather, they meet someone new, she said.

"The trans community is growing. More children are coming out and they are unique in their own way. The issues are different than the other kids, but at the end, they are just kids, and they deserve to be happy, welcome, wanted and loved."

Alba Lopez Gomez, who has a transgender son, started an organization for families of trans kids 13 years ago. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)


Marina von Stackelberg is a CBC journalist based in Winnipeg. She previously worked for CBC in Halifax and Sudbury. Connect with her @CBCMarina or