Bry Bitar, Montreal LGBT teen, sparks school uniform revolution

Bry Bitar has persuaded Montreal high school Royal West Academy to let them wear the girls' school uniform instead of the boys'.

Royal West Academy student convinced school officials to allow switch from boys' to girls' uniform

Bry Bitar's request to school officials led to a board-wide discussion about how best to serve students and staff in similar circumstances. (Shari Okeke/CBC)

When I first met Bry Bitar, I assumed they were 17 years old, but it turns out Bry is a tall, charming 13-year-old. 

And yes, Bry prefers the pronoun "they" — not he or she. Bry also prefers to avoid labels.

"If I need a label, it would be androgynous, leaning towards feminine, which basically means I feel both masculine and feminine. But... a lot more to the feminine side. I do like wearing... women's clothing, I do like wearing makeup," Bry said. 

From birth until this school year, Bry was Bryan.

Now, Bry has stopped wearing their high school's boys' uniform and instead wears the girls' uniform.

It's a first at Royal West Academy in Montreal. 

Royal West Academy is known for offering many extracurricular activities, but this year a new club is making its mark. It's the school's first LGBT Club. Daybreak's Shari Okeke profiles the pioneers of the Royal West LGBT Club. 10:39

LGBT Club helps youth open up

I was at the high school, a public alternative school, to interview students about the new LGBT Club, which is also new this school year.

Michel Bitar and his 13-year-old, Bry, say Royal West Academy's LGBT Club has boosted Bry's confidence. (Shari Okeke/CBC)
Bry is a member of the club and was eager to talk about it.

"I learned that people are much more accepting even though there is hatred in the world, because I have experienced that. I learned that people are very OK with [who I am] and I should be OK with it, and that's what the LGBT Club has helped me understand. It is OK to be 'different,' " Bry said. 

The club meets at least once a week in a classroom at lunchtime. 

It's a safe space where students can support each other, speak openly and share their experiences.

In elementary school in Laval, Bry faced a lot of bullying, which turned physical, and by 11 years old, it was too much.

"I became depressed, like severely. I didn't want to talk to anyone, I thought everyone hated me.... I did become suicidal and I attempted, but thank God nothing happened because I'm better today," Bry said.

Family accepts Bry with open arms

As a mother with two children in elementary school, I felt my heart stop.

Then it cracked. For Bry, and their parents. 

Immediately I knew I would need Bry's parents' permission to air the interview on Daybreak — and I would have understood had they said no.

Instead, Bry's father, Michel Bitar, agreed to meet me.

I was amazed by how calmly he reacted when I said Bry told me about the suicide attempt.

"Because I come from different culture" — Lebanese — "and we grew up differently, it took [Bry] a while to tell me. So he told his mom who told me, and he was worried that we'd divorce. And I looked at him [and asked], 'Why would I want to do that? If I didn't love you and didn't love your mom and your brother then I would do that. But because I love you, I'm willing to do anything to make it easier.' ... I could see it in his face what a big relief it was for him," Bitar said.

Bry's parents consulted a therapist for support.

Uniform switch

More recently, they — along with Bry — met with the administration at Royal West Academy and requested a switch from the boys' school uniform to the girls'.

I told him, "You opened the door for other kids in your situation to have these benefits"- Michel Bitar of child Bry

To Bry's surprise, the school agreed.

"The second [the meeting] ended I had the biggest smile on my face in the world and I was just so happy in that moment," Bry said.

Bry now goes to the girls' gym class and uses a separate bathroom.

Bry's situation led the school to initiate a discussion at the school board level, said Tony Pita, Royal West Academy principal. 

He said the English Montreal School Board is striking a committee to assess how best to serve students and staff in a similar situation.

The goal is to have a policy in place as soon as possible, Pita said.

This has Bry's father beaming with pride.

Trailblazing teen

"[Bry] opened the door. I told him, 'You opened the door for other kids in your situation to have these benefits,' " Bitar said.

It [has] helped me to gain some sort of confidence, enough for me to feel comfortable in my skin.- Bry Bitar of school's LGBT Club

Still, it's a learning process for the whole family and Bitar worries about his teen's safety at times, with good reason.

Bry's appearance often attracts unwanted attention and hostility.

"In the streets, people have screamed things at me. I've been followed down my street. I've been hit on by people in the street — sarcastically. They'll [say], 'Oh so beautiful,' but say it in a sarcastic tone then start laughing," Bry said.

But support from the LGBT Club at school is helping. 

"It's easier to stand up for myself if someone were to bring me down because I'm 'different.' ... It [has] helped me to gain some sort of confidence, enough for me to feel comfortable in my skin," Bry said. 

Bry's dad sees the difference the club has made and says it's additional support for him and Bry's mother.

Bry said all schools should have LGBT clubs — to support students, raise awareness and promote acceptance.

"You can't really change everyone's opinion, but if I could change at least a few people — or even one — it would be amazing," Bry said.


Shari Okeke is writer/broadcaster for Daybreak on CBC Radio, and creator of Mic Drop, an award-winning CBC original podcast.


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