Human rights victory bittersweet, say parents of Toronto transgender boy

One family shares their story for the first time since a human rights settlement they think will make public schools more fair for transgender students.

Attacked and bullied, 11-year-old Matt fights for the rights of others

Transgender boy speaks out

7 years ago
Duration 2:27
Attacked and bullied, 11-year-old Matt fights for the rights of others

Matt Smith loves mint chocolate chip ice cream, riding horses and playing baseball.

He has a little sister that bugs him sometimes.

And he is pretty into "doing stuff" on the computer. 

This is the list of hobbies and worries one expects from an 11-year-old.

And yet Matt's list of worries was once much longer — and more devastating. 

All because this boy, who has known he was a boy for as long as he can remember, used to have a birth certificate that said 'female.'

And his family is speaking about their experience for the first time since a human rights decision came down that they say will make school safer for other transgender students. 

Attacked and bullied

Matt said he started making changes to the way he dressed in Grade 1. He cut his hair short and wore pants. The shift was gradual. And it felt right. 

Children started to get curious. Some teased him. Others asked questions. He was different, and they wanted to know why. 

When he was in Grade 3, the curiosity turned cruel. The taunts grew louder. And a group of girls ganged up on him. After swim class at school one day, Matt dressed in a closed washroom stall in the change room for privacy. But the other girls stood on toilets or stooped down in stalls alongside, peering over and under.

"I was horrified," said his mother, Susan. "And he was pretty scared."

She went to the school to talk about it, and staff were "very supportive."

Over time, Matt started using the principal's washroom. He didn't feel safe in the girl's washroom anymore. And his mom said there was about a two-month window where administration couldn't say whether he was allowed to use the boys' washroom.

"He's now at a point where he's not welcome in the girls, he's not allowed to use the boys...And in terms of the teachers' washroom, there's either something wrong with you or they're jealous because you are special," said Matt's stepfather, Gary, remembering that time. 

"The poor child is trapped. He isn't welcome anywhere."

Washroom wars

Eventually, Susan found a section in the Toronto District School Board's relatively new policy for transgender students (Matt's family prefers the phrase 'gender independent') that said students are allowed to use the washrooms for the gender they identify with most.

So, Matt used the boys' washroom occasionally.

This was a big year for him. He had just turned 10, and started Grade 4 that fall with a new name to replace the girl's name his mom gave him when he was born. 

He was excited to join some new groups, and compete as a boy in the sports he loved — like cross-country running. It felt good that his outside now more closely matched his inside. That good feeling didn't last. 

A group of boys, his friends, asked him to meet them in the boys' washroom at lunch. One held the door closed. The other two demanded Matt urinate in front of them. And if he didn't, they would keep threatening him until he did. 

"He came home that night and said 'I'm not going back to school,'" said Susan. 

And he didn't. 

Human rights are not negotiable

At least, not to that school. Matt's parents enrolled him in a private facility, at great cost.

Talks between their family and administration at his public school had broken down.

In fact, Susan claims she emailed school staff with concerns about some children's escalating taunts and behaviour a couple of weeks before the last attack, but "nothing was done."

Soon after he left the public system, the Smiths filed a human rights complaint against the Toronto District School Board. 

It took about a year, but on Nov. 30 the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario helped both sides reach a settlement before the case went to a formal hearing where Matt would have to give evidence. 

They released a joint press release this week, trumpeting new signs for all-gender washrooms in Toronto public schools and more training and education programs to improve staff and students' knowledge of transgender kids.

Bittersweet victory

Susan and Gary saw the settlement as a win. They believe an all-gender washroom, alongside the boys and girls facilities, would likely have prevented their own son's struggle.

New signs will certainly help make those all-gender facilities more visible. But they'll only be posted on the all-gender washrooms that already exist or are in the process of being built in the public system right now: that's a total of about 12, across close to 600 public schools in Toronto.

"When schools were built over a hundred years ago, this was just not something that was envisioned," said Ryan Bird, spokesperson for the school board.

He points to a $3.5 billion backlog in school maintenance to explain why the board cannot retrofit or renovate every school with all-gender washrooms (upgrades he estimates would carry a price tag "in the tens of millions").

Even so, he argues his board is a leader in Canada for transgender student protection — since they were one of the first to adopt transgender guidelines, in 2011.

And while boards in other provinces like British Columbia, Manitoba and Alberta work to launch similar policies and procedures, he promises Toronto will continue to improve theirs. 

The Smiths hope he lives up to that promise. 

If only so that their son's wish comes true.

Matt wrote a note after the human rights decision, headlined with pencil stars.

"I'm glad about what people have done about the bathroom issue," he scrawled.

"I hope nobody has to go through what I had to go through."

The names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of the child.