This past Tuesday, a parent’s presentation at the Ottawa Carleton school board was abruptly cut short when a Trustee declared that the presentation was harmful. This parent was questioning washroom usage for transgender students at their daughter’s school.

Censorship at Ontario school boards is not new. Last year, a teacher brought a presentation about age-appropriate books to the Waterloo District School board and was cut off by the board chair midway through. Last month, I brought a delegation to Halton District School Board and was censored by the board who would not allow certain comments to be stated about their lack of a professionalism policy for teachers.

In Ottawa this week, the reason for restricting speech has been the suggestion that it created an unsafe environment towards transgender individuals. As someone who is transgender, I strongly challenge that assertion.

Ideas are not ‘unsafe’. The way democracy works is that we bring ideas forward, we deliberate how they align with our laws and values, and we collectively vote on a resolution. That’s the democratic process in action. It’s a good process and it’s worked for a long time.

Recently however, we’ve started saying that ideas can be harmful. We’ve decided that certain topics, like those relating to transgender people, are off limits from scrutinization. Why? Because now everything that might make someone uncomfortable has been rebranded harmful and shut down.

Look, It’s okay for us to disagree—it’s important for us to disagree. Let this parent speak. Maybe you’ll disagree with him. That’s okay. Maybe his comments will result in some discussion. That would be wonderful. That would be democracy working as it’s supposed to do.

Do we not believe that good ideas will rise to the top? Do we not have confidence that open discussion is the best way to yield outcomes that work for everyone? If we don’t believe in the power of discussion, then why do we hold board meetings at all? Why do we have Trustees at all?

How much easier would it be if we just cut out the part where Trustees debate and question one another and just do whatever the highest paid school board employee decides they want to do in their school. It would be easier, but it wouldn’t be democratic.

Let’s talk about harm. Transgender hate exists. I’ve encountered it, and it’s unacceptable. But we do our democracy a disservice when we deride a politely expressed concern as transphobic.

Some people seem to think that shutting down discussion of transgender matters protects transgender people. It doesn’t. Repressing democracy for transgender interests is fuelling the fire of hate towards transgender people.

Do you know what the hardest thing is about being transgender? For me, it’s that many people, quite understandably, are very uncomfortable talking to me because of all of the hazards we’ve created around language and what can and cannot be said. What the Ottawa Trustee’s did in this week’s meeting perpetuates that exact mindset—that transgender individuals are so vulnerable that speech must be censored for their protection.

See, this isn’t about the washroom issue anymore. That’s no longer what we are talking about. That should be what we are talking about, but we can’t, because instead we have to talk about whether we can talk at all. That’s a really scary place to be. People are fed up. And people are putting the blame on transgender individuals like me for their democratic oppression.

You want to create safe spaces in our schools? Then let’s talk about it. Let’s bring everyone to the table and hear their concerns. Maybe we’ll learn something from one another. But as long as we repress conversation, things are only going to continue to get worse.

Julia Malott

Julia Malott is a Canadian based transgender individual who advocates for bridging the gap between diverse viewpoints on gender identity and ideology. Julia is the host of Alotta Thoughts Podcast which features bi-weekly long form discussions exploring the complexity of sex and gender.

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Julia Malott

Julia Malott is a Canadian based transgender individual who advocates for bridging the gap between diverse viewpoints on gender identity and ideology. Julia is the host of Alotta Thoughts Podcast which features bi-weekly long form discussions exploring the complexity of sex and gender.