News / Halifax

This is Elliott: Gender-nonconforming Halifax kid hopes to educate, break down stigma

Elliott Sweeny says they'd like to educate people in Halifax about gender, so no one bullies or judges others.

Elliott Sweeny, 6, is co-hosting and organizing a pop-up school later this month on gender and bodies.

Jeff Harper/Metro

Elliott Sweeny, 6, is co-hosting and organizing a pop-up school later this month on gender and bodies.

Elliott Sweeny loves dogs, banana bread, Beyonce, sometimes wearing skirts, and pink rainboots.

In the Halifax six-year-old’s words, Elliott also says they have a “boy body and a girl brain.”

Curled up on a large couch with their mom Kym Sweeny at the South House Sexual and Gender Resource Centre, Elliott said they usually don’t mind explaining how they identify as gender fluid and gender-nonconforming, or use “they/them” pronouns -- but kids don’t always believe them and can say mean things.

“You can’t just be bullies just because you don’t know what things are, and just because you don’t think it’s right -- because it actually is right,” Elliott said.

The term gender non-conforming is used to describe people whose appearance or behaviour differs from cultural expectations based on what’s appropriate for their gender. Gender fluid refers to an identity that can vary over time, and can be combination of male/female identity, or fall outside them.

Driving home from school one day, Kym said some people on the radio were talking about women’s periods in a joking way. When Elliott asked if people made fun of menstruation because they didn’t understand it, Kym said “sometimes.”

Elliott Sweeny, 6 and Kym Sweeny are co-hosting and organizing a pop-up school later this month on gender and bodies. (Jeff Harper/Metro)

Jeff Harper/Metro

Elliott Sweeny, 6 and Kym Sweeny are co-hosting and organizing a pop-up school later this month on gender and bodies. (Jeff Harper/Metro)

Elliott said “people make fun of me because of my gender,” so maybe bullies make fun of things they don’t understand, Kym recalled.

The next day Elliott asked for magazines to make a collage about things people should know more about, adding glitter and photos of Beyonce and trans actress Laverne Cox next to words like bodies, consent, racism, gender, and decolonization -- which they asked for help writing.

Elliott said they should then “make it real” and invite people to come to their house (with their dogs) to talk about the subjects -- which Kym said with a laugh seemed a little overwhelming.

Instead they went to South House to plan a community event, which developed into a series of pop-up schools, with the first one on gender taking place this month.

***

All the pop-ups will have a kid or young adult paired with a “grown-up” to talk about topics they’re experts in, Kym said, with opening remarks followed by activities and relevant book-reading while the parents and caregivers can network and talk about their experiences and challenges raising gender-nonconforming or LGBTQ kids.

Elliott said some of the activities will include kids writing about their own gender and stapling pages together into a book, as well as lying down on big sheets of paper to draw an outline of their body, to then draw and colour inside about gender as well.

Since Elliott has run into kids at school saying their gender identity “isn’t real,” or they can’t dress in skirts even though they like to sometimes, Kym said having an adult speaking as well will hopefully change kids’ minds.

When Elliott said they told one of their friends they felt like both a girl and a boy, he said he didn’t believe Elliott -- “because if you’re both then you can’t talk -- and you sound like a girl and you look like a girl.”

Her arm around Elliott, Kym looked down at their curly brown hair (which they cut to look more like a boy but are growing out again) and asked how Elliott felt to hear that.

“Sad, because it’s a mean thing to say,” Elliott said quietly.

When Kym asked who they thought should come to the pop-up, Elliott smiled and said the friend who didn’t believe them, as well as Donald Trump -- who is a “mean boy.”

“It helps people not be bullies about things that they don’t know about,” Elliott said.

***

While Elliott often used blue (he), pink (she), or yellow (they) bracelets to show Kym which pronoun they preferred before they started school, after a “rough” first couple months in primary they decided on “boy” clothing and “he” pronouns after being teased.

It was only this past summer during a Dalhousie University child care day camp (Kym is a law student at Dal) they became more confident in being gender-fluid since they loved the atmosphere and having queer and trans people working there was a great influence, Kym said.

School is also the one place where Elliott is on their own and has to use the boy’s washroom even though they’d like a gender neutral one and feel “bad” about going there, they said.

Kym said she was disappointed the school’s alternative was for Elliott to use the staff washroom, which she found “very inappropriate.”

Many people ask lots of questions about Elliott’s identity, Kym said, which can get tiring but said she’d much rather handle them than have Elliott “deal with it.”

Some even insinuate Elliott’s gender-nonconformity is for Kym’s sake, or she’s influencing Elliott.

“I’m like, ‘I cannot get my kid to eat dinner, let alone adopt a gender identity,’” Kym said, shaking her head.

Kym said while she doesn’t know if Elliott will always be gender-fluid and use “they” pronouns, she will continue to “trust whatever they tell me,” while providing whatever supports they need.

Elliott Sweeny (Jeff Harper/Metro)

Jeff Harper/Metro

Elliott Sweeny (Jeff Harper/Metro)

She simply wants Elliott to be happy, Kym said, and has seen how they’re not their “fullest and happiest self” when trying to conform as a boy, which they did throughout most of Grade Primary due to teasing.

Elliott loves colour, fashion and being very bright, Kym said, which began as early as two when Elliott picked out pink rainboots rather than blue ones.

Although Kym knows many parents who’ve said they’ll support their child if they come out as gay, trans or gender-nonconforming, she said it’s important to present kids with all the options early on.

“There’s this part of parenting that has to be active, it can’t just be like waiting … for your child to come out as counter-culture,” Kym said.

***

Although Elliott said they have a couple friends who’ve stood up for them and called out bullies for hurting their feelings, Kym said she would have liked to see teachers have conversations about different gender identities in class, which to her knowledge hasn’t happened.

After-school staff did try reading some books about gender last year when Elliott was in primary, but some parents complained, Kym said with a shrug.

“Kids can definitely understand these things. They did learn about the Holocaust this year in school, so I’m like ‘I find it hard to believe that you feel that 6-year-olds can handle (that) but not … gender identity,” Kym said, watching Elliott play across the room.

“It doesn’t have to be a complicated conversation. It can just be like ‘there’s boys and there’s girls, and there’s people that are neither, or both.”

The first free Pop-Up School on gender, presented by South House and Venus Envy, is Feb. 25 from 1-3 p.m. at the Johanna B. Oosterveld Centre.

Guidelines clear on classroom support

Although Kym Sweeny says she hasn’t seen any evidence of it, Nova Scotia’s provincial guidelines say it’s up to educators to provide “positive” and information about trans and gender non-conforming people.

Sweeny said although her six-year-old, Elliott, uses “they” pronouns and identifies as gender-fluid, no teachers have brought up gender identities in class.

According to the Education Department’s 2014 “Guidelines for Supporting Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming Students,” it’s a teacher’s responsibility to educate themselves and support diversity in the learning environment, plus ensure classroom materials and activities contain “positive images and accurate information” about history and culture which reflects the contributions of those with varying gender identities.

Educators must also challenge gender stereotypes and “integrate trans-positive content into the teaching of all subject areas,” the document says.

“The lack of any positive acknowledgment of transgender issues or transgender history makes it difficult for transgender, gender-nonconforming, or questioning children and youth to feel that they have a place in the world. Unless it is corrected, the omission of transgender and gender-nonconforming people from the curriculum creates a misconception among many students that transgender people do not exist or are an object of scorn,” the guide says.

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