Canadian Anti-Hate Network
Image: Evan Balgord
In the lead up to last year’s school board elections, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network raised a red flag on an emerging pattern of far-right groups and figures framing issues in school communities as a matter of “parental rights.” The phrase appeared in the campaign platforms of numerous anti-equity candidates across Canada, “questionnaires” issued to candidates by far-right groups—such as Campaign Life Coalition—and in American legislation.
CAHN urged voters to respond to this framing by asking questions of candidates that focused on children’s rights, such as the right to privacy, to free expression, and to health.
Now, nearly a year later, “parental rights” have only become further entrenched in the social and political discourse, particularly around 2SLGBTQ+ youth and their self-identification. It seems to be an exceptionally salient concept, resonating far beyond far-right, or even conservative, echo chambers.
We believe that many, if not most, of the parents and caregivers who believe that schools should tell them if their kids are identifying with a different gender, are not doing so from a place of conscious selfishness or entitlement. It is completely normal, and respectable, for parents and caregivers to want to have as much information as possible, in order to care for their children as best as possible.
Unfortunately, anti-2SLGBTQ+ activists, cloaking themselves under the “Parental Rights Movement” are taking advantage of that normal parental care and interest, in order to surreptitiously build numbers for their fight against the self-identification of transgender youth. We want to give you the tools you need to understand where the movement comes from, what its goals are, and what you can do to challenge it.
What Is The “Parental Rights” Movement?
It is important to distinguish between “parental rights” as a concept, and the Parental Rights Movement (PRM). As New Brunswick Child and Youth Advocate Kelly A. Lamrock found in his report reviewing the changes made to Policy 713, “there is considerable misunderstanding over what those rights are. This public confusion is understandable since there is even some disagreement among courts and legal scholars over the full scope and application of these rights.”
Continuing, Lamrock wrote:
Any concept of parental rights which starts and stops with asserting that parents should have unlimited control over the child is an analysis too limited to stand. In fact, much of what we call “parental rights” stem from the child’s rights. The parent does not have an absolute right to control a child. Rather, the child has a right to the parent’s guidance and support, and the parent has a duty to offer that guidance and support. The parent’s rights are a function of the child’s right to the parent. This concept is entrenched in international law through the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Contrasting this understanding of “parental rights” as a function of the child’s right to the parent, the PRM frames them as a parent’s rights to a child or even over a child. This includes a parent’s right to the details of a child’s private life, regardless of maturity and a parent’s rights over a child’s access to comprehensive sex education.
Jen Gilbert, an associate professor at York University in Toronto, explained the “parental rights” movement to CBC as a “conservative strategy to limit the scope of conversations that schools might have with young people about sex and gender.”
This current push for “parental rights” to be informed and/or consent to their children’s gender identity exploration is only the latest iteration in a long history of social and political issues affecting children that have been framed through this lens.
As Laura Gambino wrote for the Guardian, “The origins of the ‘parents’ rights’ movement, experts say, can be traced back to the 1925 ‘trial of the century’ in which a Tennessee biology teacher was fined for teaching evolution in violation of state law. The term has been invoked repeatedly in the decades since, notably in clashes related to desegregation, the red scare, sex education and homeschooling.”
In the last twenty years, “parental rights” has also been invoked in Canada to push back against students’ confidential participation in school-based GSAs (Gay-Straight Alliances/Gender-Sexuality Alliances); against the SOGI-123 program; against comprehensive sex education, including the 2014 changes to the Ontario health education curriculum; against racial equity in education; and most recently, against transgender students’ self-identification in schools.
According to psychologist Dr. Conor Barker from Mount Saint Vincent University and Patrick Richards from the University of Saskatchewan, “The parental rights movement is based on the concept that children are property of the parents with limited rights.”
An explicit example of this “children as property” notion is Steve Tourloukis, a Hamilton Ontario father who tried to have the Ontario Superior Court force the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board to give him advance notice of his children learning about anything that might conflict with his Greek Orthodox faith, which he labeled as “false teachings.” In media interviews, Tourloukis said “My children are my own. I own them. They don’t belong to the school board.” The case went on for six years, including both the Superior Court and the Court of Appeals finding against him.
It is important to note that not all those who are swayed by “parental rights” arguments, or even all “parental rights” activists, consciously believe that their children are their property. For many who advocate stronger “parental rights,” they are “natural rights” —that is, inherent, universal, and not derived from the authority of the state. This belief is a large part of how “parental rights” functions as a thought-terminating cliche—a concept identified by American psychiatrist Rober Jay Lifton, to describe how “most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized, and easily expressed.
“They become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”
As a thought-terminating cliche, “parental rights” rejects questions like “rights to do what?”, erases the complicating factor of the subjectivity and personhood of children, and naturalizes an authoritarian and objectifying parent-child relationship.
By using a phrase many find natural and unobjectionable as a stand-in for “anti-trans rights” and “anti-children’s rights,” the “parental rights” movement drives not just anti-2SLGBTQ+ activists, but also concerned and misinformed parents, to endorse a fundamentally anti-liberal, anti-democratic, right-wing populist philosophy.
We can resist the thought-terminating effect of “parental rights” by expanding how we think about privacy and safety, and by practicing holding contradicting ideas in tension.
Resisting Thought-Termination, Embracing Thought-Expansion
The current “parental rights” discourse in Canada is centred on the self-identification of transgender students in K-12 schools.
The “Parental Rights” Movement’s position is that parents have a right to be informed by school professionals if their child has requested to be referred to by different pronouns than the ones that “match” the sex they were assigned at birth, and/or a different name than they were given at birth. They frame this as a matter of the state’s (i.e. the teacher’s/school’s) obligation to meet these rights.
Slogans like “I don’t co-parent with the government” implicitly call for less government involvement/interference in their relationship with their child.
The New Brunswick Child and Youth Advocate responded to this position by pointing out that “Parents cannot demand a government small enough to butt out of the family and demand a school apparatus big enough to force their child to talk to them. Happily, parents have all the same tools they always did to build a loving, trusting relationship with their children.”
Using Vent Diagrams to think critically about “parental rights,” it is possible to explore ideas that are both true, yet in tension.
A helpful tool for thinking about two statements that both appear true, while both appear to be contradictory. The difference between a Venn Diagram, and a Vent Diagram, is that in a Vent Diagram, we don’t label the middle part. The originators of the Vent Diagram, E.M./Elana Eisen-Markowitz and Rachel Schragis, describe that empty overlap as “a tension that we don’t have language for" because that non-binary overlap isn’t really part of our public discourse (yet). By styling these tensions as unlabeled Vent Diagrams, we get to a) actively confront binary thinking and b) imagine what’s actually in the overlap every time we see and feel the Vent.
This Vent Diagram shows the overlap of two statements that appear to be both true and contradictory.
The Vent above is a good place to start because it helps us recognize the good faith desires of parents to be involved in, and in most cases, supportive of their children’s lives. Many people who have been swayed by the “parental rights” discourse come from this place.
The New Brunswick Child and Youth Advocate’s review of Policy 713 “heard from parents who would want to hypothetically support their child if they wished to question their gender identity, in at least one case, a parent who supported parental consent prior to social transitioning had given that consent.”
Framing all parents who desire to be actively involved in their children’s lives and who are personally troubled by the idea of another adult knowing things about their child that they themselves do not, as bigots and bad parents, does not help schools be safer, families be stronger, and children be more empowered. It only drives them further into the extremism of the “Parental Rights” Movement.
How to Talk About It
DON’T say “If your kids don’t tell you they’re trans, you failed as a parent.”
DO acknowledge parents’ disappointment about their kids not sharing everything with them.
DO say “Let’s think about how we can show our kids that it would be safe to come out to us if they were queer or trans.”
At the same time, we need to recognize that it is perfectly developmentally normal for young people to seek zones of privacy and increasing autonomy as they get older, much to their parents’ chagrin. Knowing that does not necessarily make it easier for many parents to wrestle with when it happens within their own family. This too is entirely normal.
The discourse around the life-saving importance of young people having their gender identity affirmed by the people around them seems to have made, in some cases, the issue of gender identity and gender exploration comparable to other dire issues such as substance use, self-harm, or dating violence.
2SLGBTQ+ advocates' explanation of how integral support is for queer and trans youth, and what the consequences can be when that support is absent, has been both misunderstood by good-faith caring adults as requiring the same formal interventions as serious mental health and interpersonal violence issues; and weaponized by right-wing forces. For example, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, justified his belief that “parents must be fully involved” in a child’s choice to use different pronouns in school, by saying “often there are health implications, and I think we have to respect the rights of parents and recognize that these can be life-changing decisions.”
Caring adults can push back against this grave framing of gender identity and exploration, by emphasizing the joy of these processes, and uplifting the positive experiences of youth (and former youth) who had access to affirming and supportive adults and spaces.
How to Talk About It
DON’T overemphasize the negative health outcomes of trans kids. This can be misinterpreted even by allies, as designating trans identity itself as a predictor of negative health outcomes.
DO focus on the positive effects of affirming environments, when you have to talk about trans health and wellbeing.
DO normalize gender identity exploration as a routine and natural part of child and youth development.
When it comes to parents who want schools to tell them if their children are changing or exploring their gender are doing so, it is impossible to tell how many are doing so because they are affirming of transgender experiences, and want to support their child early in that journey, versus how many are doing so because they want to extinguish that exploration and self-identification as quickly as possible.
What we do know is that the Trevor Project’s 2023 U.S. National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People found that “home” was an affirming space for only 35% of transgender and non-binary young people (“school” was an affirming space for 52%). Transgender and nonbinary young people who reported that school was an affirming space were less likely to also report attempting suicide. It also found that 50% of transgender and non-binary young people lived in a home where no one respects their pronouns.
As caring adults, we all want transgender youth to feel as safe and supported as possible, and they want this for themselves and for each other as well. Policies that require teachers to inform/get consent from the parents of transgender students who want to socially transition (change their name and pronouns) at school may mean that youth from affirming homes receive support sooner rather than later. And at the same time, given what we know about how many of these youth feel affirmed at home, such policies leave other transgender students to decide between risking being outed to an unsafe home and being affirmed at school, or remaining in the closet and receiving no support or affirmation from the caring adults in their life.
How to Talk About It
DON’T dismiss affirming parents’ desire to support their children as early as possible.
DO emphasize that policies designed to protect children’s privacy are not intended to degrade affirming parents.
DO focus on shared values such as “all children deserve to be safe and supported” and “we should think about the needs of the most vulnerable people when we make policies.”
When “parental rights” are not centred in this conversation, we can begin to refocus our shared values on the protecting the wellbeing of the most vulnerable people involved in this conversation, and allow transgender students from homes they know to be non-affirming, a chance to carve out a safer space to embrace their identity at school.