LGBTQ

The Teacher Selling Strap-on Harnesses to Fund Inclusive Sex Ed Advocacy

Meet a trans educator on a mission to bring LGBTQ-friendly curriculums to rural Ontario.

by Emily McCarty
Apr 12 2019, 6:09pm

Photos submitted

Alex* (whose name has been changed so their workplace is not compromised) is a trans educator who teaches in a rural part of the province. When the government announced last year that elementary schools would be using an outdated curriculum from 1998, which doesn’t mention gender identity or LGBTQ issues, Alex wanted to make sure queer and trans kids weren’t left out of the conversation.

Alex, who uses they/them pronouns, started making and selling strap-on harnesses to fund their mission of more inclusive sex ed. Harnesses are worn like underwear with an opening in the front for toys like dildos. They can be used in any sexual act, but trans and queer people especially use them for gender affirmation and to bring more inclusivity into the bedroom.

Alex is using the proceeds to travel to universities, educating both teachers and students. So far, they’ve travelled around the province volunteering to speak at GSA clubs (Gay-Straight Alliances or Gender and Sexuality Alliances) and educating teachers on trans and queer student needs. While Alex’s school board has a general equity policy, it doesn’t cover gender identity or LGBTQ issues.

They aren’t alone in protesting the changes. In the first day that Ford opened up public consultation online, 1,600 comments poured in—and only two dozen were in favour of the keeping the 1998 sex ed curriculum.

Although Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced this year that gender orientation and identity will be brought back into the curriculum, it won’t be until Grade 6 and 8 respectively, and parents can still opt-out their children.

This can be much later than when kids start thinking about their gender identity. A study from the Transyouth Project out of the University of Washington found that kids can know their gender identity as soon as they start talking, around two years of age, and transgender identities in adolescence are very likely to continue into adulthood.

VICE reached out to Alex to find out more about their advocacy work for trans and queer students and how sex harnesses might fund their future.

VICE: In terms of sex ed, what is there for trans students right now?
Alex: They're basically getting taught a very heterosexual curriculum that doesn't really accommodate for any sort of variation that isn't cisgender and straight. The big problem with sex education is that it's being taught primarily by cisgender, straight teachers. So there's no extra professional development given to teachers who are teaching health, unless they seek that out on their own, which many don’t.

The most frustrating thing is that there are so many different sex acts that queer and trans people do, that cis people do as well. But the teachers don't make that connection. A lot of the education that students get is about like penile and vaginal sex, whereas with anal and oral sex, that happens with all forms of relationship. Changes in language can make a really big difference. So, instead of saying, when a man has sex with a woman, or a man has sex with another man, you could say, when a person with a penis has sex with a person with a vagina—using anatomical terms instead of gender terms can make a huge difference.

Tell me more about the harness.
I decided to make the strap-on harnesses as a way to fund my advocacy work because they're relatively inexpensive and quick to make. I've been selling them on Etsy, and I've had a couple of different adult inclusive stores make orders as well. All of the money that I'm making is to help make school space more inclusive. The harness itself is made out of polypropylene webbing in a variety of colours—the fan favourite is rainbow. The metal snap makes it so the O ring can be replaced with a different size. The buckles are the exact same buckles that you would use on a backpack to tighten those straps over your shoulder, and because of that, you're able to fit literally any type of person.

I have it in two different sizes, measuring based on a hip circumference. And if somebody needed a size that was bigger, I could easily make one as well. And although they're designed to be accessible for people with disabilities, the actual action of tightening and pulling across the neoprene can be really challenging. So I've worked with a friend who's a physiotherapist, who's given me some pictures on how long to make straps, so that they're easier to grab for somebody with mobility issues and lost muscle tone. So that's in the works for probably a few months from now. I'd like to collaborate with people who have disabilities first, before putting it out, because I’m able bodied and recognize that.

What will the harness sales fund?
All of the work that I've been doing this year has not been funded by the school board, and unless the school board prioritizes equity, it doesn't happen. Especially with the new government in Ontario, the funding model does not accommodate for equity at all. There isn't a lot of money to go around in that sense, so I'm trying to do it myself. In my dream world, if this becomes as big as I hope it does, I’d be traveling around to different schools to do presentations for teachers, because they're often the biggest problem in all of this—students have fewer issues with being accepting. Teachers take a little bit more time to reprogram.

And I decided that it would be really nice to do queer and trans inclusive sex ed presentations in schools with GSAs. So that’s part of the big dream: that I could go and travel around not just eastern Ontario, but other parts of rural parts of Ontario as well, doing those presentations because they're so underserved in those areas. I also teach health, so all of my health classes have been queer and trans inclusive. I've been running the GSA at both of the schools that I taught at. I'm doing a presentation with a university in a couple weeks on the changes in the health curriculum and what implications that has.

Have you had trans or queer students come out to you?
With all the different schools I’ve taught at, there’s always been at least one, if not two or three, trans or gender non-conforming kids in a class. I know that, at least for myself, being trans here was never really an option until they saw someone living authentically as themselves. Not that I gave them permission to be out as trans, but I think seeing themselves represented gave themselves permission. So one of the things that I'm noticing is that there are trans students everywhere. When they have a safe space, they actually starting to come out, but when that space isn’t safe, they don’t—for their own safety.

What would you like to see for the future for trans kids in the school system?
I would love for every school board to have a trans-specific policy that's actually used. I’d like for all teachers to actually be well versed in trans inclusion because that would make a really big impact on those students. I would love for every single washroom to be all gender, every single one of them.

I'd love for some classes, especially in high school, not be divided by gender, at least not in the binary sense. I would love, love, love, love for teachers who are teaching health to not split up into two sexes for those classes. I would love for all the girls to not go and have period talk while the boys go and have the “your testicles are going to drop” talk. I always teach students how to put condoms on bananas but then I also show how to create a dental dam out of it. One of the students, before I taught them how to create the dental dam, asked, “why are we only learning how to put condoms on penises?” Yes, child! I was like, this kid knows what’s up.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.