Key Straughan was a kindergartener when he realized he was different.
In one kindergarten classroom, the children sat on a pink carpet. In a neighbouring class, the carpet was blue.
Straughan had been taught that pink was for girls and blue was for boys, but even then, he didn’t identify with either.
“I remember thinking, ‘There are two rooms — one with a pink carpet and one with a blue carpet. And I can play where I want in a way that other kids can’t,'” said Straughan. “I kind of realized that that was different. I totally got the idea that I’m an in-between person. I can play in either room.”
Straughan, who identifies as transgender, is now a kindergarten teacher himself — one of the few openly trans teachers in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.
This month, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario awarded Straughan with its 2015 Rainbow Visions Award for his work in developing materials and practices that promote the inclusion of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
This September will mark the first year Straughan’s students refer to him as “Mr.” when he moves to Queen Mary School with the closure of Roxborough Park. Straughan, who’s biologically a woman but transitioning to a male identity, has always been known to her students as “Ms”.
Though Straughan says he would prefer not to closely identify with either gender — an impossibility when you’re a schoolteacher — he says it’s important to represent the trans community to students. Using “Mr.” makes his trans identity more visible, Straughan says.
“I feel like it’s so important for me to be seen because I didn’t see anyone like me,” he said. “I feel like the people who are gender independent, or just different, can see me and that would be helpful.”
In his classroom, Straughan uses drama to encourage students to think about what gender means. Straughan used costumes, props and dolls — including a princess dressed in a business suit — to help challenge students’ notions of gender.
A key part of this experience was a character Straughan developed named Paul. One day in October 2013, Straughan spontaneously put on some glasses and a bowling shirt with the name “Paul” embroidered on the chest and began speaking in a man’s voice and making funny gestures. In that moment, Straughan’s “kinder drag alter ego” was born.
“I put the shirt on and said I was Paul — and, therefore, I was. It’s the principle of, ‘it’s not how I look, it’s not how closely I fit into your idea of what I should be’ — but what I say I am.”
After that day, Straughan would occasionally dress as Paul — often at the request of his students. Children would ask Straughan to “be Paul today” and would plan surprise parties in his honour to make him appear.
Paul became an entry point into conversations about gender. Straughan encouraged his students to think about what a boy or a girl could look like or what clothing they would choose. They had discussions about how Paul was a boy, but had long hair or wore earrings.
“I didn’t want to do anything that would interfere with their learning or might upset parents. And I have to say that parents have been crazily supportive,” he said.
The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board has a gender equity directive that outlines the board’s approach to creating a safe and fair environment for students and staff.
It states that the board will “strive to ensure that all forms of stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, sexism, and violence against all genders, in particular, girls, women and transgender persons, are challenged and eliminated.”
Sharon Stephanian, the superintendent of leadership and learning responsible for equity issues, says there’s no specific policy that governs when students should begin learning about gender issues.
“As an inclusive community, we strive to create environments that represent and celebrate the diversity of our students and staff,” she said.
Often, Straughan’s students asked for Paul when they needed help with typical male activities — building a fort, for example. Straughan would then challenge his students by failing at the task, then telling students that “Ms. Straughan” would have to come back to help.
He also encouraged his students to use their dress to express themselves. Some children came to class dressed in costumes — a lion or a dancer — simply because they “felt like it.”
“It looks like we’re having a party at all times — which in some ways we are. But we’re still doing our math and our reading,” he said.
Paul became so meaningful in Straughan’s life that he changed his middle name to reflect his “kinder drag alter ego.”
“This is so important to my personal development and what I was doing in education,” he said. “And it was the name the kids gave me. So kindergarteners are sort of an integral part of my identity.”