LGBTQ+ Youth and Trauma: Our Talk With Dr. Lee Airton

Checking in with these students and building relationships with them needs to be an ongoing process because the stuff that affects our mental health is not just the one thing that sends someone to the principal's office. It is the everyday climate of the school."

Dr. Lee Airton is an Assistant Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies in Education at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Their public scholarship includes the blog They Is My Pronoun, the No Big Deal social media initiative, and the book Gender – Your Guide: A Gender-Friendly Primer on What to Know, What to Say and What to Do in the New Gender Culture (Adams Media - An Imprint of Simon & Schuster). Their newest book with Dr. Susan Woolley is Teaching About Gender Diversity: Teacher-Tested Lesson Plans for K-12 Classrooms (Canadian Scholars Press). Dr. Airton’s scholarly articles appear in the journals Gender and Education, Sex Education, Curriculum Inquiry, Teachers College Record, and the Journal of Education Policy. Their current funded research explores how Ontario K-12 schools and pre-service teacher education programs are responding to the inclusion of gender identity and gender expression protections in human rights legislation.

SWY: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your experiences in regard to the LGBTQ+ community?

LA: I am a trans person who is non-binary, and I am also somebody who gets to do something called 'me-search', meaning that I do research in the field of education that touches on the lives of queer and trans people in education. I study what teacher education ought to do to prepare teacher candidates to provide a climate that's welcoming of gender and sexual diversity. I also study what policy tries to do in order to create that climate. I have been involved in queer and trans communities for about 20 years, in Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto. I've learned a great deal about what it means to do right by the folks in my communities, from my academic studies and just by learning from the people that I share spaces with.

SWY: Are there any specific risks or vulnerabilities that the LGBTQ+ community faces? If so, what are some ways that we, as a community, can better mitigate these?

LA: I think it's important to foreground that the LGBTQ+ community is an intersectional community. So you will find incredible diversity underneath the rainbow umbrella. So, what risk looks like under that umbrella varies. Seeing that, well, queer people and trans people don’t necessarily face the same type of obstacles, white middle-class trans people don’t face the same type of obstacle as indigenous or black trans women of colour. BIPOC people are much more likely to experience things like violence and sexual violence. There are many obstacles that queer and trans people face, and I think that a classic thing people worry about is whether one's family of origin will be able to support them; especially if you figure out who you are at an age when you are dependent on your family. The less mobility that one has - which is tied to education, SES, all these things - the more you are likely to be dependent on your family for support, and not everyone's family is supportive. For instance, we know that parental education and levels of wealth predict homeownership. So having the support of one's family is a tremendous privilege for those who have it. For those who don’t, it can certainly have a serious impact on their ability to live a life that most folks would imagine for themselves.

In terms of mitigation, from the risk and vulnerability angle, for teachers: walking the line between not assuming or over-assuming that the queer or trans kids in your school or classroom are necessarily at risk. So walking this fine line, but also knowing that having a supportive family is the number one risk mitigation factor and a huge predictor of LGBTQ+ student resilience. We also know, that having one supportive adult, being able to name one supportive adult, is also a significant risk mitigation factor. That supportive adult could be a teacher, a coach, it could be you. So being the person that affirms, connects with resources, participates in culturally relevant ways in forming relationships with these youth, and incorporating references into the everyday dialogue and curriculum that speak to these particular students. Just being ready with local, walk-in brick-and-mortar resources that students can access [for teachers].

"We also know, that having one supportive adult, being able to name one supportive adult, is also a significant risk mitigation factor. That supportive adult could be a teacher, a coach, it could be you."

SWY: Your book, Gender: Your Guide, discusses understanding and engaging in today’s gender conversations. What inspired you to write this, and why do you think these conversations are so important to have?

LA: I wrote this book because of the folks in the first wave of people realizing that gender non-binary is an identity, and accessing a community around that and realizing that part of the way that we could be affirmed in our everyday lives is by using pronouns. I have gone by the pronoun 'they/them' since about 2011. So when I was coming out, I got a lot of very sensible, practical, almost 'boring' kinds of questions from people who wanted to do their best but were also wondering about basic things. What I noticed is that I had nowhere to send people who had these really pragmatic questions. So Gender Your Guide builds on the work I did with, where I accepted and answered questions from everyone about how we do this and how we do it together. Gender Your Guide is inspired by this willingness that so many folks have that’s not politicized or polarizing.

SWY: Can you speak on gender and sexual diversity inclusion specifically in schools? What are teachers’ roles in supporting these students?

LA: I think a high-level responsibility of teachers is to do what I like to call (very scientifically) 'drop nuggets', or if you prefer, 'raise flags'. A nugget is just a moment of putting something out there in your classroom; whether it's how you react to something, the language you use, something you share, or don’t share about yourself… these nuggets show everybody there that gender and sexual diversity are expected here. Offering examples in your curriculum and activities that use they/them pronouns, for instance. These little things make a big difference. Using partner language when people are dating and not jumping right into boyfriend and girlfriend. This is how you signal that you could be the person that could be the significant adult who connects them to resources, who affirms that the person they are is actually important.

SWY: The “2010 Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation” shows that members of the LGBTQ+ community experience higher rates of domestic violence than cisgender, heterosexual individuals. Can you speak on this issue, and perhaps shed light on why you think that is?

LA: Just to preface, I do not explicitly study domestic violence; I'm more on the kids' side of things. But, something we do know is that a lot of intimate-family, domestic violence, and sexual violence supports, expect a heterosexual client. That is changing, but there has been research showing how the phenomenon of lesbian domestic violence, for example, is not widely understood; many years ago it wasn’t even validated or thought of as domestic violence. The kinds of violence that might happen between men in a relationship are not legible in the traditional framework of what we think domestic violence is and looks like, which is highly gendered. Trans people experience incredible amounts of domestic violence. Part of that is the feeling that a partner is being so very supportive during a transition or in being with a trans person, that the person should be so grateful which creates a horrible power dynamic that can produce all kinds of violence. The reason why I highlight these issues is that these are huge deterrents to accessing domestic violence supports and likely the lack of access to support would fuel a cycle of more violence in one's life. Another example is trans people being turned away from shelters. This is changing but is a huge deterrent for trans women in particular to seek different kinds of supports.

SWY: On a similar note, studies have shown that trauma (such as bullying, harassment, traumatic forms of societal stigma, bias, rejection, etc.) and mental health issues are experienced at a higher rate as well. In what ways can schools and teachers implement intervention strategies to change this trajectory?

LA: Traditionally, when we think about things like bias, bullying, stigma, and mental health, we need to be conscious that those concepts usually come within an individualizing framework. We are recognizing more and more that mental health that is something that is affected by someone's social positions; such as minority stress and the chronic toll on one's physiology from experiencing racial microaggression and racism in its full form. I think schools and teachers can implement intervention strategies that do not wait for a highly legible incident of harassment or violence to happen to a student who they know is LGTBQ+, but rather to understand that all the little pieces they may witness adding up (i.e., misgendering, social ostracism) are as likely to contribute to poor mental health outcomes for queer and trans students, as these very legible and intentional acts like bullying. Checking in with these students and building relationships with them needs to be an ongoing process because the stuff that affects our mental health is not just the one thing that sends someone to the principal's office. It is the everyday climate of the school.

SWY: Do you have any advice for LGTBQ+ youth who may be experiencing forms of abuse or trauma, and who may feel unseen/unheard?

LA: My advice is to think about making that known to somebody, to that one trusted adult. That is a scary process that can feel out of control. In some cases, it may oblige the adult to contact CAS who may initiate an investigation. The folks who conduct these investigations are professional and compassionate, but it can be even a traumatizing experience. Especially the older kids, it can be a huge disruption to their lives. So, what I would encourage you to do, is consider sharing that, obviously we want to know this is happening. There are also other services that you can reach out to anonymously to gather information on what might happen in this process and what supports are available to you. So if you are experiencing abuse or trauma in the home, I do recommend Kid's Help Phone, it is an excellent resource. They also have online forums and I am very impressed with their gender and sexuality awareness and the forms they have and the advice they offer. So, I guess a combination of knowing this process is very challenging, knowing it's really important to access that help, and that there are ways you can learn about that without triggering that process. So get in touch with Kids Help Phone, whether online or on the phone, and begin that process, please.

We would like to thank Dr. Airton for sharing their insight on LGBTQ+ youth, their vulnerabilities, and ways to be a supportive figure in the lives of these individuals. You can learn more about Dr. Airton at


Starts With Youth would like to thank #RisingYotuh, TakingITGlobal, Canada Service Corps and the Government of Canada for their generosity and support. With their help, we will continue working to address intergenerational trauma and childhood abuse, creating a positive change in our community.