Using research to empower 2SLGBTQIA+ leadership in Canadian institutions

Photo: iStock, FG Trade

The teenage years can be tumultuous for youth grappling with who they are and where they belong. For teens facing added layers of confronting their own gender and sexual identity, those struggles are magnified. They often emerge from high school only to face more discrimination and exclusion in their journey through young adulthood.

"I was a little queer teen," reflects Rachel Loewen Walker, an assistant professor, program chair of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, author, and director of the Social Innovation Lab on Gender and Sexuality. "Even with wonderfully supportive parents and friends, it still took me four to five years after coming out to feel comfortable holding my partner’s hand in public."

A passion for advocacy

In what she considers a “concerning trend” of targeted backlash against transgender and sexually diverse communities, Loewen Walker’s own experience has fuelled her passion for advocating for the rights of 2SLGBTQIA+ people.

"Despite decades of significant strides in 2SLGBTQIA+ rights, the climate is much more hostile now than it was a decade ago. Movements are relying on this gender argument and gender panic as a tool for fear-mongering and discrimination,” says Loewen Walker about the debate over whether or not children under 16 should have the right to change their name or pronouns at school without parental consent.

“It’s like the lid has just been put back on years of open gender expression and now a generation of kids are trapped in the jar,” says Loewen Walker. “We’re now back to telling kids ‘You better behave like a girl, or you better behave like a boy.’ It’s unbelievable. I’m scared for our young people.”

Turning research into action

As the former executive director of OUTSaskatoon, Loewen Walker’s passion for research and advocacy has supported changing Saskatchewan’s provincial identification policies, establishing trans ID clinics, and lessening the burden of the ID process for trans people. The efforts have led to changes on provincial identification like health cards, birth certificates and driver’s licenses. A nonbinary gender marker of "X" is now available for individuals who do not identify as male or female.

Loewen Walker is currently launching a groundbreaking research project funded by a SSHRC Race, Gender and Diversity Initiative grant. Queering Leadership, Indigenizing Governance: Building Intersectional Pathways for Two Spirit, Trans, and Queer Communities to Lead Social and Institutional Change is a multifaceted project that will examine intersectional paths toward inclusive leadership at Canadian institutions.

“Trans and queer people are needed at the table in leadership roles,” says Loewen Walker. “But we need to stop obsessing about how they fit at the table, the boxes that they check off. I think our youth today are teaching us how to do that, as they are much more inclusive.”

Loewen Walker’s research team will dig into equity, diversity and inclusion policies and strategies at Canadian universities, which she says often exclude 2SLGBTQIA+ communities.

Building leadership capacity

“The scope of this research is a first in Canada,” she explains. “We’ve started conducting focus groups across the country to develop a survey aimed at studying leadership roles and experiences, or lack thereof, for 2SLGBTQIA+ faculty and staff within Canadian universities. We’re also working with Two Spirit organizations to examine decolonized governance models in organizations and at institutions. It’s impossible to change the system and change the leadership if you’re still operating under a colonial framework.”

The survey will ask participants questions like: What is your experience as a 2SLGBTQIA+ individual at university? Have you ever been in a leadership role? Have you ever been excluded from a leadership role because of your identity? How do experiences of gender and sexual diversity add to spaces of leadership and governance?

“We hope to get some clear data to show what the experience looks like for a queer person in Toronto versus a queer person in New Brunswick or Saskatchewan and all points in between,” Loewen Walker explains. “Also, we see more sexually diverse people in leadership roles, but we don’t often see gender diverse people in those same leadership roles.”

That information can be hard to separate out with the data available, though.

“They often get grouped together, and that is problematic,” says Loewen Walker.

From research to job creation

“I know we have trans people in higher education, but we have very few, if any, in leadership roles,” she says. “And that is something we need to be paying attention to. By getting a clearer picture of who is in leadership roles and, more importantly, who is getting passed over for leadership positions, we can examine that data and use it to mobilize change and build leadership capacity at academic institutions on a national level.”

Loewen Walker’s team has already seen impacts on leadership trajectories from their past research through the Social Innovation Lab.

“We pair our undergraduate and graduate research students with grassroots organizations to conduct vital research on gender and sexuality,” says Loewen Walker. “Several of those students have now been hired permanently by these organizations. That proves the value of this work, while building capacity around knowledge mobilization.”

Driving policy change for a more equitable future

Even with the resistance facing the 2SLGBTQIA+ community today, Loewen Walker sees the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I think we’re going to face some rocky terrain in the next few years, but I think we will get through it,” she says. “I think we’ll be stronger on the other side.”

She believes the queering leadership study will help lay the groundwork for policy change and a more inclusive future.

“Research can be the game changer,” she says. “From queer-specific housing policies and [analyzing] evictions, to a queer seniors report and studying the process of completing ID changes for trans and nonbinary people, we’ve seen firsthand the impact our research through the Social Innovation Lab has had. Our goal is to continue to explode research on gender and sexual diversity.”

She says the research team’s aim is for their results to lead to policy changes at the local, provincial and national levels.

“By speaking up when everyone else is trying to silence them … I think that queer and trans youth of today are already teaching us what it means to be leaders,” she says. “I see a future of them being accepted and celebrated as our next generation of leaders.”

Want to learn more?

Check out Rachel Loewen Walker’s Tedx Talk on Building Queer Futures.