The clunky pitter-patter of excited children running around could be heard at the Johanna B. Oosterveld Centre on Saturday. Among the horde of children was six-year-old Elliott Sweeny.
Full of excitement and sporting a flashy pair of pink glasses, Elliott was joined by friends and parents. The children were there for the first Pop-Up School workshop on gender identity, but Elliott wasn’t a workshop participant, Elliot was leading it.
“My teachers used to say ‘boys and girls’ and I didn’t like that,” said Elliott. “I’m gender-fluid.”
Gender-fluid is a term used to describe someone who does not have a fixed gender. Elliott uses “they/them” pronouns instead of “he/him” or “she/her.”
Pop-Up School was created by Elliott and Carmella Farahbakhsh, who works for Venus Envy and South House. The pair invited parents and children of all ages to Saturday’s workshop.
Many children ran around the centre with Elliott and eventually gravitated to the front of the room. Elliott plopped onto the black leather couch and called for attention. The other children played on the floor, while parents sat in chairs listening closely to Elliott.
Elliott said little at the beginning of the workshop, letting Farahbakhsh do most of the talking. But once they started taking questions from their peers, Elliot learned to love the spotlight and made sure their message was heard loud and clear, proudly shouting:
“You can be whatever gender you want!”
The idea for Pop-Up School came to Elliott when they heard men on the radio talking about gender and bodies. Elliott wasn’t impressed and thought what the men were saying was inappropriate.
At the beginning of the workshop, Elliott and Farahbakhsh led a discussion on gender identity and defined different gender identities.
Farahbakhsh, who identifies as non-binary and uses “they/them” pronouns like Elliott, defined terms such as transgender, gender-fluid and two-spirited.
Farahbakhsh said an analogy to help people understand gender identities is to imagine gender like a galaxy; it is complex, vast and has many different parts.
Creating a community
Over 40 parents and children attended the workshop. Kym Sweeny, Elliott’s mother, said she had difficulty finding a group of like-minded parents until Saturday’s workshop.
“I found spaces with people who are my age and who are trans-inclusive,” said Sweeny. “But, (we lacked) that community for Elliott and a community of parents. I really don’t feel like I’ve had that until today.
The parents at the workshop were all smiles as they shuffled out of the building. Many said the class was helpful with introducing their children to different gender identities.
“I think it’s super important for kids to learn about gender from a really early age,” said Kiersten Holden-Ada, who brought their two children. “I also think it’s really important for kids to be around other kids who are gender creative.”
Not all of the children at the workshop were gender non-conforming. Some parents were gender non-conforming themselves, while others wanted to teach their children about gender or learn more about it themselves.
Children like Elliott have to deal with an unfortunate reality: bullying. As a primary student, Elliott was teased about wearing skirts or tights to school. They now attend another school, where they say they feel safe and supported.
Educational pamphlets and children’s books were available for parents at the workshop who wished to learn more about gender.
Elliott hopes Pop-Up School will help stop gender-based bullying. While there are no set dates for other Pop-Up School workshops, organizers hope to hold more.