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This is us...Lee Airton

This is us...Lee Airton

[photo of Professor Lee Airton at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre]
Bernard Clark

Lee Airton at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre

Lee Airton, Assistant Professor
Gender and Sexuality Studies in Education, Faculty of Education

"My research looks at how we prepare teachers to do particular things in their daily work surrounding diversity and equity, but particularly gender and sexual diversity. We usually think of that as meaning people who identify somewhere under the LGBTQ+ umbrella.

“There’s a whole spectrum of gender diversity that isn’t just about trans people over here, and everybody else over there. There are ways in which people do and don’t conform to different kinds of local gender norms. My work looks at what teachers need to know and to be able to do about those things in order to create an environment where gender and sexual diversity can exist as openly as possible.

“I try to give teacher candidates the tools to welcome how gender is being lived by all their students, even if they don’t yet know what words students use for themselves. Even if all their students are cisgender boys or cisgender girls, there are still many different ways those students are living what it means to be a boy or a girl. But usually only a couple of those are valued in the school, so I try to prepare teachers to know how to think about and recognize the different kinds of gender diversity in their classroom and to make space for those in their everyday interactions.

“I do a lot of thinking about interaction, about how we negotiate gender and sexuality in the classroom, and what are everyday teacher practices that actually close down who their students are, or who they think they can be. These can happen without teachers even knowing it; they are doing their best, but may not have a sense of the impact they have in the ways they talk and the ways they relate to their students.”

In 2016, Dr. Airton, whose pronoun is singular “they,” created the No Big Deal campaign. NBD aims to help people become comfortable with practising the use of gender-neutral pronouns for others. As the campaign says, “My pronoun is a big deal to me; using it doesn’t need to be a big deal for you. It’s no big deal.”

Trying out new language

“What NBD tries to do is give a starting place for people who are trying out new language, such as using singular ‘they’ for one person they know, but it sounds wrong for them. And that orientation towards providing a starting place comes directly from my teacher education practice, where I get whole rooms full of good people who want to do the best they can for the different children and youth they work with. And they come from all different kinds of backgrounds and they’re all very anxious about doing the best job they can.

“We all want to be good people,” they say, “but sometimes we just make a mistake and we have a negative impact on someone else. And in that moment, you really see that our intentions don’t matter. And it isn’t about being a good or a bad person at all. It’s about being the person who recognizes that we have to do a little bit of work for each other in the world.”

Dr. Airton’s book, Gender: Your Guide (A Gender-Friendly Primer on What to Know, What to Say, and What to Do in the New Gender Culture), was published by Adams Media and Simon & Schuster in October.

[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 3-2018]