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U of Manitoba professor is helping kids explore their gender identity

Researcher Fenton Litwiller is developing youth recreation programming to support queer kids in acquiring skills that affirm their complex gender identities.


Winnipeg-based researcher Fenton Litwiller is developing youth recreation programming to support queer kids in acquiring skills that affirm their complex gender identities.

A leisure scholar and assistant professor in the faculty of kinesiology and recreation management at the University of Manitoba, Dr. Litwiller’s work was inspired by leading a discussion group for trans youth. “I asked, ‘what do you want to do?’ And they said, ‘we want to play with makeup,’” recalled Dr. Litwiller (who goes by the pronouns “they/them”).

It’s easy to see why youth are attracted to this kind of programming. Queer folks have become far more visible in the cosmetic industry over the last few years. In 2019, trans artist, musician and author Vivek Shraya, an associate professor in the department of English at the University of Calgary, featured in a campaign for MAC Cosmetics. Her exquisitely made-up face appeared on a massive billboard over Toronto’s Eaton Centre.

Yet many youth lack both the financial resources and a safe space at home or school to play with gender. That’s where Dr. Litwiller’s workshops step in. Thanks to a small grant, they have been able to hire drag mentors and provide makeup kits for each participant to get started with either drag or everyday makeup.

Though workshops offer both cosmetics and clothing, participants tend to be drawn to the former because it’s easier to replicate on their own. For many, makeup can be a way to shift how others perceive their gender. Participants may want help with contouring to emphasize or de-emphasize angularities in their face. Or they may want to use glitter and bright colour to challenge the dominant culture’s binary perceptions of gender. This can lead to a feeling of “gender euphoria,” or the joy and satisfaction that comes when one’s appearance more closely matches one’s identity.

Aside from the chance for aesthetic exploration, the workshops offer participants a chance to connect with organizations and health workers that can support them in the long term. And they get a chance to meet other queer youth, which can be lifesaving for those living in small, isolated communities.

By making the workshop an explicitly queer space, youth participants can feel free to explore what their identity is, and what it is not, without undermining their core identities. For example, a masculine person who was assigned female at birth could try on a dress without having it undermine their masculinity.

The key is to make a space where queer youth are able to explore their identities according to their needs. Drag can be a fun, theatrical way to create alternate selves or make fun of gender norms, but for many participants, the work is a more serious exploration of identity. “For trans youth, genderplay is an opportunity to be real,” Dr. Litwiller pointed out. “If drag is only a mockery of gender, it doesn’t have space for gender that is not superficial, gender that is associated with one’s internal identities.”

While Dr. Litwiller is excited to see drag becoming more visible outside queer spaces, partly driven by the popular reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race, they argue it can be a double-edged sword for trans youth who see an ideal that might not fit their gender identity or might be unattainable.

RuPaul’s Drag Race has really influenced ideas of what drag is,” explained Dr. Litwiller. “It’s hyperfeminine, and it’s perfection. That has informed straight culture’s idea of what might be possible. For trans women who don’t pass [as a normative image of women] because they cannot or because they don’t want to – because being a trans woman is a spectrum – that fires up transphobic responses from the public.”

“The drag mentors and I have worked hard on our own stuff to make sure that this space is inclusive of all genders,” said Dr. Litwiller. In the process of developing the curriculum, Dr. Litwiller has even taken the opportunity to play with makeup, something they don’t normally have a relationship with.

“We often focus on the wounded nature of the experiences of queer youth for good reason.” said Dr. Litwiller. “That wounded nature needs to be explored. It needs to be articulated, and it needs to be addressed. I don’t want to diminish that at all. But we also need opportunities to explore joy and euphoria.”

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