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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 5, March 2005

LGBT issues in schools

by Glen Hansman

Coquitlam teacher Murray Corren and his husband, Peter Corren, have launched a complaint at the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal against the Ministry of Education regarding lack of curriculum in our schools addressing the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-identified (LGBT) students. Their complaint will be heard in July 2005 in Vancouver.

As public institutions, schools touch nearly every child and provide powerful sanction for certain knowledge. Teachers have the capacity to help children learn how to share public space with people similar to, and different from, themselves. We have a responsibility to address issues around gender identity and sexual orientation appropriately and respectfully—whether in response to bigoted comments or harassment, or in response to perfectly legitimate questions about same-sex families or students’ own needs and experiences.

Even at the elementary level, students throw around words like faggot and queer, and use gay as an epithet ("That’s so gay!"). A stigmatizing lens is placed upon students of difference, especially those perceived to be deviating from expected gender or sexual norms. Providing children at all levels with age-appropriate concepts, vocabulary, and strategies for handling the issues is crucial in helping them in resisting bigotry, avoiding unsafe practices, and treating themselves and others respectfully.

The Ministry of Education and school districts across the province need to face these issues head on. Unfortunately, the ministry and most school districts have been slow to introduce adequate discussion of LGBT issues in school curricula and policy.

The 2003 Safe Schools Task Force, which travelled around B.C. on behalf of the provincial government, called attention to the challenges faced by B.C.’s LGBT youth. Its report stated, "In nearly every community visited..., no matter how large or small, individuals made presentations about the issue of harassment and intimidation based on sexual orientation. "Presenters talked about their experience in the school system and the ways that homophobic discrimination had led to harassment and intimidation that made their schooling difficult. Many gay and lesbian youth told us that they dreaded coming to school."

Furthermore, the task force found that "even the perception of being homosexual or of being tolerant of homosexuality is enough to result in harassment and intimidation, including both emotional and physical abuse from those who choose to bully."

Despite these findings and others, the provincial government has yet to mandate any specific action addressing the safety and equity of LGBT youth in B.C. schools. The full Safe Schools Task Force report, Facing Our Fears, and the ensuing guidelines, Safe, Caring, and Orderly Schools, are available on the ministry’s web site. The former neglects to make any specific recommendations around homophobia, despite detailing numerous examples in the body of the report; the latter encourages school boards to include references to homophobia in Codes of Conduct, but doesn’t mandate such inclusion.

Earlier this year, Minister of Education Tom Christensen said in the Legislative Assembly that "discrimination within our schools on any grounds is wholly unacceptable. That certainly includes any elements of homophobia." Unfortunately, rather than take a leadership role by ensuring that schools across the province deal with homophobia in their codes of conduct, Christensen would rather that schools themselves determine "acceptable and unacceptable behaviours within schools, regardless of the motivation for the behaviour."

Unfortunately, this approach depends upon individual schools and school districts to identify homophobia and the needs of their LGBT students as valid concerns.

Most regions in B.C. are reticent to do anything positive in this area. Only a small number of districts, including Vancouver and Victoria, have taken the initiative to create antidiscrimination policies addressing homophobia. As Prince George’s district administrator Bonnie Chappell puts it in a recent article in XtraWest: If the government tells the district to do it, they will; but in the meantime, it’s not something her district is about to do on its own. Not in an election year, according to Bill Gook, assistant superintendent for the Southeast Kootenay School District. Without policies like those of Victoria and Vancouver, a climate of fear and discomfort exists for educators in addressing these issues.

Other Canadian jurisdictions are leaving B.C. behind in addressing school safety and curriculum for queer youth. Manitoba has several municipal and provincially funded initiatives in place to support queer youth in schools. Ontario’s Premier Dalton McGuinty recently appeared on television addressing Muslim parents who wished to pull their children out of school during lessons about same-sex families and homophobia, publicly stating that "it’s important that all our children have the opportunity to learn about those things that distinguish one of us from the other, and that they learn to respect those differences." (CBC, 2004) Ontario’s Education Minister Gerard Kennedy echoed the premier’s remarks, saying, "[O]ur public schools are there to engender respect, respect for people of different faiths and different sexual orientations... [I don’t think] there’s any harm done to parents who find their children exposed to ideas that are different than the ones they teach at home."

Little has changed in public schools since I graduated a dozen years ago, and I worry about LGBT youth in schools across our province, particularly outside of urban areas, where their needs are not being recognized. Rather than simple encouragement for school districts to begin a dialogue around codes of conduct and only the hope that the needs and rights of transgender, two-spirit, lesbian, and gay youth will be respected, as the minister of education proffers, we need leadership from the province and specific action in this area to protect and affirm all students in our public schools.

Glen Hansman teaches at Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith Elementary School, Vancouver.

References

• British Columbia Hansard (2004) "Official report of the debates of the Legislative Assembly" Hansard. 2004 Legislative Session: 5th Session, 37th Parliament. Monday, April 19, 2004. Volume 26, Number 7. Retrieved from: www.leg.bc.ca/hansard/37th5th/h40419p.htm#10198

• CBC (November 17, 2004) "Muslim parents encouraged to keep kids in anti-homophobia classes." Retrieved from www.cbc.ca.

• Perelle, R. (September 2, 2004) "A patchwork of bigotry-Back to school special report: How safe will queer students be in BC this fall?" XtraWest

• Safe Schools Task Force. (2003) "Facing our fears: Accepting responsibility." Victoria: British Columbia Ministry of Education.



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