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Friday, June 24, 2011

23 June, 2011. Presentation made to Community Forum

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on this topic tonight.

About six weeks ago, I first became aware of protests against draft Policy 5.45. When I became aware of how large this issue had become, I created a Facebook group, and a Facebook page, both called the Burnaby Parents' Gay/Straight Alliance. Within the day, the group grew to more than 75 members, and currently there are 129 people in the group.

However, let me be clear that I do not speak for other parents who have joined the Facebook group. I speak for myself, as a parent of a child in a Burnaby school. I speak as a Canadian-born child of immigrants. I speak as a scientist. I speak as a person of faith. I support Policy 5.45, and its commitment to making our schools safer.

When I read the letters to the editor on this topic, what strikes me is that there is a lot of fear in our community. Although I don’t entirely understand the fear, I do want to honour those feelings. Some of the fear seems to be fear of the unknown. What will it mean to us to have this Policy in our schools? How do children become homosexual? Will learning about homosexuality make my child gay? Will I have to have uncomfortable discussions about sex and sexuality with my children? How will I do this?

As a scientist, one thing I can help with is access to research on homosexuality, on how children develop their sexual identity, and on the best statistics on the effects of bullying and the effects of anti-bullying initiatives on the health and well-being of all of our children. My colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc, is an expert in adolescent sexual development, and she is willing to come to a public event to answer questions if we organize it and invite her. She tells me that 2/3 of the children who report homophobic bullying do not consider themselves to be homosexuals – this is also about protecting straight kids.

I am quickly learning how long overdue this policy is. I am learning that the expression "that's so gay" is pervasive in Burnaby student culture. I am learning that many children are harassed bullied and teased on a daily basis. I am learning that a shocking number of these children take their own lives. I am also learning that many of the children who have taken their own lives were straight children who were singled out, targeted, labelled, and bullied to their deaths.

I have also been shocked to learn that Aaron Webster’s killers came from Burnaby. Ten years ago, four young men got in a car and drove to Stanley Park. Although they later said that they were “looking for a fight”, it is clear that they were looking for a gay man to assault. They drove to Stanley Park, found a gay man, and beat him to death with baseball bats. These young men were a product of Burnaby schools, and two were under 18 at the time. Why was a policy not put in place then?

The rights of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people to be protected from discrimination and bullying is protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was enacted about thirty years ago.

Four years ago a judge found that school boards were required to pass policies of this type. Today the United Nations is working on a declaration in support of the rights of LGBT people around the world. Burnaby has an ugly history. There is a clear need for this type of protection for LGBTQ youth. I am proud that the Burnaby School Board has passed this policy, although I still do not understand what has taken so long.

We live in a time of changing attitudes and that can be uncomfortable and difficult. Let me tell you another story. When my grandmother was a child, she wrote with her left hand. In England at that time, this was unacceptable, and her hand was tied behind her back to force her to use her right. Today, my daughter is also left-handed, but, as far as I know, it has not been an issue for her. It is my sincere hope that that is how we will look back on diversity in sexual orientation in another 100 years. It’s a good example – most of us are born right-handed. Some of us are able to write with either hand. And some of us are strongly left-handed and cannot write with our right hands at all. Similarly, with sexual orientation, there are many people who feel some attraction for both men and women. Most of us are heterosexual in our identity and in our practice. A minority of us are homosexual. And, so long as we recognize this diversity, it doesn’t have to be an issue.

Some have asked why this could not be addressed under current policies about bullying. In an ideal world, it could be. But the very controversy about the policy, and the parents’ directives that are circulating, make it clear that teachers need clear permission to say the very basic things that need to be said:
  • Most people are heterosexual, but some people are not.
  • Most families are heterosexual, but some students have lesbian or gay parents.
  • Most people grow up to be heterosexual, but some grow up to be homosexual.
  • Homosexual people have traditionally been stigmatized and persecuted.
  • In Canada, we do not tolerate this persecution, name-calling and bullying.
  • In our schools, we do not tolerate name-calling and bullying.
  • Homosexual people are as worthy of respect as heterosexual people.
  • Homosexual people are as capable of moral and respectful behaviour as heterosexual people.
  • Regardless of sexual orientation, it is important that relationships between people are respectful and consensual.
I would also like to speak to all of the parents who are here. While it may look like we are on opposite sides, I want to recognize that we are all here out of a deep commitment to doing the right thing for our children. And I would like to say that it is possible to be a committed person of faith and to raise your children to have values that are not taught in the classroom.

This can be uncomfortable and difficult. As parents we need to talk more among one another about the challenges of living in a country that respects and tolerates diversity, but that protects the human rights of everyone.

I myself am a Quaker, and my faith leads me to take a strong position of non-violence. The bible says, “Thou shalt not kill.” Jesus offered the most profound example of non-violence in giving his life without fighting, and chastising Peter for using violence in his defence. Nonetheless, I recognize that my daughter shares the classroom with children who do not share this view, and who may come from military families. I also know that she will be taught that warfare is an acceptable way for countries to resolve conflicts. As a Canadian, I need to be able to speak my truth, while allowing others to have their own, sometimes different, beliefs. And this is a challenge I share with many other families, be they Sikh, Moslem, vegetarians, and even atheists.

In mid-May I gathered with my faith community. I would like to close by reading a minute from that gathering in support of this policy:
Western Half-Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) encourages and supports the Burnaby Board of Education in its work of developing policy that makes schools inclusive and safe for all students. In particular, we strongly support the Burnaby Board’s current efforts to develop and implement policy 5.45, the goal of which is, in the Board’s words, “to ensure that all members of the school community learn to work together in an atmosphere of respect and safety free from homophobia, transphobia, anti-gay harassment and/or exclusion regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” We hold you in the Light as you work toward honouring and protecting the civil rights of all students.
These are difficult conversations that we are having, but they are the building blocks of community. I am pleased to have been invited to this event, and I look forward to continuing the dialogue.

Thank you.

Christine Hitchcock, Burnaby, BC

1 comment:

  1. Chris,

    I couldn't agree more. I may not be Canadian, but I am a lesbian who respects and appreciates those who speak out for justice no matter whose rights are violated.

    Thank you!

    Nancy Roberts