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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The current state of Sexual Orientation Education in our Schools

The idea that schools might address sexual orientation in schools has come as a surprise to many parents. Letters to the editor have suggested that this was part of a gay agenda, and an attempt to introduce and promote ideas in a school culture that says nothing about sexual orientation.

Unfortunately, our children are already getting an education about sexual orientation from their peers, and sometimes their teachers. They are learning that "gay" is a synonym for "stupid" ("that's so gay"). They are exposed to gay slurs, name calling and verbal and physical violence on the basis of sexual orientation and perceived sexual orientation. Too often, teachers do not respond to these actions.

Our children look to us to be examples. Students, whether heterosexual or LGBT, are disturbed by the extent of anti-gay language and bullying. They want the adults around them to do something, to call a halt, to make a stand, and to protect all students in the schools from being witnesses to or participants in these unacceptable practices.

The choice before us is not whether or not we talk about sexual orientation in the schools. The choice is how. There are gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered children in our schools. There are children with family members who are LGBT. There are straight kids who are subjected to bullying as if they were gay. Bystanders are also affected by the offense against human dignity. If we do nothing about bullying and name-calling, then we are telling our children that this is acceptable to us. If we do something about the bullying and name-calling, then we will also need to confront our own discomfort with differences.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Public Interest, Policy Development and the Taxpayer

I applaud the Burnaby School Board for taking steps to protect the rights of children and staff in our schools to be protected from anti-gay slurs and bullying. Passing Policy 5.45 has been difficult for the trustees, and required courage and conviction. There is continuing protest by a group calling themselves Parents Voice, who oppose the Policy. This protest has taken the form of procedural challenges and accusations of a hidden gay agenda. Spokespeople for the Parents Voice claim that "sex activists" are seeking access to children to convert them to homosexuality. Some have suggested that, if Policy 5.45 goes forward, that in less than a century all children will choose same-sex relationships and there will be no more children. Others argue that if schools teach children to respect homosexuals, that it will mean contradicting what parents teach their children in the home (presumably, that homosexuals should not be respected).

Yesterday, George Kovacic of the group called the Parents Voice filed a complaint regarding the freedom of information request he made in April, 2011. The complaint was triggered by receipt of a copy of an email message sent by Betty Choi. However, it reflects a larger frustration with the school board's response.

The FOI request requests a broad spectrum of information, some of which is already in the public domain and freely available on the web site. Much of it seems to be a fishing expedition, designed to find evidence of a conspiracy, a hidden gay agenda, within the process by which the policy was developed. Reading between the lines, the FOI request arose after an acrimonious discussion, and is being carried forth in an aggressive and mean-spirited way. The School Board has already provided 5 free hours of staff time and $100 of photocopying at the taxpayers' expense. While some members of the public may be interested, this is not the same thing as being in the public interest. It is far from clear what public interest these notes will serve.

The timeline and process for the development of Policy 5.45 are available on the school board web page. Evidence that bullying and anti-gay slurs are pervasive within the burnaby school district can be found in reports such as Not Yet Equal. A summary of inputs to the Board regarding Policy 5.45 can be found in this document.

Non-heterosexual people are part of our community, and have the right to a safe and respectful learning environment. Children also need to learn to treat non-heterosexuals in their social groups with respect.

In the end, for me, it comes down to the human rights of children who experience anti-gay slurs and bullying. It comes down to the climate of hatred, ridicule and disrespect for different others. Being around name-calling and slurs is not good for the victims, and it is also not good for the bystanders. Being gay, or not conforming to gender norms and being called gay, should not expose children to name-calling and ridicule. Some children are simply miserable. But this misery can be so great that some children have committed suicide as a result of the homophobic bullying in our schools. We have a problem, and the School Board has finally taken steps to address it.

Some parents will undoubtedly continue to teach their children that those who love and long for people of the same sex do so as a misguided, sinful or sick "lifestyle choice". They will teach their children that a first marriage between a man and a woman is superior to all other relationships.

Although I believe in tolerance and strive to understand diversity, there are limits. Religious freedoms should not prevent human rights protections.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Call for mutual compassion around Policy 5.45

To the editor:

Like many other letter writers, I am saddened by the polarity and name-calling in discussions about Policy 5.45. Religion, like sexual orientation, is a deeply personal thing, and threatening intolerance and a lack of acceptance of either encourages people to become closed, defensive and to lash out.

My own response to Policy 5.45 is based in my compassion for those who are affected by a climate of anti-gay slurs and bullying. It is also based in my strong belief that the human rights of minorities should be protected. When I think about homosexuality (and bisexuality and transgendered people) I think of people I know who are attracted to people of the same sex. There are many ordinary, even boring, people who are gay (I use gay collectively for LGBT – non-heterosexual folks). They lead normal lives, they contribute to their communities, and some of them raise children who go to your school. Under Canadian law, their relationships are legal, same-sex couples have the rights of different-sex couples, they can be legally married (and divorced) and they are protected from discrimination under the law. Policy 5.45 addresses the rights of LGBTQ+ students and staff to be protected from discrimination (including a hostile climate) under the law.

I also feel afraid for my gay friends, because I know that there are many people who see that their relationships are sinful and immoral, who believe that homosexuals are diseased and sick, and who say and sometimes do hateful things. I know that simple expressions of affection (holding hands, a romantic look, resting a tired head on a shoulder) can expose my friends to danger. I also know that attitudes in schools and families often made it even harder to go through the difficult process of learning about their sexual orientation and romantic feelings. Some families are accepting and loving; many families struggle with a child coming-out.

At the same time, I sympathize with parents who would just rather not think or talk about anything other than heterosexual relationships with their children. Parents may be uncomfortable talking about sex at all. Most of us grew up in a homophobic culture, and learned that there was something bad, shameful or ridiculous about being gay. Some attend a faith-community that tells them the bible (or other scripture) declares homosexuality to be sinful. Many associate same-sex attractions with promiscuity, same-sex pedophilic sexual predators and sexually transmitted infections (particularly AIDS). Many don't know any ordinary people who happen to be gay. Some parents fear that they could never accept a gay child, or that they would have to choose between their child and their faith community. These parents could use support to become more comfortable with the reality of diversity in sexual orientation, and to learn that it need not be seen as a threat.

To support our schools and our children, we need to be more compassionate to one another. The public school system will not teach children that all families are heterosexual or that heterosexuality is better than any other orientation. It will also not teach children that your skin colour, ethnicity or religion are better than everyone else’s.

Passing Policy 5.45 is only the beginning of what needs to happen. I suspect that it will help the schools and our children if we as parents also create opportunities to learn and discuss our own attitudes, and to get the information we need to partner with the schools in raising children who are respectful of this aspect of diversity in our communities. In response to the protests against Policy 5.45, I formed the Burnaby Parents Gay/Straight Alliance. I encourage parents and others to join us on Facebook. Families who are struggling to accept a gay child may also want to contact PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) for information and support.

I encourage those of us who support the Policy to be sensitive to the fears of those who oppose it, and to strive to be reassuring. Including a diversity of families in the curriculum will not mean sexually explicit instruction for 7-year-olds. Saying that some people share their life with a person of the same sex need not mean describing sexual practices, any more than talking about husband-and-wife families does. For those who oppose the Policy, I encourage you to also be compassionate towards those who have a different sexual orientation from you. If you don’t know any normal gay couples, ask around. Gay people don’t want to recruit your kids. They want their own lives to be better, they want to be accepted as people with rights, and they want to improve the lives of gay kids today. Many of them are motivated because they wished someone had been there for them in their youth. Remember that being uncomfortable is not the same as being unsafe.