Every year, Grade 9 students anticipate it with a mixture of dread, curiosity and giggles. Teachers sweat over it. Parents have both advocated for it and damned it. It's sexual education and it's lurking in the background of the public education psyche.
Sex ed is mandatory, part of a physical education course taken by every Ontario high school student in Grade 9.
However, the terms "gay," "lesbian," "trans," "queer," "same-sex," or "homosexual," are absent from the official documents. In other words, the sexual education curriculum, which sets the standard for what children learn about sex and sexuality in high school, makes no references to the queer community. That gives an out to Ontario schools who want to give out diplomas but don't want to teach about gays.
But with Ontario now reviewing its sex ed curriculum, will gays be included in the new handbook, closing the loophole that leaves our young clueless about their own sexuality?
Deborah Courville, an education officer for the Ontario ministry of education, said the curriculum does not include specific references to queer sexualities because it is expected the curriculum will be implemented under an equality policy for all sexualities by teachers and school boards. Courville also points out that there is no specific mention of heterosexuality within the curriculum either.
"What the ministry does is write the expectations, but it is left in the hands of individual school boards and teachers to implement them," she says. "We hope that teachers will use inclusive language when discussing sexuality issues."
If a teacher chooses not to teach queer issues in sex ed class because it is not mentioned specifically in the curriculum, Courville says this exclusion is likely because "it's not something the teacher has a comfort level with."
Sherwyn Solomon, the instructional coach for equity for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, says, however, that while the expectations of the sexual health course don't specifically discuss queer sexuality, it is an issue the board considers important. While there is no set standard for the discussion of homosexuality in sex ed, teachers can teach it — at their discretion.
There is, however, no way to know for certain, he adds, who is teaching queer sexuality in the classroom and who is not.
"I can't say definitely that [same-sex education] happens in every school and in every classroom," Solomon says. "But I'm not sure you could have a discussion about sexuality without discussing it. It's like the discussion of sexually transmitted diseases. [The curriculum] doesn't specifically mention gonorrhea, but you can't have a sex ed class without discussing it."
While there is no standardized introduction of queer sexuality into the curriculum, Solomon says the school board does have partnerships within the queer community, such as the Rainbow Youth Forum, and discussions about gays do take place within the schools.
John Podgorski, the coordinator of religious education and family life education for the Ottawa Catholic School Board, says the Catholic Board deals with sexual education issues and queer sexualities in a slightly different way than the public board.
The Catholic Board teaches health and sexuality in a religious perspective, using a course called Fully Alive, which teaches sex, health, family and peer life and marriage values beginning in Grade 1 and continuing on all the way through high school. Fully Alive, Podgorski says, deals with individual and personal issues, relationships, sex and sexuality, commitment and social issues, and teaches sexuality as a result of commitment "in terms of marriage."
Each year, the course gradually builds on "age-appropriate material" from each previous year. The concept of homosexuality is introduced in Grade 7 and 8 as, "same-sex attraction," and then again in Grade 9 and 10, and then again as an optional course in Grade 12. In all these courses, in regards to sexuality, chastity — that is, not abstinence, but sex within marriage — is promoted to "be a value" along with the "procreative aspect of sexuality."
Podgorski stresses that within the Catholic school system, an environment of tolerance is extremely important and intolerance is unacceptable among the student body.
"In a school setting, the thing we're trying to promote among the [gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans-sexual] students are the same things as what we teach our straight students," Podgorski said.
Contraceptives and safe sex — including the use of condoms — are taught in a much more conservative manner within the Catholic school system than in the public school system. Chastity and abstinence are considered to be higher priorities than safe-sex and contraceptive teachings.
Regardless of the school system, gay sex ed is sorely lacking, and neither system has a curriculum devoted to providing information about gays — or safe sex for gays — on an equal level within the classroom. That's got the twin effects of isolating young gays from their peers and keeping them in the dark about how to be safe.
Adam Graham, the Gay Men's Prevention Co-ordinator for the AIDS Committee of Ottawa, says the exclusion of homosexuality from the curriculum in high school is "totally disrespecting the way that certain people outside the status quo experience pleasure."
"I can see the potential for a problem," he says.
"If we're not including [queer sexuality] in a sexual health class, we're putting a lot of people at risk, which could potentially lead to new infections of AIDS and other STIs."
AIDS has had a powerful impact on the gay male community, he says, and there is still a stigma attached to HIV and homosexuality. Not discussing homos in a sexual-health class leaves a whole pocket of the homosexual community without the proper knowledge of risk factors for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Both the Catholic and Public School Boards in Ottawa offer AIDS education, although the relationship to the gay male community and homosexuality is "more specific than the curriculum would get," says Solomon.
Graham says it is his opinion that it doesn't make sense to leave inclusion of homosexuality in sexual education to the discretion of teachers and school boards, without government mandate.
"I think that this policy is in and of itself a problem," he says. "It's like letting a teacher in the USA selectively teach about the civil rights movement."