The boardroom of the Vancouver School Board (VSB) erupted with deafening cheers, shouts of joy, hugs, high-fives and dancing as trustees approved revisions to the district’s anti-homophobia policy June 16 to make schools more welcoming to transgender students.
“I am ecstatic and so happy we passed this policy,” exclaimed Vancouver Technical Secondary student Roan Reimer, who spoke in favour of the policy at a hearing on May 14. “It’s going to make the schools so much safer for students, families and staff who identify along the LGBTTQAI+ spectrum and it’s going to make the world such a better place because the students are going to learn, and we’re going to learn, not to be transphobic or homophobic or queerphobic or terrible people, and then we’re going to graduate and all the homophobia, transphobia and terrible things will slowly be filtered out of the world!”
All trustees except for Sophia Woo and Ken Denike — who were expelled from the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) June 13 for failing to “share the same level of sensitivity and understanding of the LGBTQ+ community” — voted in favour of the revisions.
“I think this policy is doing exactly what we are already doing, and I think we do a fine job in Vancouver and I want to make that very clear that parents don’t need to be too concerned about what is happening with your sons and daughters,” said NPA trustee Fraser Ballantyne. “We do our utmost to communicate in a very sensitive way with your students, your kids and our students, and it is our home as well so we do our very best to make it the most comfortable we can for our students so they can be enjoying a very challenging and enjoyable school time when they are in our schools.”
Ballantyne’s support for the policy amendment further distanced the NPA from Denike and Woo, who were expelled following a press conference in which the pair claimed the amendment could negatively affect the enrolment of international students and West Side students in public school.
In his opening remarks, Vision trustee Ken Clement denounced Woo and Denike’s earlier comments as “irresponsible and “unconscionable.”
“The commentary only reaffirms the need to strengthen the LGBTTQ+ policy which fosters inclusion, acceptance and tolerance,” he said. “Perpetuating homophobic hate towards the LGBTTQ+ community is totally unacceptable in this day and age.”
Several trustees stressed that it was time to take leadership and vote on the issue, rejecting suggestions from some opponents that further consultations were needed.
“I danced on my first float in my first Pride parade in 1994, 20 years ago, so I really don’t want to debate the pros and cons of updating this policy anymore,” said trustee Cherie Payne, prior to the vote. “I myself am ready to vote and I’m proud to be voting yes.”
Several Vision trustees, including vice-chair Mike Lombardi, said the consultations around these policy revisions were among the most thorough and comprehensive in memory.
“The consultation process that we used to develop this policy has been unprecedented,” said Lombardi, citing two years of consultation with the school board’s Pride Advisory Committee, as well as three public meetings with nearly 100 speakers and several hundred written submissions. “I think we had an opportunity to hear from the community. We heard from students, we heard from parents, we heard from the medical profession, we heard from staff and we heard from others. What they basically said is ‘we need to continue to make our schools safer and more inclusive for all students.’”
The VSB’s Pride committee is comprised of teachers, administrators, district and support staff, community members and representatives from the District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC).
DPAC, which represents 110 PACs with over 40,000 parents, initially expressed “very serious concerns” about the proposed revisions, including a lack of clarity with respect to the role of parents. But in a June 13 letter, DPAC chair Monica Moberg reversed that position, saying DPAC’s concerns had been addressed and the council now fully supports the policy revisions.
“It is our position that consultation has been comprehensive, and the concerns raised both before Committee III and directly with us have been addressed,” Moberg wrote.
VSB chair Patti Bacchus said the policy revisions provide some of the most comprehensive protection and support for transgender students in BC. “I’ve never heard so much feedback, so much input on anything we’ve done at this board,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of hard stuff. When we started this I didn’t think we would be making history. I thought it was fairly straightforward. I thought it was common sense. Of course we’re going to do what we need to make kids feel safe but I’m happy to be part of making history and I’m really happy to be on the right side of history.”
In 2004 Vancouver became the second school district after Greater Victoria to implement an anti-homophobia policy in BC. Trustee Allan Wong expressed pride in being part of the board that adopted the initial LGBTQ policy. “I, once again, am proud to be part of this lengthy consultation process. A long, open discussion is a good thing for both sides of the debate and the trustees all have enough information to make a sound, educated deliberation and decision tonight,” he said.
The revised policy addresses topics such as washroom and change-room accessibility, proper use of pronouns, access to physical education and sports, as well as a commitment by schools to reduce or eliminate sex-segregated activities.
The revisions were also supported by the chief medical officer and executive team of Vancouver Coastal Health, several professionals from the medical community, the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers’ Association, the Vancouver Secondary Teachers’ Association, the SFU and UBC schools of education and the Vancouver District Students’ Council.
Support, however, was not universal. Several opponents of the revisions, who refused to speak to Xtra, held up signs at the meeting, booed trustees who spoke in support of the motion, and shouted insults including “liar” and “dictator.”
Denike and Woo repeated previously stated concerns that the board has not conducted proper consultations with parents. “When we go through a process of making changes or revision, we contact wider and wider groups in the community and I don’t think the process that this board has gone through in terms of contacting them has been very friendly,” Denike said. “They are the parents, for example, of the kids and they want to understand what the policy is but the policy has not been translated.”
The pair also claimed that many parents were confused as to which draft of the policy revisions was up for consideration.
“What I’m asking for is at least one more consultation for the most latest revised version so everybody’s on the page and we all know which version we are all talking about,” said Woo, who introduced an amendment to that effect. “Most parents generally accept the 2004 policy and regulations. How come parents are so concerned about the 2014 revised version? Because it’s so confusing. It’s so unclear and a lot of parents want translation.”
Bacchus described Woo’s motion as an effort to delay and derail the process, and was joined by six other trustees in opposing the amendment.