Queer community activists are challenging the BC government to adopt a provincewide sexual orientation and gender identity policy for schools through the recently launched Purple Letter campaign.
Kaitlin Burnett, a graduate of the Burnaby school system, says the campaign calls on British Columbians to write a letter to the premier and minister of education explaining, in their own words, why such a policy is needed.
“Anyone can write a letter,” she says. “Youth, adults, gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer students, allies. Anyone who cares about making BC schools safe and inclusive for all students can mail them to us or drop it off in any of our cute mail boxes, which are currently located in Burnaby, Vancouver, Nelson, Salmon Arm, Prince George and Victoria.”
The letters, Burnett says, will ensure that the message of the campaign is directed by those who participate.
“We’re giving people a chance to be heard, to tell their story, and a chance to try to change things,” she adds. “We don’t want to be activists who go to the government demanding what we want; we want every single person concerned to have their own chance to tell their experience and why they think this should be passed and what they are looking for.”
After the Burnaby School Board unanimously passed its anti-homophobia policy 5.45, Burnett says, she “wanted to take it to the next level,” noting that she thinks it’s “unrealistic that every school board in British Columbia would pass a policy like that.
“School boards only administer public schools, but the province administers both public and private schools. This policy would affect any school that receives government funding.”
On June 14, Burnaby became the 14th school district in the province to pass an anti-homophobia policy.
According to the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), there are 549,106 students enrolled in the province’s 60 public school districts and 68,127 students in the 253 independent school authorities, which are not under the jurisdiction of public school boards.
“It’s not usually students who choose the school they go to; it’s more often their parents,” Burnett points out. Apart from making schools inclusive for students regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, she says she’d like to see a policy designed to provide education around those issues.
“It’s not something that should be swept under the rug,” Burnett continues. “We need LGBT visibility in the classroom; we need students to know they are not alone and that it’s okay to be LGBT. Not just that they shouldn’t be beaten up for it, but that it’s really okay to be gay.”
Campaign co-organizer Ryan Clayton, who contracts with school boards to give dialogue-based presentations on homophobia, says the climate in schools hasn’t improved much in the last 10 years. “In 2003 the government released the Safe Schools Task Force [report], and it said homophobia is the number one issue, and we need to deal with it. They reported that every school district in BC had problems with homophobia, and I would say that’s still accurate from what I see.”
Clayton says the campaign has received an enthusiastic response so far from both sides of the political fence, including from NDP MP Peter Julian (Burnaby–New Westminster), Conservative MP Colin Mayes (Okanagan–Shuswap), NDP MLA Michelle Mungall (Nelson–Creston), NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert (Vancouver–West End), and NPA Vancouver councillor and mayoral hopeful Suzanne Anton.
Clayton hopes to reach an even wider range of political leaders.
“I’ve heard people in government say they don’t think homophobia is a big issue. They’re not being offensive; they legitimately don’t know it’s an issue,” he says. “Many MLAs are a bit older and haven’t been in high school for a while. Sometimes we have to remind them what the climate is like.”
On Oct 20, Burnett and Clayton intend to deliver the letters received to Premier Christy Clark and Education Minister George Abbott at the Parliament buildings in Victoria.
“We’re hoping that we’ll have a chance to sit down with Christy Clark and George Abbott and give them the letters in person,” Burnett says.
“They need to know there is public support out here.”
Purple Letter Campaign mailbox locations
Peter Julian, MP
7615 Sixth St, Burnaby
People’s Co-op Bookstore
1391 Commercial Dr, Vancouver
Gab Youth Services
1170 Bute St, Vancouver
Spencer Chandra Herbert, MLA
923 Denman St, Vancouver
University of British Columbia
Room 245, Student Union Building
6138 Student Union Blvd, Vancouver
Pride Lounge at Richmond House, Lansdowne Campus
3100 Foul Bay Rd, Victoria
Michelle Mungall, MLA
202 – 402 Baker St, Nelson
3rd Avenue Collective
1157 3rd Ave, Prince George
UNBC Northern Pride Centre Society
NUSC Room 6-344
3333 University Way, Prince George
111 Hudson Ave, Salmon Arm
Downtown Activity Centre
451 Shuswap St SW, Salmon Arm
Letters can also be mailed to:
#376-3495 Cambie St
Vancouver, BC V5Z 4R3