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BC’s education minister receives more than 200 Purple Letters

It's important to identify homophobia as among the principal challenges: Abbott

"I'm actually heartened when I watch a program like Glee that deals with issues like sexuality in a far more sensitive way than 10 or 20 years ago," said Education Minister George Abbott, with Kaitlin Burnett and Ryan Clayton. Credit: Nathaniel Christopher photo

Queer community activists presented BC Education Minister George Abbott with more than 200 letters explaining why the BC government should adopt a provincewide sexual orientation and gender identity policy for schools.

During the meeting in his Victoria office, Abbott expressed sympathy and support for the campaign’s objective but stopped short of promising any legislative or policy changes.

The meeting was the culmination of the Purple Letter Campaign launched earlier this year by Kaitlin Burnett and Ryan Clayton, who asked British Columbians to write letters to the premier and education minister explaining, in their own words, why a queer-friendly policy was necessary.

“I’m hoping that amidst these hundreds of letters you’ve assembled, there’ll be some great suggestions about what we can do to assist in that area,” Abbott said shortly after being presented the letters. To that end, he said that his ministry would be doing some “additional consultations about the schools and school systems” over the next four months.

The meeting came just over three weeks after the recent throne speech in which the government set out to address bullying but failed to specifically mention queer students or homophobia.

“Important anti-bullying policies in our schools will be expanded to include a comprehensive training regime, online reporting tools and advanced threat assessment tools and protocols,” the speech stated. When Xtra asked if his government would explicitly address queer issues in any anti-bullying legislation, Abbott said, “Yeah, I think we would,” adding that it’s important to identify homophobia as among the principal challenges in terms of bullying.

“As I’ve said for me personally, and I know for the premier personally, we have very strong views on this, and I feel my colleagues feel the same way. Every child should feel safe in schools, and that clearly would include those who are gay, transgender,” Abbott elaborated. “Everyone has the right to be respected and treated well and treated fairly when they go to school. It’s pretty simple to me that that should be so.”

In an Oct 13 Education Ministry opinion editorial about the province’s plan for education transformation, Abbott wrote, “We will also support families by creating better opportunities for parents to engage in their child’s learning with more flexibility and choice with respect to what, how, when and where their child learns.”

When asked whether the editorial was written in response to parents who do not want their children exposed to anti-homophobia education, Abbott replied that it was completely unrelated. “This is about the school calendar and eliminating any limitations on having a school calendar that ran year-round and have lots of opportunity for variation. That’s what that’s about,” he said.

Currently 14 out of 60 school districts have adopted a sexual orientation or gender identity policy. Burnett told Abbott that it’s important for all students, including those who are queer, to attend schools that are safe and inclusive, irrespective of geography.

“Unfortunately when you’re a student, you don’t usually have a choice to decide which school district you’re going to go to,” she told Abbott. “You can’t just hop on the bus down to Vancouver if your parents live in a school district without a policy.”

Abbott reflected on the liberalization of attitudes over time and characterized the shift as a positive trend in response to Burnett’s concerns. “I’m guessing that the attitudes have shifted somewhat between the early ’70s when I was there and the early ’90s when you were there, but I also think we’ve got a really long way to go,” he mused.

“We’ve come a long way in acceptance; that’s not to say we don’t have a considerable way to get yet because we do, but I’m actually heartened when I watch a program like Glee that deals with issues like sexuality in a far more sensitive way than 10 or 20 years ago,” Abbott said.

Clayton told Abbott that the campaign offered the government an opportunity to do something that would bring British Columbia a lot closer to where it needs to be when it comes to gay rights. “I think one thing you’ll find when you read these [letters] is that however much the stories are quite difficult, a lot of people wrote with a lot of hope that we’re going in the right direction, and they are very clear that they’re hoping for a provincial policy,” Clayton said. “I think that’s why we got the kind of support we did.”

Burnett stressed the importance of safe schools to those queer youth who may not have a safe or supportive home life. “Home was the worst place I could have ever imagined, and if home isn’t a safe place you need somewhere that is, and school is supposed to be a safe place. That’s something we want to build with this.”

Abbott agreed: “It’s got to be, regardless of what your sexual orientation may be or any other issue that you may be coming up against.” Shifting societal attitudes are part of a long-term process, and that has to be encouraged at every opportunity, he added.

Burnett told Abbott that that shift must include protections based on gender identity and gender expression. She pointed out the isolation of many transgender, transsexual and genderqueer students who are “often the most alone” in BC schools.

“Going to school and not being able to express your sexual orientation is hard enough, but being forced to as the wrong gender, that’s something I couldn’t actually imagine.”

“I think there’s much work we need to do around increasing sensitivity on these issues, without a doubt,” replied Abbott, who praised Clayton’s queer-focused facilitation work with various school boards. “If there are ways, from a system perspective, that we can do more, then I want to hear about it,” he added.

After the meeting, Clayton said he felt Abbott was engaged, receptive and positive. “We’ll have to wait and see if it happens. We brought something to his attention that may not have been in his line of vision. I hope that we get a provincial policy. I hope the ministry takes to heart what we said and the issues we brought up. I hope that this is it — that we did it,” Clayton concluded.