“It’s a huge breakthrough for Burnaby in terms of education,” James Sanyshyn says of the school board’s unanimous vote to implement an anti-homophobia policy Feb 22.
In 2009 Sanyshyn, the Burnaby Teachers’ Association (BTA) vice-president and fellow teacher Debra Sutherland prompted the board to establish an ad hoc LGBT committee tasked with addressing homophobia in the district’s schools.
“We had to learn and grow together and look for the hard reality of statistics and realize this is a sizable majority group that has been neglected by the system and does need extra supports in place,” Sanyshyn notes.
Despite the unanimous vote, school board chair Larry Hayes says it took time to get everyone on board.
“There wasn’t 100 percent buy-in that this was something totally necessary,” Hayes says. “But certainly the majority felt that it was time, and I think a few of us were a little frustrated that it has taken two years.”
Hayes describes the policy’s proponents as “professional” and “very polite” in their efforts.
“I think it made it a lot easier to put other things as a priority than moving that issue forward,” he muses. “If they came at us with signs and loud voices there probably would have been a little quicker movement, but I think it became so blatantly obvious that this was something we were falling behind in, and it was getting to be embarrassing.”
The policy proposes education initiatives inclusive of gays that speak to their positive contributions to society and a commitment to promote a systemic response to homophobia.
“Teachers shall be encouraged to embed and integrate LGBT issues into existing curriculum in age-appropriate ways to help students acquire the skills and knowledge to understand the impacts of homophobia and transphobia upon society,” the policy reads.
The strategy directs every elementary and secondary school to appoint a staff person as a “safe contact” for queer students and requires all counsellors in the district be educated in queer issues. Every school will also be required to address homophobia and transphobia in their student codes of conduct.
The policy also encourages teachers to support student-led initiatives to establish gay-straight alliances.
The ad hoc LGBT committee recommended the district establish a permanent LGBT advisory committee, which would report to the superintendent.
Sanyshyn is hopeful that the committee will ensure the policy is upheld.
“Most of us know that a policy is a piece of paper that collects dust on the shelf unless there’s a way to bring it to action to make the serious and actual changes required in the system.”
Hayes believes the advisory committee is the most important step for keeping queer issues visible in the school district.
“I want to see that committee remaining active and bringing issues to the board when they see some things happening in the district that aren’t being addressed, or want to see some positive things happening.”
Community activist and Burnaby school graduate Kaitlin Burnett feels the new committee will be equipped to tackle the issues.
“I really think that a school board made up entirely of straight people doesn’t necessarily have the insight, and I think they recognize that and put together a committee, and that was very intelligent of them,” she says.
Burnett says the new policy is a “good start.”
“I think it’s very important that the school board not only look at isolated cases of transphobia and homophobia that occur in the schools but take into account the fact that they are running an education system in a still very heterosexist society,” she elaborates. “It’s not enough to stop bullying; it’s important to change the way we think about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.”
Hayes is confident that the board is up to the challenge.
“Hopefully nobody can sit back and say, ‘Case closed, we’ve done our job. Next!'” he says.
“We have the policy and committee; I don’t think there’s any excuse for us to not be addressing issues that come up from this point.”