Several resignation-free months at Egale came to an end May 19, when four members of the national gay lobby group’s education committee left their posts in frustration.
Egale’s inattention to education could put queer youth across Canada at more risk in schools, charges James Chamberlain, former co-chair of Egale’s education committee, who resigned May 19.
Chamberlain’s resignation was swiftly followed by members Joan Merrifield and John J Guiney Yallop, who resigned a week later. Joan Beecroft also resigned as co-chair but stayed on as a member.
Chamberlain, a Vancouver gay education activist and teacher who had been a member of Egale since 1995, says the resignations were spurred by the current board’s decision to stall the launch of a national survey of secondary students on homophobia and safety issues in schools.
The survey, co-authored by Chamberlain and Merrifield, was originally to appear online May 17 in conjunction with the International Day Against Homophobia. The previous board had given the survey the green light, Chamberlain says.
“I think it was heavy-handed on the part of the [current] board.”
Helen Kennedy, who took over as Egale’s executive director Apr 30, says the survey will be implemented this fall.
“The committee members wanted to release it May 17, but the content hadn’t gone to the board for final approval,” she explains. “It needed more work.
“I understand there’s some frustration on [the education committee’s] part,” she continues, “but we wanted to be a little more cautious and not open ourselves up to any sort of criticism.”
Work on the survey is well on track, she promises, so it will be ready to be launched in the fall. “We’re working flat-out on this project.”
Chamberlain maintains that Egale has not supported the education committee for the last three years and has consistently ignored the expertise and wisdom of its members.
“We need leadership for queer youth,” he says. “It’s really important to show leadership because queer youth are our future. Without their success, we don’t have a community, so it’s important to listen to teachers and professionals in schools to make their lives better.”
Egale has never taken the issue of education seriously, Chamberlain charges.
“Egale’s commitment to education is very hollow. The only concrete thing they have to show for three years of work in this area is an education web page,” he says. “This took over two years to post due to repeated broken promises and disorganization on the part of Egale.”
Kennedy maintains that education is a paramount issue for Egale. She says the organization fully intends to fulfill its commitment to queer youth.
Besides pushing ahead with the national survey, Kennedy says Egale is currently working on a directory of school boards as well as researching anti-discriminatory policy with respect to queer youth “to see what’s lacking.”
“We are going to start lobbying school boards and the government to make sure our children are being protected. The survey is an important part of our direction. Once we compile the information, we can see where the gaps are.”
But Guiney Yallop, a former elementary school teacher who has written about the issue of gays and schooling in Canada, believes Egale has failed to comprehend the depth and urgency of problems GLBT youth face in schools.
“I sometimes wonder if this has something to do with our individual and collective memories of how horrific school can be for queers. Is it too painful to go there? But what does it say about us as individuals and as a community if we don’t go there?”
In light of the resignations, Chamberlain says he questions Egale’s ability to effectively serve Canada’s queer youth.
“I think they [the resignations] should signal a lack of confidence on the part of Egale members for Egale to advocate for GLBT issues and to advocate for changes in schools.”
“Egale should be in a leadership role rather than creating barriers for those who remain on the education committee,” he says.
Kris Wells, a current member of the education committee, echoes Chamberlain, saying the recent resignations hinder the work of the committee and point to a lack of attention to schooling and education issues for queer youth.
“I think there is a general frustration on the part of committee members at the lack of progress the committee makes with Egale,” says Wells, a founding member of the committee and doctoral student in education at the University of Alberta.
“There needs to be a strong and vibrant commitment from Egale to make education a top priority,” he adds.
Wells, too, is disappointed the national survey has been stalled, a move that he says compromises Egale’s reputation as a viable, cohesive organization.
“The survey should have gone forward. Unfortunately, the Egale board reversed the decision the committee had made with the previous board. It undermines relationships and trust-building. Everyone felt deeply betrayed by that.”
Although he believes in the objectives of the committee, Wells has not yet decided whether he will remain a member.
The education committee resignations follow the departures last fall of Egale’s former executive director Gilles Marchildon, four board members and a committee co-chair, as well as two board and two staff resignations last summer.
Longtime gay activist Stephen Lock, who lives in Calgary, also resigned from the board a few months ago, but says his reasons for leaving were personal and had nothing to do with Egale itself.
“My own resignation had to do with my own life circumstances, which I’ve been dealing with for over a year,” Lock says. “To try and keep the organization going with the debacle of last summer, I just didn’t have enough emotional reserves to deal with it. I was toying with the idea for months. It came as no surprise to my brother and sister board members.”
Kennedy says the resignations do not signal a weakening of Egale, and that the education committee is “very energetic and very intact.”
“These are volunteer positions, and people’s lives get in the way of volunteering. Now there is an opportunity for new people to step up,” she says. “Our volunteer base is very strong.”
Despite its alleged lack of attention to education, Egale has been praised for its handling of queer legal matters.
Andrew Brett, a gay youth activist in Toronto, says Egale was instrumental in lobbying against Bill C-22, which will see the age of consent raised from 14 to 16.
“[Interim executive director] Kaj Hasselriis did a lot of things, from dealing with the media and helping make presentations to the Justice Committee,” Brett says. “Ariel Troster [who left the board in August] was absolutely amazing on the age of consent issue,” he adds.
Now that Bill C-22 has passed through the House of Commons (it is now being debated in the Senate), Brett says upcoming issues for Egale to tackle could include Sexual Reassignment Surgery in Ontario “and, of course, gender identity being added to human rights legislation.”
Peter Bochove, a Toronto gay bathhouse owner and co-founder of the Committee to Abolish the 19th Century, which challenges Canada’s laws that still criminalize some forms of consensual sex, says he would like to see Egale get involved with the rights of sex-trade workers, the criminalization of HIV, as well as lobby for the age of consent for anal sex, which is 18, to be lowered.
“These are paramount issues,” he says. “And Egale needs to be in shape to tackle them.”
Bochove says the resignations have caused him, too, to question Egale’s ongoing ability to effectively represent the queer community in Canada.
“Organizations do fall apart,” he notes. “It sounds like something nasty is going on that none of us knows about.”