Rumours, recrimination and anger are flying in Burnaby’s civic politics after an article in the Burnaby NewsLeader suggested that one party was spreading rumours about a “serum” to turn students gay. Xtra investigated the claims and determined that the “gay serum” rumours are likely lifted, at least in part, from the writings of conservative political activist Frank Liang.
The controversy started with an article by NewsLeader journalist Wanda Chow, headlined “Campaign Trail Tarred with ‘Gay Serum’ Rumour.” Chow spoke to an anonymous source, “Bonny,” who said she was approached by campaigners claiming to be members of the Burnaby First Coalition (BFC). The campaigners, according to the story, told Bonny that unless the BFC beat the incumbent Burnaby Citizens Association, the school board might give her children drugs that could change their sex.
The BFC reacted furiously, calling the story a “racist smear campaign” in a press release and challenging Chow to produce evidence. Campaign manager Bruce Friesen told Xtra that the BFC flatly denies any involvement in spreading such a rumour. “There is no way we would be associated with this sort of thing,” he said. “That is no part of our agenda.”
Friesen says he is proud of his support for gay people and expects the same from his party.
Among the BFC’s candidates are Charter Lau and Heather Leung, who also ran for office in 2011 on a platform opposing the Burnaby School District’s newly adopted policy protecting gay and trans students in schools. Lau and Leung, who ran with their own Burnaby Parents’ Voice party in the last election, said the rules took away parents’ rights to direct their children’s education. According to Friesen, Lau and Leung’s views on LGBT school policy is not part of BFC’s platform.
Xtra could not verify Chow’s story independently but found other information similar to Bonny’s story. The NewsLeader’s quote from Bonny closely echoes a mailout letter from an organization called the BC Parents’ Voice.
In Chow’s story, Bonny says the campaigner told her, “If another party wins, they support the gays and they can also change the kids’ sex at school . . . at school they will give the kids something like a drug injection . . . and the school won’t tell parents.”
The mailout letter, translated from Chinese, claims that if the BFC loses, Burnaby could enact a policy under which “teachers could suggest that students take hormone blockers to delay puberty, to win time to determine whether or not to change sexes. Students’ choice of gender can be kept secret, and hidden from parents.”
As in English, the Chinese version maintains an ambiguity about whether the use of hormone blockers would be hidden from parents. The Chinese word used for “hormone blockers” also uses a character that could be easily translated as “serum.” The letter does not say anything about turning students gay.
The letter’s warning refers to a BC Teachers’ Federation document, “Gender Spectrum — What Educators Need to Know,” that discusses hormone blockers but does not say teachers should recommend them, let alone administer them, to students. Vancouver School Board policy does allow teachers to keep a student’s gender identity secret at the student’s request, even from parents.
According to BFC candidate Charter Lau, the authors of the mailout, BC Parents’ Voice, are an advocacy organization that split off from Burnaby Parents’ Voice shortly after their defeat in the 2011 election. Lau stayed on the organization’s board until he resigned to join the BFC as a candidate. BC Parents’ Voice, he says, is run by Frank Liang.
Liang was an activist for Burnaby Parents’ Voice but never ran as a candidate. A YouTube video from 2011 shows him speaking to the Burnaby School District against the new sexual orientation policy. In October, an article under the name Frank L was published in a Chinese periodical, West Coast Digest. The article rehashes many of the same claims as the mailout letter and uses identical phrasing and slogans. According to Lau, both the mailout and the article were written by Liang.
Xtra phoned Liang multiple times for confirmation and comment. A woman who answered the phone said she had relayed the message to Liang, but Liang did not call back. When asked how to contact Liang, Lau laughed. “You will never find him,” he said. “As soon as you mention the word Xtra . . .” He then mimed a bird flying away.
The West Coast Digest article, titled “Come On Out, Protect Vancouver,” is a call to political action aimed at the conservative Chinese community, begging parents to fight back against perceived assaults on traditional Chinese values: “Today, we find that our interests have been infringed upon, our values have been assaulted, our political position has been marginalized. We start to worry, plead and resist, but it is no use, because we are already being ‘represented’ by those elected by other people.” Then, the author turns to LGBT issues.
The author is very concerned that the Burnaby School District will follow in Vancouver’s footsteps and adopt a revised policy toward transgender students, which he equates to supporting gay rights. He then lists statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control to show that gay men suffer disproportionately from HIV and uses them to suggest that children are in danger of HIV infection if they are taught about homosexuality.
“The statistics are startling,” he writes, “and strike every politician with a conscience: for the sake of political correctness, tolerating or even advocating for the gay lobby while wreaking havoc in the schoolyard, we may damage our children.”
The West Coast Digest article is also posted online on a conservative Chinese-language blog, Family Guard. The blog, which is anonymous, frequently mentions concerns about hormone blockers and secrecy and strongly supports the BFC.
The mailout letter says that Burnaby’s existing anti-homophobia policy “in the guise of anti-bullying, actually holds up homosexuality and all sorts of other novel sexual knowledge, and forces it on students as a superior lifestyle.” The letter also focuses on the possibility that under Vancouver’s policy, teachers will recommend hormone blockers to students and that parents could be kept in the dark about their children’s gender identity disclosures. The only way to prevent the same thing happening to Burnaby, the letter concludes, is to vote for the Burnaby First Coalition and the old Burnaby Parents’ Voice candidates.
Xtra has no evidence to suggest that Liang is in any way affiliated with the BFC. When asked about Liang’s rhetoric, however, Lau says his former colleague is just “trying to inform Chinese parents.”
Lau says the issue is not homophobia at all, but rather parents’ rights. He says that Chinese parents, as well as parents in other “traditional cultures,” feel a strong need to be directly involved in their children’s lives. “That someone would tell our children what to do without telling us, it leaves a bad taste in our mouths,” he says. “This is about privacy.”
Heather Leung refused to answer Xtra’s questions about Liang or talk about her own positions. However, she told Chinese-language newspaper Global Chinese Press that she thinks teachers should not teach about homosexuality and that mentioning homosexuality in schools might lead to confusion or problems later in life.
At a Burnaby District Parental Advisory Council meeting Nov 5, tempers rose, and supporters of both parties sparked a yelling match over the “gay serum” rumours. But the Chinese parents interviewed by Xtra seemed more angry about being misunderstood than about any gay threat.
“These rumours are lies,” one mother, who gave only the name Belinda, said. “We just want to let kids grow up and decide for themselves if they’re gay or not. Just don’t push it on them.”
She says she is interested in learning more about gay people and hopes to build better connections with the gay community in the future. But she is too unsure about things like hormone blockers to want them near children. “The school board says it’s safe, but I think the science on these things is not so certain,” she says.
Like Lau, Belinda says her wishes have nothing to do with homophobia. “We just want to protect our children,” she says. “That is our right as parents.”