Last year, Mike Ross tried unsuccessfully to get the Mission school board to introduce a comprehensive anti-homophobia policy. Now the Grade 1 teacher has personally taken on the task of fostering a gay-friendly environment for students, staff and families in his district – with limited success.
“When things came around like Anti-Homophobia Day, Matthew Shepard Day, Pride, I was going to make sure that the different schools in our district knew when these things were happening,” he says.
In late April, Ross prepared an information package for each of the schools in his district, including materials from the Fondation Émergence’s 2006-2008 International Day Against Homophobia campaigns, to be displayed in staff rooms until May 17.
But shortly after appearing on the bulletin board at Christine Morrison Elementary school, the posters were taken down.
The district’s Director of Instruction, Randy Huth, says that 2008’s posters are “quite graphic” and were judged inappropriate for posting in Mission’s 16 elementary school staff rooms.
The material in question features a gloved hand holding an upright syringe and the caption “Homosexuality is NOT a sickness!”
Huth says the image combines “the graphic depiction of substance abuse with homosexuality.”
“That’s not what we were aiming for when we were designing the poster,” says Fondation Émergence representative Lauren Gosselin. “The message that we want to send out is basically a very simple one: homosexuality is not a disease, period.”
Huth feels the poster contains “quite a confusing message” and that although students are generally not allowed in staff rooms, the posters were deemed inappropriate “even for staff too.”
Gosselin says that to his knowledge this is the first incidence of the 2008 poster being censored.
Huth offered no formal reason for the district’s choice to also ban the 2007 poster, which features a newborn wearing a hospital bracelet labelled “homosexual” and the slogan “Sexual orientation is not a choice.”
If an adult happened to see the posters, “at very least it would get them talking and thinking,” says Ross, “and dialogue is always a good thing.”
Huth says the posters were taken down after one of Ross’ colleagues came to the board with what he would only call “concerns”.
Ross says he’s disappointed that his colleague went directly to the school board instead of asking him for clarification.
“Maybe they feel that I would be uncomfortable talking with them, maybe they feel embarrassed, maybe they don’t want to insult me or hurt my feelings,” he speculates. “But basically it was effective for them because they had the poster taken down.”
With the one approved poster in low supply, Ross contacted the Mission Teachers Union (MTU). He then sat down to colour new posters by hand to send to union representatives for display in each school.
Mike Trask, president of the MTU, says that the collective agreement between the teachers and the school board requires that each school have a union bulletin board and that administrators cannot remove items posted on such boards.
Trask recently met with the district’s union representatives and says that no concerns about the new posters were raised. In future years, he says, the union will “get ahead of the curve” and approve anti-homophobia posters well in advance.
Ross says that at least one board trustee is also behind him, pledging to wear a rainbow button and pink shirt next May 17. Still, he feels like he’s being told to “just be quiet and be happy.”
His earlier attempt to place an ad in the school’s newsletter for a same-sex families meeting group was also denied.
Huth says that newsletters are “about student achievement” and that Ross is “not being very tolerant and not being very respectful” of district procedures.
“I’m an impatient man,” says Ross. “I don’t want children jumping off of bridges, committing suicide, being beaten and battered because people actually believe that there is no problem here and that people [in Mission] are just fine with people being LGBT. If they were, why do we have our LGBT students not coming out here?”
It took Ross until he was 47 years old to publicly come out. He says that he knows several teens in Mission who have chosen to stay in the closet and that no other teacher in the district has opened up to him about being queer or trans.
“I know I’m not the only one. But if I have to be the only vocal one, so be it. I’m willing to do that.”
Ross’ next goal is to have Mission’s Grade 10 students participate in Egale’s national survey on homophobia in Canadian schools.
Huth was unable to confirm whether or not the school board will participate in the survey.