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9 min

Ontario reverses its reversal on sex ed. Now what?

A roundtable discussion on new curriculum and what it means for LGBTQ2 youth

After months of online consultations, public debate and protests, the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party unveiled its new Health and Physical Education (sex-ed) curriculum last week. The new lesson plans came months after Premier Doug Ford announced he’d be scrapping an updated version of sex education first introduced by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals in 2015, which contained references to sexual orientation, gender identity and consent.

On March 16, Minister of Education Lisa Thompson announced that the Ontario PC’s new curriculum will include all of the elements of the 2015 version — a stunning about-face from the government’s previous stance on the matter.

But is it enough? Our team of editors at Xtra unpack the politics of sex ed — in Ontario and around the world.

Erica Lenti, senior editor: Despite Ford’s insistence that the 2015 sex-ed curriculum was filled with “liberal ideology,” it seems the new Progressive Conservative version will contain many lessons the party had initially been rallying against. Gender identity and expression are still part of the curriculum — albeit much, much later on — and talks of sexual orientation make an appearance in Grade 6. Even the correct names of body parts, which several critics of the 2015 curriculum made a huge stink about, are still being taught — in Grade 1, no less.

Rachel Giese, editorial director: The fact that the Ford’s government’s reversal on sex-ed was ultimately reversed makes it clear that the decision to repeal the 2015 curriculum was about politics and not children’s emotional and physical well-being, or smart education policy. The PC-fuelled hysteria over sex ed pandered to parental fears and whipped up prejudice against same-sex marriage, gender identity and Tanya Granic Allen’s favourite subject, anal sex. And in the end, all this outrage, time and resources were spent only to have us land not that far off from where we were before the provincial election.

Arvin Joaquin, associate editor: The decision to repeal did look like a textbook example of politicians choosing politics over people. To be honest, I’m glad to hear the announcement to reverse this government’s decision to repeal the 2015 sex-ed curriculum. It does make Ford’s government look like it’s doing the cha cha dance — one step forward, then back, then forward — until they decide what actually works. That said, I still don’t trust this move — well, not until we finally see the full details of the revised curriculum. Until then, I’ll try to guard my heart and put this “improvement” on my pending list of things to support.

EL: What about moving the discussions about gender identities and expressions from Grade 2 until the latter half of Grade 8? It seems like the government pushed these vastly important conversations — especially for trans kids who are coming to understand who they are — to the very last moment. Like, “Oh, you’re going to graduate? You’re getting ready to go to high school? By the way, here’s what gender looks like on a spectrum. It’s not just binary, folks!”

Eternity Martis, senior editor: It’s one of the most concerning things for me, too. They’ve decided to include gender identity but then pushed it right to the end of Grade 8, which feels like very deliberate political tactic. To wait until students are 12 or 13 years old to teach them about gender identity and expression ignores students who are already be questioning their sexuality or gender identity, or already know, which silences them further. Considering that LGBTQ2 youth are at higher risk for suicide attempts, and that children younger than 12 are dying by suicide because they are being bullied at school, Grade 8 is too late for any student to just begin to be taught about gender identity. There’s no way they’re going to be prepared enough to grapple with all that comes with sex and relationships and self-identity once they enter high school.

Plus, kids are curious and have access to the internet and other sources of information. Some of these resources are exceptional, but there’s a lot of misinformation, too. Schools can complement this knowledge and help kids dispel the myths and false information they may have picked up on their own.

AJ: That’s a very valid point. Grade 8 seems too late to learn about sexual orientation and gender identity, and it does feel like an afterthought, especially when you introduce it in the second half of the year. This is not one of those things that benefit from a better late than never attitude. I think we should let kids explore their own identities without imposing existing gender norms on them. It’s important to note that doing this requires more from parents and families, so it requires active and conscious effort. I mean, some parents are already doing this and I think there’s legitimate merit on the idea.

Speaking of parents, apparently they can opt their kids out of the new curriculum. Should this be a thing? Or should sex ed be mandatory for all students?

RG: Unpopular opinion alert: while I personally believe that all children should receive comprehensive sexual health and relationship education starting in kindergarten, I wrestle with the question of making sex ed mandatory. Issues of sex, relationships and family are deeply personal and informed by culture, faith and personal experience. And in diverse cities like Toronto, local school boards and teaching staff usually don’t adequately represent and reflect their local communities. Because of all that, I think a one-size-fits-all mandatory sex-ed curriculum can seem alienating and threatening to some parents — they don’t feel seen or heard, and they don’t feel that their values are represented. I don’t agree with them wanting to withhold sexual information from their children, but I understand why they want some control over it. I’m a lesbian mom who supports sex ed and I want a say in how my child is taught about sex and sexuality, so on some level, I get it.

The best sex-ed programs I’ve seen are voluntary not mandatory — the instructors have way more leeway to talk about complex issues, like porn, and they tend to be better equipped to talk about sex with young people. But, of course, this also means that not all kids are getting this kind of education.

EL: I think you’re right, Rachel, that this kind of education requires more nuance than a lot of these conversations on the matter have provided. It’s such a tough balance because you want to be able to give parents that opportunity to talk to their kids about something that is so inherently personal and private. But on the other hand, you want to make sure these kids are actually getting an education of some sort. I think of queer and trans kids in conservative families, for instance, where perhaps their parents aren’t supportive of LGBTQ2 people. Will that child still have the same opportunity to feel validated in the way their peers are if they aren’t part of those conversations in the classroom? I’m not for or against mandatory sex ed; I just think we need to talk about it in ways that aren’t so black and white. But that’s predominantly how the last year of sex-ed debates have gone.

RG: Absolutely. And I think the all-or-nothing approach doesn’t serve kids. It’s true, Erica: if sex ed isn’t mandatory, doesn’t that punish queer kids who have homophobic parents? How do we reach those kids if they don’t have access to sex ed? One way is to make sure that school culture, in general, supports LGBTQ2 kids — with robust, active GSAs, with gender-neutral washrooms and change rooms, with queer history and culture embedded throughout the curriculum, not just during sex-ed classes.

The other issue we need to address is teacher capacity. Many teachers who deliver sex ed don’t have specialized training in how to teach it well. They are uncomfortable or they harbour biases or they simply don’t buy in. It takes real training to talk to a room of 13-year-olds about masturbation (try it some time and you’ll see). And if we have straight, cisgender teachers talking to classes about queer sexuality or gender identity, how do we know that those teachers are well-versed and thoughtful in talking about our lives? And there are other sensitive issues, like how trained are our teachers in talking to a child who has experienced sexual abuse or trauma?

A quick example of what I mean: when my son was in Grade 5, his gym teacher was in charge of sex ed, which was divided by gender that year and focused on puberty. The gym teacher — who was an otherwise nice, smart guy — told the boys, “puberty means you get hairy and smelly and get hard-ons all the time.” That was the sum total of the class, aside from a movie about anatomy. True as all that business about hairiness, smelliness and hard-ons might be, that information wasn’t particularly helpful when it comes to navigating the emotional terrain of puberty, and it certainly made puberty sound awful and embarrassing. I think the flippancy of the lesson reflected the teacher’s own discomfort. He didn’t want to teach sex ed and as a result, he did a perfunctory job of it.

EM: Yes, I think there’s this other issue of teachers not wanting to teach sex ed, or having their own hangups about sex and sexuality that affect how and what students learn. I remember my teacher psyching himself out and then teaching us the most basic, rushed sex ed, which was the equivalent of that scene in Mean Girls where the coach says, “Don’t have sex, you’ll get pregnant and die.” He was so uncomfortable, and it made all of us uncomfortable to ask questions. A few girls actually got pregnant that year and the next, and students still didn’t feel comfortable coming out. Had we had a knowledgeable instructor, and if our Catholic school would allow for a more sex-positive educator, the impact would’ve been so significant on us.

EL: Catholic school sex ed is so bad! We had these textbooks called Fully Alive, and in my recollection, they taught that gay people exist — but what you’re going through is probably just a phase! Oh, and masturbation was a sin. They may as well have told us we’d grow hair on our palms if we touched ourselves.

RG: What I think we might focus on is better sex ed taught by well-trained, experienced, enthusiastic instructors who can respectfully hold the experiences of children from a variety of backgrounds and experiences and identities. It’s a tall order, but I don’t think we talk enough about teacher capacity and engagement.

EL: To bring it back to your comment on queer history: in Illinois last week, there was a major debate as to whether schools should be teaching students about LGBTQ2 history, including major accomplishments and successes of queer and trans people. Republicans weren’t very happy about it. Meanwhile, in the UK, one primary school suspended its lessons on LGBTQ2 rights indefinitely following protests.

To me, it mirrors what’s been happening here in Canada: there’s a constant tug-of-war over what kids should or shouldn’t learn about and what’s appropriate to bring up in the classroom. There’s so much focus on policing LGBTQ2 education, and it’s not just about sex ed. I think it’s rooted in this opportunity to politicize children’s education that primarily right-wing politicians have seized. If they can advance a political agenda or win votes by appealing to folks who are anti-LGBTQ2, they’ll do it — even if it means putting children’s lives in jeopardy (and we know that happens, especially when it comes to sex ed). But we shouldn’t be politicizing children’s lives, period.

AJ: Those are really great points. I agree with you, Erica. I don’t think we should be politicizing children’s lives. However, that also seems like a very utopian ask. So given that we’re living in a very tumultuous time, when politics just seem to seep through every aspect of our lives, why should having this discussion on the sex-ed curriculum matter and why do we care about these changes?

RG: We know that high quality, comprehensive sex ed vastly improves outcomes for kids. In the US, states that teach abstinence-only sex ed have higher rates of teen pregnancy, for instance, than states that teach progressive and comprehensive sex ed. We also know that trans and non-binary children who are supported in their identities by parents and schools are happier and healthier those who aren’t. Giving children proper information about their bodies, their sexual and gender identities, and about healthy relationships and sex, is critical for their well-being.

EM: Children’s lives are inherently political, from conception (taking a pro-life or pro-choice stance) to birthing children, to how they learn and are raised, to their health and education. And I think this is because we invest in children — they’re the upcoming generation that will shape our social, political, economic and cultural landscapes. This is why having comprehensive sex ed matters so much. We’re in a highly politicized and polarized era that’s also incredibly progressive, defined by movements like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and battles for queer and trans rights across the world. It’s also defined by the rise, often violent, of the alt-right and far-right.

These groups are also invested in the lives of children, because there’s such an urgency to make sure kids end up on the “right” side, whatever that is for people. Sexual education and what falls under this umbrella — consent, sex, gender identity, gender expression, tolerance and compassion — are really what separate the left and right today, and that’s why it’s so political. It’s, as we’ve said, a tool for politicians — even at the expense of children’s lives.

AJ: That’s a great way to summarize it, Eternity. I think it’s also important to note that given the current cultural and political climates, we need to be more vigilant and mindful on the kinds of policies we support or reject. There’s a lot at stake, and this is not the time to be complacent.