After more than a decade of activism challenging homophobia in schools and pushing for the right to marry and adopt children, Peter Corren succumbed to an almost-six-year battle with cancer Dec 30 — four days before his 63rd birthday.
“Having somebody in your life for 38 years, and then not having them there is a very difficult thing to deal with,” says Corren’s grieving husband, Murray. “I feel there’s a big hole now in my life that I don’t ever see it being filled again.”
Murray says he’s touched by the outpouring of support and thoughtfulness, not only from family and friends but also from “people I don’t even know who said that Peter had a very big impact on their lives. I know he would have been so proud to know that.”
Friends and fellow education activists were quick to pay tribute to Corren, whom they uniformly described as passionately committed and tenacious in his pursuit of social justice.
“I’m very saddened by it,” says Glen Hansman of the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers’ Association. “I know he’s been ill for quite a while but he still remained active in his activist work throughout that entire period.”
Together, the Correns have been on the forefront of the ongoing struggle to have queer realities recognized in classrooms since the 1990s.
“Their work in the Surrey case against the Surrey School Board, and challenging the ministry of education for the lack of inclusion of queer people in the curriculum is a big hallmark and a legacy that Peter will leave behind,” says gay education activist James Chamberlain. “It’s probably one of the most significant things that has been done in BC in a long time.”
Chamberlain teamed up with the Correns to take the Surrey School Board to court for refusing to allow teachers to use three gay-friendly books in their classes.
After six years of costly court decisions, appeals and counter-appeals, the school board eventually capitulated, marginally opening the door to let some gay-friendly books in, but still continuing to ban the original three.
The Correns didn’t stop there, reaching beyond school boards to demand the BC Ministry of Education take the lead to implement queer-friendly curriculum in schools across the province.
In 1999, Peter and Murray filed a human rights complaint against the ministry alleging that the curriculum’s failure to reflect queer realities amounted to discrimination by omission. That complaint, and the agreement the couple reached with the government in 2006 to settle it, is changing the education landscape in the province.
“Their determination to just keep on pushing — when I think a lot of people often wondered if it should continue to be pushed as hard as it was — was a huge contribution,” says Vancouver School Board trustee Jane Bouey.
Bouey says she “just sat back and wept” after she saw a posting about Corren’s death on Facebook.
“It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact that their unrelenting desire for justice and human rights has had, and I think that impact of the decision around curriculum will be felt by future generations,” she adds.
The Corren settlement led to the introduction of a new elective course, Social Justice 12, and the promise that regular curriculum reviews will now be conducted with an eye to possibly adding queer content.
Even as they made gains on the education front, Peter and Murray remained vigilant.
In October 2008, they filed another human rights complaint, this time against the Abbotsford School Board after it refused to offer the Social Justice 12 course in its district. The school board relented and now offers the elective course albeit with the proviso that students must get parental consent to enroll.
“The extent to which they believed that because they had the monetary ability and the time —those privileges — that it was their responsibility to take this on, is something I think we can all learn from: to use whatever privileges you have to be able to make a difference,” Bouey says.
“You don’t get the combination of people like Peter and Murray very often,” Hansman notes. “The work they were able to do is second to none.”
Hansman also points to the couple’s activism around same-sex marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples. The Correns were among BC’s first petitioners for the right to marry and didn’t stop advocating until gay marriage became legal across Canada.
Also as a result of their activism, gay parents won the right to adopt children jointly in BC.
“People are now getting married and adopting and doing all these things not necessarily cognizant of who some of the key players were that have put a lot on the line, financially and personally, and just the commitment to see those things through,” Hansman says.
“You need people who are going to be tenacious like that, not just sort of go, ‘Gee, this is going to be complicated, so why bother?’ He’s never been like that for as long as I’ve known him,” adds Hansman.
Hansman says Peter’s dedication to changing the laws leaves a legacy of expanded rights for the queer community.
“Legal decisions are never just one-offs; they provide a new foundation that everything that comes afterwards is built upon,” he points out. “And not just here but elsewhere in Canada so people in other jurisdictions can now point to the [curriculum] settlement agreement between the Correns and the provincial government to go, ‘Hey, we have a similar human rights code framework here, we should be able to do something similar.’”
“Peter often said changing the law is easy, but changing societal attitudes is far more difficult,” Murray told Xtra West Jan 11.
“Both he and I knew that as long as the education system in this province was silent about our realities, that the kind of homophobia and the violence against gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people would continue indefinitely,” Murray says.
“By having opportunities available to teachers to deal with these issues and to educate kids about our realities, it hopefully will make it possible for coming generations to be far more open, accepting and supportive of who we are,” he adds.
Murray says Peter was “very proud” of what the pair were able to achieve.
“Never doubt that you make a huge difference by taking on a challenge — particularly when you have a loving partner — and pursuing it with as much vigour and as much energy as you possibly can,” the Correns said together as they accepted their Xtra West Lifetime Achievement Award in May 2009 (via video from Mexico).
Asked to describe his fondest memory of Peter and the life they shared, Murray says there are far too many to describe. Then he points to their wedding day.
“Peter and I met in London on July 11, 1971 so we chose July 11, 2004 as the day of our wedding because it was such a significant day for us. As Peter said, this was the time to celebrate not only that day, but the 33 years that went before it when our relationship was not recognized as being of equal value to other heterosexual relationships,” Murray recalls.
In keeping with Peter’s wishes, there won’t be a funeral or service, Murray says, but there will be a “big celebration of his life” sometime in the spring.
“To all those people in our community who’ve written and sent cards and telephoned, I say thank you because it means a great deal to know that so many people appreciate what Peter was able to do in the time he had,” Murray says.
VIDEO: The Correns accepted their Xtra West Lifetime Achievement Award in May 2009 (via video from Mexico)