2 min

Teaching tolerance

Queers issues trump race, religion

Credit: Xtra files

Last month students at Toronto’s Market Lane Public School were treated to discussions on why it’s not okay to bully, taunt and otherwise make life difficult for their fellow students whose folks happened to be queer.

Sounds pretty innocuous, doesn’t it? But some parents are up in arms, claiming their religious rights have been violated because their children were exposed to pro-homosexual propaganda.

At a public meeting last week, Toronto District School Board (TDSB) officials explained that the goal of the discussions was to promote tolerance of diversity, not to undermine parents’ religious rights. That said, “Religious beliefs do not trump human rights,” the TDSB’s human rights expert Patricia Hayes told the meeting.

Part of the problem seems to be confusion over what exactly students were exposed to. Parents have been riled up over the thought that their children were shown images of men kissing each other, for example, which TDSB staff insist was not the case. They maintain that the material provided was all age-appropriate and family-focussed. Sounds pretty wholesome. Maybe too wholesome, in fact.

The twist to the story is that the outraged parents are described as being largely Muslim, predominantly new immigrants from northern Africa, leaving those of us with pretensions of progressive politics to ponder our knee-jerk responses a little more carefully. Why, oh why, couldn’t they just be white, Anglo-Saxon Christians, so we could just rail at their insensitivity without having to sympathize with their position as fellow have-nots in the dominant culture?

The situation has got me thinking about the relationship between sexual orientation, religion and race, in particular the way they fool us by happily coexisting in the laundry lists of anti-discrimination policies all over the country, only to become messy and complicated when translated into reality.

Not that there isn’t a similarity there. Both race and orientation can be connected through the idea of culture, the rationale being that it isn’t the colour of a person’s skin that makes certain people act differently toward them so much as the behaviours and values of the associated culture. Similarly with queers, it isn’t the same-sex screwing per se that upsets a particular variety of homophobes so much as the sexualized culture and threat to the dominant social order that queers represent.

While I am all for the idea that “queer” is a cultural identity, this analogy only goes so far, and that isn’t nearly far enough to provide a true sense of camaraderie between queers and straight people of colour, particularly those for whom homosexuality is anathema to their religious convictions.

It isn’t an easy thing to try to balance out the needs of different oppressed groups, and for that reason I applaud the TDSB for insisting that kids from Muslim families shouldn’t be excluded from anti-homophobia education. But I want to encourage the board to go even farther. What Toronto schools need is the very queer-positive propaganda that those parents are afraid their children are already being exposed to.

The celebration of different sexual orientations and gender expressions should be top of the list when it comes to dealing with diversity in schools, precisely because queer and trans kids too often aren’t getting support in the home.

Race is generational. It’s something you generally share with your family, and that in itself provides a bedrock of support. Religion is institutional and, by its very nature, imbued with the sense of righteousness. But children struggling with their own sexual or gender identity are bereft of these supports. That’s where the school system needs to be picking up the slack.

I want educators thinking, not about the children of queer parents, but the queer children of those Muslim, first-generation immigrant families who will someday have to come to terms with their sexuality, a sexuality that often cuts them off from their families and their faith. For these kids it very well could be the institutional support they get at school that makes the difference between whether they can accept themselves or not.

* Julia Garro is Xtra’s associate editor.