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9 min

The curriculum battleground

The conservative threat to gay-friendly classrooms

FIGHTING FOR INCLUSION: Anti-homophobia consultant Glen Hansman says it's a lost battle for conservative groups opposed to adding queer content to the curriculum. Others aren't so sure. Credit: Sarah Race

Clare Lannan and Marco Chan know what it’s like to put up posters on school property affirming queer lives only to have them ripped down.

Though Chan says his Port Moody high school was not outwardly hostile towards queer students, it wasn’t exactly welcoming either. Things got a little better, he says, when he went on his school’s PA system, offering to discuss his gay-straight alliance’s (GSA) goals and message “with whoever feels they need to talk about this.” Fewer posters were targeted for vandalism after that, he recalls.

Lannan, whose GSA spearheaded the introduction of the Gulf Islands School District anti-homophobia policy in 2006, says explicitly homophobic slurs are on the wane in her school now that “kids know they’ll be reprimanded for it.” Still, she says, teachers and administrators need to step up to the plate more often and more visibly when it comes to fostering a queer-positive environment for students.

“I had a teacher who asked me the other day if she should stop students from saying ‘that’s butch’ in a derogatory manner,” recounts Lannan, “and I found that strange because we worked really hard to get a policy within our schools against homophobia. We talked to the teachers, and they are aware of what the goals of the GSA are, and what their roles in the administration are, and they still don’t seem to get it.”

For Chan, an encounter with a fellow student while he was doing GSA outreach at school brought home the tragi-comic consequences of homophobia when it’s not addressed in school or by society at large.

“I was part of the mentorship program at school for Grade 9 students. I had a pretty good relationship with [one of them]. I saw her once every week in her class. When she saw me at the GSA table in the cafeteria, she came over and asked what the GSA stands for. I told her that it was for gay-straight alliance. I’m not kidding you — she ran. She ran like I bit her.”

Both Lannan and Chan see queer content in the curriculum as a key tool in combating homophobia and discrimination in the school system.

Chan notes that the multi-ethnic, multicultural district where he went to school included many students who came from backgrounds in which gender identity and sexual orientation were not openly discussed.

“We study racism, but we never do anything about the queer community and what [it] has to overcome. Education needs to cover all aspects. Queer content is part of that,” says Lannan.

If Sean Murphy and the Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) have their way, queer content won’t be added to BC’s classrooms anytime soon.

In a letter dated Feb 7 to the education minister, Murphy warns that “the private agreement” between the Ministry of Education and gay activist couple Peter and Murray Corren could lead to “serious parental objection… if the coercive power of the state educational establishment, employed throughout the curriculum, is used to impose [the] view that homosexual conduct and relationships are morally acceptable.”

Murphy’s letter, which he copied to all BC school districts, parent advisory councils, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation and a long list of administrators, lays out in part the League’s objections to the agreement the BC government reached with the Correns last spring about adding queer content to the public school curriculum. The League is particularly opposed to the education ministry’s clarification of its Alternate Delivery Policy that says students can only opt out of a handful of classes in the Health curriculum, specifically, Health and Career Education K-7, Health and Career Foundations 8 and 9, and Planning 10.

According to anti-homophobia consultant Glen Hansman the ministry’s letter of clarification reminds school districts that there is no provision in the law or ministry policy for parents to excuse children in public schools from any other section of the provincial curriculum. Students must attend all other mandatory classes, regardless of any queer-friendly content they may one day be exposed to.

Murphy says he hasn’t got a copy of the minister’s letter, which was sent out to all school boards, trustees, superintendents, and principals, but insists the ministry has “exceeded its authority.”

“The law is that accommodation of freedom of conscience, religion, thought, opinion and belief is legally required of school districts, and the ministry has no authority to order districts not to do that, or to restrict them in doing that,” claims Murphy. He believes the ministry intends to discriminate against those who find certain classes or courses objectionable and want accommodation of that opinion — a violation of the BC Human Rights Code, he says.

While the League’s focus has been on which courses parents can legally withdraw their children from, Murphy says that would not be the only or most frequent way to deal with parental concerns. “Obviously, if a parent has difficulty or concern with what’s going on in the classroom, the first thing they should do is talk with the teacher. There might be adjustments, and life will go on. My guess is that’s the way things will be worked out,” he says.

“But we have insisted on the authority of parents to withdraw their children because that’s an important point and it’s something the Corren agreement is directed at,” he adds.

Murphy invokes two United Nations declarations to which Canada is signatory — the Declaration on Human Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of the Child — to bolster his contention that parents are the ultimate arbiters of their children’s welfare. He points in particular to Principle 7 of the second declaration which reads in part: “The best interests of the child shall be the guiding principle of those responsible for his education and guidance: that responsibility lies in the first place with his parents.”

But parents don’t have a right to opt their children out of an inclusive education, regardless of whether or not it collides with their religious or moral values, counters James Chamberlain of the Gay and Lesbian Educators of BC.

Just as a classroom teacher won’t condone a racist parent for rejecting positive images of people of colour in a book, the same holds true for a parent who presents a homophobic objection, Chamberlain explains. Parents shouldn’t have the right to opt out simply because it’s a message they don’t want their child to hear, he adds.

“It’s a message of inclusion and tolerance, and the Supreme Court of Canada was really clear with that in the case Murray Corren, myself, and three other litigants took to the court a few years ago with the Surrey book issue. Sometimes the messages we teach children in school do collide with home values. That’s called cognitive dissonance. It’s just part of education,” Chamberlain says.

“Kids are exposed to all sorts of comments and ideas they may not have encountered before, but that’s how kids learn,” he continues. “So the Corren agreement is a good agreement. It puts the onus on the Ministry of Education to make sure teachers teach in an inclusive manner. Prior to the agreement, it’s been hit or miss — mostly miss.”

Murphy concedes that children are exposed to all kinds of things in all kinds of ways but draws a distinction between that and what takes place in the classroom, where you have the state “essentially determining the curriculum, or what is being taught in the class or [an] individual interpreting the learning outcomes,” he says. “That brings an element of coercion into the process which doesn’t exist outside, so that has to be taken into account.”

While Murphy insists he has no problem emphasizing the importance of respecting other people and agrees that people should not be bullied or teased, he is opposed to the classroom setting being used “specifically to inculcate the notion that [marriage of] persons of the same sex is the moral equivalent of marriage of persons of the opposite sex.”

Just as Murphy cites various international human rights principles and Canadian legislation to support the validity of his perspective, others point to the very same precedents and other pieces of legalese to support the push for an inclusive curriculum. Hansman points, for instance, to Section 76 of the BC School Act which calls on all schools to be run on “strictly secular and non-sectarian principles.” It also states that while “the highest morality must be inculcated… no religious dogma or creed is to be taught in a school or provincial school.”

In Abbotsford, teacher Don Johannson plans to invoke the very same UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child that a school board trustee recently used when she put forward a motion, passed by the Abbotsford School Board, that parents’ authority is primary in their children’s education.

Johannson, president of the Abbotsford District Teachers’ Association, says the trustee made her case at a Feb 19 board meeting around the same Principle 7 Murphy uses. It was the board’s second attempt to ensure parental control over what their children learn in the classroom.

The first attempt, introduced Jan 22, said the school district “would not compel students to attend classes or lessons that their parents/guardians judge to be contrary to the individual needs of their children or that they find morally objectionable, subversive or offensive with respect to their religious, moral and/or cultural traditions.”

That motion was tabled pending “further research” into its potential ramifications. A month later, the board opted for the less contentious UN Declaration-based motion.

Johannson points out that Principle 10 of the same UN Declaration states that children should be protected from racial and other forms of discrimination and “be brought up in a spirit of understanding, tolerance [and] friendship among peoples…”

He intends to bring forward his own motion at the next school board meeting in April, requesting the affirmation of all 10 principles of the UN Declaration on children’s rights.

Johannson, who teaches career and personal planning in Grades 10 through 12, says it’s his “professional opinion that the Corren agreement, and the curriculum that develops out of that, is what is needed because of its focus on diversity, tolerance and awareness.

“In my opinion, [the board is] being pressured by certain organizations, namely the Catholic Civil Rights League and the Christian Coalition of Canada. I think it’s a special interest group that has come forward, claiming that they represent parents and the community of Abbotsford. I don’t necessarily agree that they do represent or have the consensus, or support the consensus of the community.”

Johannson can’t say how strong a challenge the League and Christian Coalition pose, but notes that when the two organizations call on people for support, there is a turnout. When the curriculum issue first came up in an October school board meeting, 150 to 200 people showed up — a rare occurrence, he asserts, given that only 10 to 15 people normally attend.

Chamberlain says he senses an opposition forming, but can’t say how powerful it is. While he doesn’t believe the group of parents involved is in the majority “by any stretch of the imagination” they are very vocal and very agitated over the Corren agreement, he says. But the average parent is not up in arms about it, or over LGBT issues in education, he hastens to add.

“This is a small group of rightwing parents who are using the media to the full extent that they can, and they are trying to intimidate the ministry into making the Corren agreement null and void,” Chamberlain states.

Gulf Islands Secondary School teacher Bill Turner doesn’t think anything can stop the movement towards queer-friendly schools at this point. He suggests the acceptance of gay marriage has a lot to do with that momentum, and adds that, already, for many young people, it’s becoming a non-issue. Hansman agrees, saying it’s a lost battle for those conservative groups who want the Corren agreement to go away.

“If you look at when we were doing the legal research for the Corren case, and all [these] boxes of complaints, and hate mail the ministry was getting on a variety of topics, it was the same person sending 100 copies of the same letter to everyone and expecting a reply, and sending another one the next week. I don’t think it’s that organized. It’s an ad hoc group that’s speaking out that will disband and regroup another time. That’s my perception of it,” Hansman says.

Murphy himself says the notion of “a single, united type of front” of like-minded organizations is not accurate. The League is part of a “loose coalition” of a handful of groups not bound to each other’s positions, but working co-operatively, he says.

That coalition includes BC Parents and Teachers for Life, Catholic Civil Rights League, Christian Coalition International, Christian Social Concerns Fellowship, Concerned Parents of BC, REAL Women, and the Vancouver Chinese Evangelical Ministerial Fellowship.

The groups met last September in Richmond and signed a joint statement of principles for students and parents on how to “remedy the injustices of the Corren Agreement.” The two-page statement, which can be found on the CCRL’s website, says the Corren settlement sets “a dangerous precedent” by giving the gay activists privileged access to the curriculum review process. It calls on the education ministry to send a letter to the parties named in the Corren settlement affirming the “prior right of parents to choose the kind of education their children receive,” and requesting a policy of openness and consultation in curriculum development.

The groups further request that any changes in matters covered in the Corren settlement be “arrived at by a regular democratic process in a manner authorized by the legislature and subject to alteration by that body.”

Murphy says he has also spoken to the US-headquartered Focus on the Family and while it is not part of the coalition, it is encouraging parents to get involved in the issue. Focus on the Family is “acting independently,” Murphy says.

In terms of funding, each organization is separate and no contributions are being pooled in a joint fund “or anything like that,” according to Murphy.

Asked whether the League would get involved in litigation around the curriculum issue, Murphy acknowledges that his organization would “do what we could to assist” if a matter arose in a school district “with respect to a particular family.” Typically, he notes, the League works with other organizations for that purpose, “so at that stage the various interested parties would come together to decide how to respond to it.”

Hansman, who is now president of the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers’ Association (VESTA), seems in turns amused and bemused by the fuss. As far as the curriculum goes, the intention is to integrate any queer content into discussions already taking place in the classroom around diversity and identity, he says. This is not going to be gay week at school, he quips.

“This is going to be in the curriculum, so it’s not going to be an in-your-face radical queer, gender-bending [approach]. It’s going to be very liberal, essentialist, identity-is-fixed, because that’s what’s age-appropriate. It’s going to be very generic for the most part. It’s not subversive. It ain’t that.”