“All those in favour? Any opposition? That policy and the recommendations carried unanimously,” Burnaby School Board chair Larry Hayes declared at 7:52pm on June 14.
And with that, the district’s highly contentious anti-homophobia Policy 5.45 was passed with minor revisions, including its new title, Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity, to the hearty applause of its supporters in the room.
“I’m very, very happy we’ve passed this,” says Travon Hart, president of the gay-straight alliance at Burnaby’s Cariboo Hill Secondary School. “I do experience all the youth who come to me from my school, and other schools even. They tell me how they’ve been bullied and everything, and I don’t want it to happen anymore.”
More than an hour before the vote, some 400 students, queers and their allies brought a Pride-like atmosphere to the grounds of the Burnaby School Board office, waving pro-5.45 placards and singing and dancing to gay anthems like “YMCA,” ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” aided and abetted by David C Jones and queer comedy troupe Tops and Bottoms.
The festive crowd had dwindled considerably by the time the outcome of the vote was announced, but those who waited around outside broke into exuberant cheers when the verdict was announced.
“I basically stand here with mixed emotions,” long-time Burnaby resident and 5.45 supporter Shahraz Kassam told Xtra following the vote. “I’m, of course, celebrating with everybody here that we have passed this monumental school policy.”
But he says he’s “saddened” that “we had to fight for this.”
“To be in a country like Canada where we actually had to stand up against protesters against being a gay kid, that’s sad.”
Kassam says he was shocked when he first saw 200 people with signs opposing the policy at a school board meeting in May. “It was surreal. I felt like I’m in the Bible Belt in America. It was like, ‘Oh my God, is this Burnaby?'”
Parent Heather Leung, one of the few policy opponents to show up at the meeting, says she’s disappointed with the school board vote.
“I am here to witness the darkest day of the Burnaby School Board history,” Leung told Xtra after the vote. “It is an irresponsible act to pass this policy. Administration regulation and strategy in this policy, it opens a big window for the pro-gay community to recruit, recruit, recruit our children into their camp. In the meantime, they ignore the health risks behind it and the medical expense burden in this country.
“I urge the other districts, other parents to keep a close eye to their school boards when they are drafting a similar policy,” Leung warns. “Don’t let them disguise as angel of lights but they’re doing something else.”
Prior to the vote, trustee Ron Burton said he was “somewhat disturbed” by the controversy around the policy. He hopes Burnaby residents learn to accept the diversity of their community. “I think what we want to do is have everybody accept the differences – the same way we accepted the differences in different ethnics – we need to accept the difference in people’s different sexuality, and learn and live with them.”
Burton referred to the 2001 murder of Aaron Webster, noting that it was Burnaby students who went to Stanley Park “for no other reason” than to beat up a gay man.
“They killed him; one child was 17. Maybe if we had this policy in place when he was young, he wouldn’t have thought he had the need to do that.”
“I’m glad it’s over, that’s for sure,” trustee Gary Wong says. “I’d like to see us move forward, and certainly if there’s any concerns that parents still have, that we can work towards addressing those concerns,” he adds, noting that some of those concerns “were really misplaced.”
The problem of homophobia “has not gone away,” he says. “The problem is there, the problem must be addressed, and addressed proactively, and that certainly is what the law says. That’s what is morally right for us to be doing.”
Wong says he heard about the petition the anti-5.45 group submitted to the premier’s office on June 14, but he says he doesn’t know what the government plans to do.
“We are following the curriculum and the outcomes that are prescribed by the Ministry of Education.”
“I’m thrilled,” says Trevor Ritchie, a former Burnaby student. “We’ve had two years of discussion on this, two years of meetings and then we had 14 weeks of more public meetings. I think there’s been enough time, enough discussion that we really needed this policy.
“As trustee Burton mentioned inside, 10 years ago this policy could have prevented a murder. Since then, we don’t know how much has been done and how much could have been prevented.”