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Why are two school trustees on a US anti-gay-marriage site?

Vancouver School Board chair says she's "appalled"

"It's inappropriate," NPA school trustee Ken Denike says of his appearance in a video on an anti-gay-marriage website. Credit: NPA

Gay activists want to know why two Vancouver school trustees are starring in an American anti-gay-marriage group’s video criticizing the Out in Schools (OIS) anti-homophobia program.

Vancouver School Board chair Patti Bacchus tells Xtra she’s “appalled” by the video and by the fact that the interviews were filmed on school board property.

The video does not represent the direction of the board on homophobia issues, she hastens to add.

The video, posted on the website for the Marriage Anti-Defamation Alliance, shows reelected Non-Partisan Association (NPA) trustee Ken Denike and newly elected NPA trustee Sophia Woo discussing their concerns about an OIS booklet. They say the booklet, published in 2006, points youth to “a website ostensibly oriented toward counselling students,” which, they claim, is actually an “adult website which contained very explicit videos containing pictures of homosexual activities.”

“Trustee Denike and Trustee Woo do not speak for the Vancouver School Board,” Bacchus says. “I am the spokesperson for the board.”

Bacchus calls the anti-marriage website “offensive.”

“I fear it does stoke some of the ignorance and negativity that we have been working so hard to combat,” she says. “This just takes us absolutely in the wrong direction.”

“It’s created damage that is reverberating,” Bacchus says. “They are elected officials, and they are accountable for their use of Vancouver school property for this video. We will be discussing it with trustees.”

In the video, Woo says the Health Initiative for Men’s (HIM) website referred to in the 2006 booklet, and particularly its Hottest at the Start campaign, does not appear connected to anti-homophobia issues. Denike says the images were not approved by the board.

“Got a lot of phone calls from parents and concerned citizens. They were all opposed to the video being shown to young students,” Woo adds in the video.

Denike tells Xtra the video was filmed in October.

The Hottest at the Start campaign went online in July. OIS removed its links to HIM a month later, both online and in a new edition of the printed booklet, says OIS director of education Ross Johnstone.

Asked why the links were removed, Johnstone says HIM changed its focus to 20-something guys, which was no longer in tune with OIS’s target audience of youth.

Asked if OIS was self-censoring, Johnstone says no. OIS is careful to provide only age-appropriate material to youth, he says.

Denike and Woo first took aim at OIS in September, after Kari Simpson filed a police complaint against the anti-homophobia program and as the civic elections were beginning to heat up. Denike and Woo made headlines with their claim that the OIS booklet linked kids to porn.

Denike, Woo and NPA mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton quickly expressed regret for the statement, in a press release dated Oct 3.

The release notes that OIS had “removed references to external community resources” and acknowledges that “Out in Schools is very careful to show only age-appropriate material in its school presentations.”

Johnstone says Denike and Woo have been invited to attend OIS presentations. They have not accepted, he says.

BC Teachers Federation second vice-president Glen Hansman says he, too, has tried to contact Denike and Woo but has had no response.

“You don’t just stumble into a video,” Hansman says. “You don’t ask where it’s being used?”

Denike tells Xtra that the video’s creator told them it was for a news program when it was filmed. He says he was surprised when the video turned up on the anti-gay-marriage site. He says he has contacted a lawyer to have it removed.

“It’s inappropriate,” Denike says. “It has nothing to do with same-sex marriage. It was strictly in order to indicate to the board that they were responsible for oversight.”

During the lead-up to November’s municipal election, critics of the NPA had expressed alarm that Woo was somehow aligned with Burnaby’s Parents’ Voice party, which campaigned against that school district’s anti-homophobia policy.

Asked about it by Xtra, Woo was clear that she supports the Vancouver board’s anti-homophobia policy. “All students and teachers deserve a safe, respectful learning environment,” she said.

Xtra contacted Woo for comment on the video at her school board office. She said she was in the middle of something and would call back. She did not. Later calls went to her machine, which was full. An email attempt to reach her also went unanswered.

Ryan Clayton sits on the City of Vancouver’s gay advisory committee.

He says Denike and Woo obviously gave their permission for the video to be used by the anti-marriage group.

“That permission needs to be revoked,” he says. “It’s either exceptionally poor judgment or they’re homophobic — one or the other.”

Denike is “using his position as a trustee to promote an anti-gay-marriage group,” Clayton adds.

In a plea for support issued Dec 14, the chair of OIS’s parent organization, Out on Screen, says Vancouver’s queer film festival and its school program have experienced an autumn of organized, political attacks.

“Specifically, our Out in Schools program has been the target of a small group of activists who have tried to make our work a major municipal election issue, particularly regarding school board elections.”

James Ong says the attacks have taken attention away from more important issues. “We have had to focus on reacting to long, public missives, erroneous claims concerning our good work, threats of legal action, political positioning, interference with sponsors and media attention.”