I’ve been teaching in Toronto schools for the past 19 years. During that time, I’ve taught Health and Physical Education curricula — colloquially known as “sex ed” — which can help validate LGBTQ2 kids. Since 2013, I’ve also advised Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in two schools and I’ve been privileged to hear youngsters share their stories with me and in group meetings. While not all kids feel safe coming out to teachers, parents or peers (nor should they be expected to), I’ve seen first-hand what a positive school environment can mean for queer, trans and questioning students.
But for years, socially conservative activist groups and politicians have tried to pry these supports away from students under the guise of parental rights. They argue that when children are taught something that differs from what is believed at home, it’s an abrogation of a family’s boundaries and values.
In challenging parental rights arguments, I am not diminishing the role of parents in their children’s schooling. The social conservative parental rights movement is not, in my opinion, about parents’ interest in what their children learn about in classrooms, or the importance of parental input, especially culturally and religiously, on a health curriculum that’s of an intimate nature. It is instead used as an excuse to halt progress made in schools for LGBTQ2 students for discriminatory reasons. In the background of the parental rights movement, we see the same players — often hardline evangelicals — who have traditionally railed against same-sex marriage as well as LGBTQ2 and reproductive rights.
As a teacher in Ontario, I’ve watched children — especially those who are queer, trans or questioning their identities — lose out on opportunities to feel included and accepted when social conservatives threaten student resources at school. Where conversations about the relationship between parents and educators are desperately needed, social conservatives have instead created a divide, pitting parents against educators. The result is a distraction from those at the centre of it all: kids.
In Ontario, there’s a long history of using parental rights as a political means to thwart teaching sexuality and gender. In 2012, for instance, Steve Tourloukis, a Hamilton father of two, sought the right to receive advance notice of classroom topics that might conflict with his family’s religious beliefs (like the existence of LGBTQ2 identities), to preview instructional materials and to pull his kids out of school. “This is about a parent’s right to know what is being taught in schools,” Tourloukis told the media. “My children are my own. I own them. They don’t belong to the school board.” The case eventually made its way in 2016 to the Ontario Superior Court, which ruled that Tourloukis’ rights had not been infringed upon; that decision was upheld in the Ontario Court of Appeal a year later.
As Tourloukis launched his case against his local school board, parents across the Greater Toronto Area submitted what were referred to as “family values letters” to school offices. These letters enumerated topics parents might deem unsuitable for instruction in school. That same week, I pulled a copy of the letter from the now-defunct website of the Public Education Advocates for Christian Equity Hamilton (a group that has since rebranded as PEACE Ontario). A checklist of controversial topics under the section entitled “Family Life & Sex Education” included “discussions or portrayals of homosexual/bisexual conduct and relationships and/or transgenderism [sic] as natural, healthy or acceptable.”
Another persistent critic of sex ed and GSAs in Ontario is Charles McVety of the Canada Christian College. Over the years, McVety charged that the province’s updated sex-ed curriculum was conceived to sexualize children. Early lessons in consent, he argued, would make them acquiesce to the sexual overtures of adults. A poster created by the Toronto District School Board, which included three stick figures holding hands and a heart to denote bisexual or pansexual identities, was derided by McVety as a promotion of polygamy to kids. Eventually, in 2010, a television program run by McVety was taken off the air after the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruled the evangelist had crossed a line when he claimed that gays were pedophiles and that both the health curriculum and the Toronto Pride Parade were intended to recruit children.
Now, in Alberta, similar voices have risen. It’s not totally out of left field — after all, Ontario and Alberta share a similar education system, funding both Catholic and secular school boards. This past April, two United Conservative Party candidates came under scrutiny for hate speech against LGBTQ2 people. One of them, Mark Smith, had given a sermon in 2013 likening “homosexual love” to pedophilia. He later suggested that publicly funded religious schools should be able to fire queer teachers. A roundup by the Broadbent Institute’s PressProgress shows a disturbing pattern of homophobic and transphobic commentary from UCP candidates, including the perpetuation of bathroom predator myths and support for discredited conversion therapies. Leader Jason Kenney is also included for boasting about “leading an initiative to deny hospital visitation rights to gay men dying of AIDS at the height of the 1980s AIDS epidemic.”
Advocates for queer and trans children and families worry that Premier Kenney will make good on his promise to require schools to disclose to parents if their children join a GSA. Under Bill 24, Rachel Notley’s NDP government expanded the rights of students to form GSAs in the province’s publicly funded schools — previous legislation left it up to school boards to decide if they would allow the groups. The NDP also closed a loophole to ensure that school staff could not report to parents that their children had joined a GSA.
But in the provincial election this year, Kenney and the UCP galvanized supporters with cries of parental rights and an anti-Bill 24 platform. According to Kenney, parents should be informed when their children join a GSA. This position has been supported by organizations like Parents For Choice in Education (PCE), which says Bill 24 strips rights away from parents. A 2015 position paper, commissioned by PCE, suggests that those rights supercede how children themselves identify and with whom they choose to meet: “PCE supports the right of parents to send their children to schools which have a GSA. In keeping with our philosophy of meaningful parental choice, PCE also supports the right of parents to send their children to schools which do not see a GSA as the best way to achieve a welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment.”
So why is comprehensive sexuality health education important? Why are GSAs important? Why are so many health care professionals, social workers, faith leaders, school boards and educators like me fighting so hard to keep these resources in place for queer, trans and allied children and youth? Because youth who are also gender and sexual minorities continue to be vulnerable to violence and harassment in their schools, homes, communities and places of worship. In the face of this reality, these ardent defenders of parental rights — Kenney and the UPC, Tanya Granic Allen, McVety, Tourloukis, Doug Ford — have arguably neither voiced nor acted upon a single initiative that truly protects all of our children. Instead, they assert that to acknowledge the humanity of queer and trans children and their families is somehow to jeopardize their own children and families — whom they no doubt assume to be cisgender and heterosexual, and therefore worthy of acknowledgement.
Youngsters join GSAs for a variety of reasons. It has never been an expectation of groups I’ve worked with that members assume a letter from the LGBTQ2 abbreviation when they enter the door. Some disclose; some don’t. And many student participants are cisgender and heterosexual allies. While I’m always pleased to hear that children have felt safe sharing thoughts about their identity with family, I know that this is not always the case.
Among children who experience bullying, harassment and violence at the hands of peers, LGBTQ2 kids are unique. A child tormented for skin colour or religion can often go to a family member who can relate to that experience for support. Children who experience homophobic or transphobic mistreatment don’t always have that same support at home, where they may not be believed, where a parent doesn’t know how to relate or where kids feel their safety may be at risk. When this is the case, a GSA provides the safety of peer support — for some, it’s the only space in their life where they don’t feel judged.
As the drum beat for parental rights of the social-conservative variety spreads across the country, I worry. I think of Steve Tourloukis telling reporters he owns his children. I think of parents so angry that they cannot prevent their children from learning something new — the entire point of going to school — and who will work to ensure no other child does. I think of children denied instruction in consent and identity, and therefore denied ownership of their own bodies. I worry about kids denied the right to express ideas their parents might not agree with.
I worry, too, that this hysteria drowns out the voices of thoughtful parents, those coming to grips with how their children see themselves and who need help to be the supportive parents they would like to be. They’ve been let down, too. Stories from Alberta and Ontario, ultimately, are about the rights of LGBTQ2 youth, families and their allies to exist in publicly funded spaces. Instead of revisiting old myths of queer people as pedophiles and child recruiters, it would be great if marginalized parents could see that the love and energy that drives the school day is also the work of queer and trans staff, students and families.
A third-grade learning expectation of the updated Ontario health curriculum on visible and invisible differences included an oblique reference to same-sex parents. This was deemed “age inappropriate” by socially conservative detractors. In the spring of 2014, when then-Premier Kathleen Wynne announced the return of the document, I happened to have a third-grade homeroom. In that homeroom, I had a student with two mums. The health curriculum merely acknowledged that his family is real, and that they can love and care for each other like any other. We simply cannot declare any child or their family as “age inappropriate,” or not worthy of recognition at school.
In the years since, that child and his family, along with so many other children and families like them, have borne witness to screaming crowds on the steps of provincial legislatures, protesting that benign lesson — the idea that there are many ways of being and loving, and many different kinds of families. As the son of a gay man born in 1930, and as a queer man born in 1960, I have a pretty good idea of what they have been feeling.