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Why two Catholic school trustees want stronger LGBT policy

Alberta school board torn between traditional Catholic doctrine and supporting trans students

“Why is it that struggles with equality end up coming down to a fight over who can use a washroom?” Patricia Grell asks.

Grell is one of two school trustees who urged her peers on the Edmonton Catholic school board to pass a stronger policy supporting trans and queer students in their schools.

In a May 12, 2015 blog post, Grell says she was struck by the parallel between African Americans being forced, once upon a time, to use “Coloured Only” facilities in the US and the unfolding saga of a trans student who wanted the option to use the girls’ washroom at her Edmonton school. Administrators refused, sending her instead to a special gender-neutral washroom they set up for her.

Pleas and a human rights complaint filed by the girl’s mother in 2015, combined with Grell’s blog calling for a more supportive stance, appear to have prompted the school district to relent and allow the child to use the girls’ washroom until further written notice.

But in the year since the girl’s case made headlines, the issue has transformed into a more fulsome battle in Edmonton: one in which religious tenets espoused by Catholic leadership clash with lay appeals for more compassion.

Even as the girl and her family continue to pursue their human rights complaint, the government ordered all school boards to develop explicitly LGBT-friendly policy by March 31, 2016.

Alberta Education Minister David Eggen tells Daily Xtra all but one of Alberta’s 61 school boards delivered on time, as did all 13 charter schools and 98 of 100 private schools. Ministry staff are now reviewing the draft policies to ensure they measure up.

“Life is changing, the world is evolving, issues come up like this one where LGBT members of our community are no longer willing to stay silent in their closets, so we’re bumping up against this,” Grell tells Daily Xtra.

She’s not the lone voice on her board. Trustee Marilyn Bergstra was moved by a phone call she received from her 22-year-old son who told her to resign if she couldn’t support the trans girl’s wish to use the washroom of her choice.

“He said, ‘Mom, what is the most important thing to a little girl?’ And I just played along and he said, ‘The most important thing is to chat with her girlfriends. Where is their favourite place to go do that?’ He said, ‘The washroom.’ Then he said, ‘How can you send a child to a gender-neutral washroom which highlights to that child that you are neither a boy nor a girl?’ That was my son’s take on it.”

Trustee Marilyn Bergstra was moved by her son’s view that denying a trans girl the chance to socialize with her girlfriends in the washroom is unkind. (Andrew Jacome/Freepik)

Grell and Bergstra, both Catholics, are now in the vortex of a battle between longstanding church doctrine and contemporary views. They have been outspoken about their preference for a standalone district policy that sets explicit guidelines for school authorities on how to support trans students.

But when Grell and an ad hoc committee presented their proposed Gender Identity and Expression policy to the Edmonton Catholic school board last fall, acrimonious debate ensued over its provisions. One trustee who opposed the policy suggested his faith sees being transgender as a mental disorder. The proposed policy included recognizing how students self-identify and allowing them to use facilities and participate on sports teams that align with their gender identity.

Even as the board committee worked on the policy, Grell says her board chair sent an email from Edmonton’s archbishop pushing archdiocesan districts to follow Catholic doctrine. The archbishop urged the Edmonton Catholic school board “to wait for, and follow, the protocol produced by the [Catholic] superintendent’s group and, therefore, not proceed any further with the work of your committee.”

“We need to ask ourselves, if unelected officials are writing policies for democratically elected Catholic trustees, and do not even wish to collaborate with us, why have elected Catholic trustees?” Grell asked in a Sept 18, 2015 blog post. “And if Catholic trustees are voting for policies the Archbishop has developed out of constant fear that our catholic designation will be removed, then why have Catholic school trustees?”

In the end, a version more in line with traditional Catholic doctrine prevailed at the board’s March 2016 vote, with five trustees voting in favour, and two — Grell and Bergstra — against.

While they both emphasize that they are, as part of a board, obligated to support the policy their fellow trustees approved, Grell and Bergstra would have liked their board’s policy to have adhered more closely to the provincial government’s “Guidelines for Best Practices” released by Eggen in January to help school districts draft their LGBT-friendly policies.

It remains to be seen how Eggen will respond to the Edmonton board’s policy, which critics have described as vague, and no stronger than when the board began the debate about a year ago.

In a blog post on the Catholic Diocese of Calgary, Bishop Frederick Henry condemned the government guidelines as evidence that “totalitarianism” thrives in Alberta. “This approach and directive smack of the madness of relativism and the forceful imposition of a particular narrow-minded anti-Catholic ideology,” he writes.

The bishop also dismisses gay-straight alliances — which Alberta legislators voted to allow in 2015 in schools where students called for them — as “ highly politicized ideological clubs which seek to cure society of ‘homophobia’ and ‘heterosexism,’ and which accept the idea that all forms of consensual sexual expression are legitimate.” That view of sexuality is not Catholic, he says.

“We’ve bumped up several times throughout our history with innovation, new ideas,” says trustee Patricia Grell. “Do we really need to put Galileo under house arrest again?” (Courtesy of Patricia Grell)

For Grell, the controversy that has unfolded over the past year is part of what she calls a Galileo moment, a reference to the Italian scientist and scholar who was accused of heresy for supporting the belief that the sun was at the centre of the solar system, a view that once flew in the face of the Catholic Church’s sense of the order of the universe.

“We’ve bumped up several times throughout our history with innovation, new ideas,” she says. “Do we really need to put Galileo under house arrest again?”

“I know the Catholic Church doesn’t change fast and I’m not going to be the one to convince them,” she continues. “But we need to be able to see the person in all this, and that’s what breaks my heart, is that we’re not seeing the person. We’re putting doctrine over people, rules over people.” 

Bergstra agrees “wholeheartedly” with Grell.

Despite being on the receiving end of vitriolic emails, and even fearing for her safety over her support of LGBT youth, Bergstra says she’s already seeing progress. She cites a move by the Alberta Teachers Association to form a gay-straight alliance for teachers, and a survey that shows teachers are interested in acquiring the training to help them address the needs of LGBT students.

“A lot of good has come,” she says. “I really think we want to do what’s right.”

Grell says quite a few people, including teachers, have come up to her privately to say they back her advocacy. “Everybody is being quiet and careful, it’s too bad,” she says. On the other hand, she understands that teachers are worried about being reprimanded for trying to support LGBT students.

Grell remains firm in her conviction that she has pursued the right course.

“Personally, when it comes to human rights and the law, I don’t care if 99 percent of the people disagree with me.  If a room of 50 people says we should discriminate against LGBT kids, I will disagree. They can throw tomatoes at me, but I don’t care.”