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7 min

Xtra Vancouver’s newsmakers of 2011

The people and moments that shaped our year

Burnaby trustees (clockwise from left) Larry Hayes, Baljinder Narang, Ron Burton, James Wang and Gary Wong passed an anti-homophobia policy in June, despite vocal opposition from some parents. Credit: Shimon Karmel
Newsmaker 1
 
The Burnaby school board
 
“All those in favour? Any opposition? That policy and the recommendations carried unanimously.” Time: June 14, 7:52pm.
 
Burnaby school board chair Larry Hayes’ short, calmly delivered declaration that 5.45 had legs belied the spring of discontent that took root on the school board’s grounds — and the church parking lot across the way — because of the district’s new anti-homophobia policy.
 
Parents rallied against it.
 
The policy’s proponents are “leftwing driven,” with an agenda to target and market children, one said.
 
It’s a strategy to “reeducate our society and try and force everyone to adopt one homogeneous view with respect to LGBTQ lifestyle,” another said.
 
Being lesbian or gay is “not the right thing” and should not be encouraged, insisted yet another.
 
Students, queers and their allies counter-rallied.
 
“Surreal,” observed pro-5.45 parent Shahraz Kassam. “Is this Burnaby?” he wondered.
 
“All we’re asking is that we be given the right to live the way we want to live,” one Grade 12 student said.
 
“Why are we punished for expressing our love in a different way?” a 19-year-old asked.
 
“If there are a hundred of you here then some of you will have a gay and lesbian or transgendered or bisexual son or daughter,” a Burnaby district school counsellor reasoned.
 
Early on, Hayes made his position clear: The world is home to all kinds of people. Hiding that fact is not what educators are about.
 
Still, in the face of such opposition, what made Hayes and his fellow trustees stay the course?
 
“Despite a very vocal but small opposition — when it came right down to it — we were doing the right thing that was not only going to benefit those students in the LGBT community, but would make a healthier school district overall, and a healthier community,” Hayes summarizes.
 
Trustee Gary Wong was equally unequivocal. Homophobia is alive and well, he said. It must be tackled, and tackled proactively. The law says so — and it’s “morally right for us to be doing.”
 
“We want to thank the people of Burnaby, the people outside of Burnaby, who came in and provided us support,” Hayes added. 
 
That support translated into the return of Hayes and a full slate of Burnaby Citizens Association trustees to the Burnaby school board when they swept the Nov 19 election.
 
“It’s great. We’re humbled,” says Hayes upon learning that he and his fellow trustees are Xtra’s newsmakers of the year. “It’s a real pat on the back to last year’s board, who really put some effort into getting this policy off the ground and running in our schools. It’s a real honour.”
 
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Newsmaker 2
 
Whose voice?
 
It was all proceeding quietly. Too quietly, as it turns out.
 
Back in February, Burnaby Teachers’ Association vice-president James Sanyshyn was heralding the “huge breakthrough for Burnaby in terms of education,” after the school board voted to move forward with the implementation of an anti-homophobia policy. Three months later, the Burnaby school board’s grassy grounds had become a well-trampled stage for hundreds of parents who wanted to “Stop 5.45.”
 
Some of the parents coalesced into a group, Parents’ Voice, which later became a political party bent on punishing the trustees who passed the gay-friendly policy.
 
For Parents’ Voice president Heather Leung, the policy’s passage represented “the darkest day of the Burnaby school board history” and “a big window for the pro-gay community to recruit, recruit, recruit our children into their camp.”
 
Spokesperson Charter Lau said teaching children that homosexuality is a normal and healthy lifestyle will bring out “a whole army” of parents and “disturb the harmony and stability of the family.”
 
Gordon World informed school board trustees that their jobs were “in jeopardy” because of 5.45, promising them he’d take one of their jobs.
 
An empty promise, as it turned out. Burnaby voters decidedly rejected Parents’ Voice at the polls in the Nov 19 civic elections.
 
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Newsmaker 3
 
Oppression, meet resistance
 
One police officer slapped Mohamed Bouazizi. Another took his produce and scale away.
 
It’s not as if police hadn’t humiliated the Sidi Bouzid street vendor umpteen times before. Nor was he the first to set himself ablaze in protest against systematic harassment.
 
This time, his fellow Tunisians harnessed social media — Facebook, YouTube, Twitter — to expose his and their own lifetime of torment to a regional and international audience.
 
A revolution’s hashtags were born: #bouazizi, #sidibouzid, #tunisia.
 
Enter tumult, exit President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his 23-year rule. Hello, Tahrir Square, Libya and Yemen. Goodbye, Hosni, Moammar and Ali Abdullah Saleh. Time will tell if Syria’s Assad dynasty will fall, too — among many others.
 
The Arab Spring hopped continents and became Occupy Fall, targeting entrenched corporate corruption and profligate profiteering in the midst of expanding inequality. A ballerina balancing on a bull, tent cities, mic-checking, pepper spray and 99-percenters are now part of our verbal and visual lexicon, daring us to reimagine how we live.
 
Forty years ago this August, Canadian gays did just that. No hashtags there, just a 10-point list demanding an end to state-legislated discrimination against us and presented to the federal government on a rainy Ottawa day. We dared to imagine, too, and we’re not done yet.
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Newsmaker 4
 
Losing bon Jack
 
The cane-waving, mustache-bristling Jack of his NDP’s “Orange Crush” federal election campaign had given way to a more subdued, raspy-voiced, frailer shadow before the media mics on July 25.
 
He came to announce a new chapter in his battle with cancer. A month later, Jack was gone. But not without leaving a final rallying call for love, hope and optimism. Armed with such allies, he said, “We will change the world.”
 
He infused his advocacy for gay rights with that same trio of qualities — whether he was pressuring Toronto bureaucrats to grant permits to gay bathhouse owners, advocating for safer-sex education, taking great pride in celebrating Pride or making a pitch for same-sex marriage in his maiden speech to Parliament in 2004. And when the opportunity arose to make good on that pitch in 2005, he was the only leader to rally the vote in favour, even turfing the sole NDP-er who said nay.
 
Jack’s loss sparked a national outpouring and even  some international grief. 
 
Many now-Canadian asylum-seekers “owe much of their newfound liberties to Jack’s indefatigable championing of human rights and diversity,” one Jamaican wrote. “His loss is therefore not merely Canadian but international as well . . . We all grieve with you.”
 
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Newsmaker 5
 
The gaybasher who can’t be named
 
First he pled guilty, then not guilty, and now it’s guilty again.
 
On Sept 22, a youth who can’t be named finally admitted that he assaulted a gay man, repeatedly called him a faggot and broke his jaw in December 2009 outside a party off Commercial Dr.
 
But the youth is not homophobic, his lawyer insists. He used the word faggot but that’s no indication of bias — “It doesn’t mean ‘shut up because you’re a faggot.’ It means ‘shut up because I don’t want you to interfere.’”
 
The judge has until Jan 27 to decide whether she buys that argument, or whether she’ll designate the assault a hate crime.
 
By then, the case will be more than two years old, and the youth, who was 17 at the time of the assault, will have successfully put off his sentencing until 2012.
 
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Newsmaker 6
 
The ‘Kill the gays’ bill that won’t die
 
Uganda’s on again/off again “Kill the gays” bill is on again . . . apparently.
 
If MP David Bahati has his way, homosexuality would be a capital offence punishable by death, its “promotion” would be illegal, and people who know gays would have to report them to authorities or risk arrest themselves.
 
Bahati claims he has removed the death-penalty provision, but if there’s an amendment to that effect, it’s hidden.
 
Earlier this year, after some last-minute “Will they or won’t they pass it?” the bill ran aground because of a February election call. It was tabled again in March but withdrawn, resurrected in May and died again within the same month. Like a cat with the proverbial nine lives, it got yet another lease on life in October when the Ugandan parliament reintroduced it.
 
Bahati blames the West for homosexuality, a notion US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tackled head on in her Dec 6 speech to the United Nations. Backing up her words is a package of initiatives the Obama administration released as part of a presidential memo directing “all agencies engaged abroad” to combat discrimination and violence against gay people and protect asylum seekers. 
 
Now we wait and see . . .
 
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Newsmaker 7
 
Christy flip-flop Clark
 
BC Liberal leadership hopeful (and now premier) Christy Clark came a-courtin’ us gays in January.
 
Eight years after she was education minister. Eight years after she oversaw the 2003 Safe Schools Task Force that produced no recommendations to address homophobia, leaving the majority of BC school districts without anti-homophobia guidelines.
 
Flip. “I think school districts have to fight every kind of bullying that’s out there. Homophobic bullying is the number-one form of it, so, yes, they have to make sure that’s part of what they’re targeting when they target bullies,” she tells a crowd of supporters in a gay bar in January. If she becomes premier, dealing with bullying will be “a top priority,” she promises.
 
Flop. A month later, homophobia is not mentioned in Clark’s new education policy, released on Feb 14. Her office claims she didn’t want it buried in the general document.
 
Flip. But look for it on Pink Shirt Day, a spokesperson suggestively hints.
 
Will do.
 
Flop. A video statement about her anti-bullying platform doesn’t specifically mention homophobia. But here’s your Roots of Empathy program back . . . 
 
Double flop. Clark lays claim to the creation of Pink Shirt Day on her leadership campaign site. Fact check: credit is due to two Nova Scotia high school students.
 
Having received more than 200 Purple Letters requesting action, and released yet another education plan lacking specific initiatives to address homophobia, Education Minister George Abbott says in October “there is still too much homophobia in some corners of schools, without a doubt, but it is not, I think, for lack of trying on the part of educational partners.”
 
Where’s the flip side to this again?