Asha’s Mums. Belinda’sBouquet. One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dad.
Back in Surrey, circa 1997, those were the three books on same-sex families that then-kindergarten teacher James Chamberlain requested permission to use in elementary schools.
No can do, the district’s school board said, overtly invoking religious grounds to ban the books and igniting one of BC’s keystone legal battles over inclusion of queer-friendly resources in classrooms.
In December 2002, five years later, the Supreme Court ruled the board out of bounds.
“In days not far off, these lesbian people will come and say… ‘I want to perform a marriage with a cow,” one anti-gay naysayer suggested during a school board hearing the following summer, where a “family values” crowd aired their sometimes vitriolic opposition to the court’s decision.
“Human morals are at stake… we must save ourselves from this vice,” another chimed in.
“Last night was certainly the most concentrated three hours of hatred I have experienced in my life,” Chamberlain told Xtra the day after the meeting.
Zipline to Surrey 2010. Forget books. Gay playwright Berend McKenzie is introducing Tassles, a vignette about the double whammy of being both black and gay from his one-man show to an auditorium of Grade 8 and 9 Clayton Heights Secondary School students.
“The name of my show is Niggerfag,” McKenzie tells them. Slight pandemonium, along the lines of “Who-o-o-a, he said nigger and fag in one sentence!”
Another day, another Surrey school, McKenzie sees the same obviously gay teen who’s skipped class to take in every performance. He ends up lipsynching it.
“I went into the experience expecting a backlash…. The title, what was it going to do,” McKenzie admits.
“There was none.”
The kids saw the potential.
“I think this is going to revolutionize school,” one Fraser Heights Secondary School student told a teacher who asked for reviews.
The students took it further, making their own written commitment to stop racism and homophobic bullying in their school.
The Surrey School Board may be getting it, too.
On Oct 22, the second installment of the Dare to Stand Out conference that already had a Vancouver run will pitch its anti-homophobia education tent — with the board’s blessing — in Tamanawis Secondary.
Tamanawis was once the only school in Surrey to house a gay-straight alliance. Now there are 10 GSAs in the district.
Seven years after that contentious, homophobic board meeting about three harmless books, Chamberlain says the word from the current school board about Dare to Stand Out is “all systems go.
“No concerns from the board, no hitches along the way,” reports Chamberlain, now with the Pride Education Network and a chief organizer of the conference, which will also feature McKenzie and his play.
Yes. It can get better.
Even as we get ready to wear purple on Oct 20 to attend a vigil in the Village to commemorate the deaths of those who felt it couldn’t.
And even as we get ready to stand in solidarity on the steps of Vancouver’s city hall on Oct 23 to oppose the hate crimes that are still targeting us here and around the world.
The sea change in Surrey is proof.
The ability of artists and activists like McKenzie to move youth to action on their own behalf is proof.
“The surprising things have been the students’ willingness to be honest about how they feel,” McKenzie says.
“I’ve had one girl say, ‘I was bullied, I was pushed into lockers,’” he says.
He has also had guys saying, “I don’t believe in homosexuality. It’s wrong, I don’t agree with you” — who have then been willing to discuss it.
“The thing is to let them have that discussion.”