On June 14th, the Burnaby Board of Education will vote on a proposed anti-homophobia and heterosexism policy, Policy 5.45. If it passes, Burnaby will become the 13th school district in BC to adopt such a policy. The goal of the policy is “To ensure that all members of the school community learn to work together in an atmosphere of respect and safety, free from homophobia, transphobia, antigay harassment and or/exclusion regardless of their sexual orientation of gender identity”.
It sounds like a bit of a no-brainer; who wouldn’t want to pass a policy designed to foster respect and safety? Yet no policy ever debated by the School Board has caused such uproar as this one.
The Burnaby Teachers Association (BTA) first pointed out the horrible bullying faced by gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and questioning students and teachers twenty-one years ago. The BTA suggested at the time that the School Board should adopt an anti-homophobia and transphobia policy to make Burnaby schools safer and more inclusive for everyone. The School Board ignored the issue, but the BTA resurrected it in 1999. Again, their request was ignored.
Meanwhile, LGBTQ students and teachers continued to be bullied, verbally and physically abused, and sometimes even assaulted for their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
In 2001, four men with baseball bats beat Aaron Webster to death simply because he was gay. The identities of the murderers weren’t discovered until 2003, but it was proven that all four were youths from Burnaby, and two of them were under eighteen. They had driven 45 minutes to Stanley Park to have some “sport” beating up gay men. Once again, people pointed to the rampant homophobia in Burnaby schools, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the Burnaby Board of Education finally did something about the issue.
The Burnaby Board of Education spent two years putting together a draft anti-homophobia and heterosexism policy. They posted it on their website as a Notice of Motion. They sent information on the draft policy out to all of the PACs, and the District Parent Advisory Committee. They even made sure the policy got front-page coverage in both of the local papers: the Burnaby Now and the Burnaby Newsleader.
However, just when the policy was set to pass, anti-gay protesters showed up, arguing that they hadn’t been informed about the policy and accusing the School Board of having a hidden agenda. Flyers went out from an organization called Parents Voice, accusing the Burnaby School Board of trying to indoctrinate youth into becoming gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or transsexual.
At the last two meetings of the Burnaby School Board, protesters showed up to speak against the proposed anti-homophobia and heterosexism policy. Some had Bible verses written on placards, while others waved signs with sayings like “Respect Parental Rights”.
However, at the following School Board meeting on May 10th, students countered the protesters with their own rally, chanting “Five-Four-Five! Let the gays thrive!”
After the meeting, I sat down to talk with a number of the student demonstrators. A couple of them identified as either gay or bi, but most were straight students out to show their support for their LGBTQ friends, classmates, and teachers. One of them pointed out, “They want us to respect parental rights, but what about student rights? We’re the ones who have to go to school every day. We’re the ones who have to watch our friends get bullied in the hallways just for being gay.”
The opponents of Policy 5.45 may feel that Burnaby schools teaching that homosexuality is not a sin somehow impedes their rights as parents, but who’s answering the question the very intelligent Moscrop student pointed out: what about student rights?
What about the rights of students – all students – to feel safe in their schools? If education is compulsory, then does not our society have a duty to make schools as safe and welcoming as possible? If we do not take steps to make sure that our students feel safe and respected, valued and supported, than is compulsory education anything other than a prison for children?
Education is the foundation of society; no-one should be made to feel excluded. No-one should be bullied because of their sexual orientation or gender identity; no-one should feel that their community is invisible – or worse, does not exist. No-one should be made to feel alone because their school refuses to acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ people.
An anti-homophobia and heterosexism policy will do more than dealing with bullying, it will show LGBTQ students that they are not alone. It will help the School District tackle the high drop-out rates among LGBTQ students, as well as the high suicide rates. And although it may be too late to help Aaron Webster, it will help to ensure that no Burnaby youth ever again thinks it’s okay to beat up, assault, or murder another queer person.
Note: On June 14, a “Wave of Pink” rally is being organized in Burnaby in support of Policy 5.45. Get more info at the Facebook event page.