Dented Blue Mercedes

Mercedes Allen's picture
Mercedes Allen is a graphic designer and advocate for transsexual and transgender communities in Alberta. She writes on equality, human rights, LGBT and sexual minority issues in Canada, and the cross-border pollination of far-right spin. She blogs at Dented Blue Mercedes and operates a trans information website at http://www.albertatrans.org/

Something brewing beneath transphobic ads in Ontario

| October 5, 2011

On September 28th, Charles McVety's Institute for Canadian Values pushed a proposed curriculum for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) into the forefront of the Ontario election, with a full-page ad published in the National Post. The ad implied that diversity and anti-bullying education might somehow cause gender confusion for kids who aren't trans. When Post publisher Douglas Kelly released an apology two days later, he acknowledged that the ad "exceeded the bounds of civil discourse... in its tone and manipulative use of a picture of a young girl; in the suggestion that such teaching "corrupts" children, with everything that such a charge implies; and in its singling out of groups of people with whose sexuality the group disagrees." Even so, Sun Media picked up the ad, running it in the Toronto Sun. Following McVety's lead, the Ontario PCs have been distributing their own fliers warning about "Cross-dressing for six-year-olds." PC leader Tim Hudak is now defending those flyers, and The Globe and Mail also notes that many of the points on them are deliberately misleading:

"Still, the PC flyer warns parents against classrooms that would introduce concepts such as 'cross dressing for six-year-olds' and 'reclaiming Valentine's Day [by celebrating] sexual diversity with a kissing booth.'

"The statements aren't based on what was proposed, however. The Valentine's Day example was an idea to give chocolates to students who complete a 'school climate' survey. As for cross-dressing, the... page cited in the PC flyer is a list of 'Significant International' gay and lesbian individuals, including Ellen Degeneres, Rosie O'Donnell, Virginia Woolf and Harvey Milk."

The flyer (like McVety's ad) is a litany of omissions and distortions (i.e. sexual identity isn't even brought up until 8th grade discussion), and more than half of it is devoted to an allegation that the 2011 K-12 Curriculum recommends not informing parents, and that parents don't have a say. In reality, Challenging Homophobia and Heterosexism: A K-12 Curriculum Resource Guide speaks of "Sending a school newsletter home at the beginning of each term" as a "best practice for keeping parents/guardians/caregivers informed of all upcoming equity topics in the classroom," although lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT)-specific subjects aren't necessarily singled out. The curriculum in question, by the way, was already abandoned by the McGuinty government.

And by adopting these tactics, conservatives are demonstrating in plain fashion why this education is necessary.

This battle is occurring concurrently with several conflicts over LGBT youth and trans rights in Canada and the U.S. Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) became controversial after two schools banned rainbows and all expressions of support for LGBT people, tried to ban GSAs, and then allowed "SIDEspaces," on the provision that they adhered to doctrine that stated "gay is not an identity," that gay students are "immoral and sinful" and that LGBT people were required to live a life of chastity. Burnaby enacted an LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policy, and a parents group emerged in defiance, claiming that protecting LGBT students was an open assault on the rights of Christians. The Edmonton Public School Board has also proposed an anti-bullying ordinance. Much of the rhetoric occurring in all these places has been borrowed from a conflict in California over the FAIR Education Act, which calls for inclusion of positive LGBT role models in history teaching. Groups like the Traditional Values Coalition have ramped up the panic with claims that LGBT-positive diversity education is "molesting the minds of young impressionable youth," spun in a way to subconsciously associate LGBT-positivity with pedophilia -- something that McVety has obviously followed the lead on:

"'This is really sexual exploitation of children. And yes that's a strong term and a strong charge, but this is truly sexually violating little boys and girls,' he told LifeSiteNews."

[And it is at this point that I remind readers that these attitudes come from one segment of faith, rather than all faith. LGBT-positive Christians and their support (especially when they respond to misleading memes like McVety's) is important and appreciated]

Following the lead of US conservatives, Canadian far-right groups have taken to referring to any inclusion of LGBT mention as "sexually explicit material," and claiming that the moves are "aimed at eradicating all traces of Judeo-Christian morality from the education system." It's a no-compromise agenda which at its heart is actually less about parental rights (although it will exploit them for outrage) or fears of confusion (which requires one to believe that children's and teens' minds are empty vessels which will accept anything you put in them -- something any parent can tell you doesn't happen) and more about the fear of the growing acceptance of LGBT people in society. A commentator at OneNewsNow explains that: "Christian parents... should be concerned about the kids who make up the rest of their children's generation. After all, they'll be the ones voting in the coming years on same-sex marriage laws..."

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the callous response that far right groups in the U.S. have given regarding a wave of suicides among gay and trans teens. Some have gone as far as to say that homophobic bullying is "part of the maturational process," and that bullied youth who commit suicide either did so because gay activists seduced them into homosexuality or else because they had guilty consciences.

The outrage over these flyers also takes place amidst growing activism for inclusion of transsexual and transgender people in human rights legislation. Trans people have been increasingly recognized as an emergent civil rights movement, with gender identity and gender expression being added to legislation in many parts of the U.S. -- though few in Canada have done the same. Earlier this year, a Private Member's Bill from now-retired NDP MP Bill Siksay sought to change that.

The bill has the dubious honour of being a human rights bill that members of a governing party actually actively lobbied their constituents against. LaVar Payne, Conservative MP for Medicine Hat, sent letters to any constituents who wrote claiming that extending rights to trans people would would infringe on freedom of speech. Minster of Justice Rob Nicholson claimed that trans people were already protected by existing legislation, yet transsexuals are only "read in" to legislation (and therefore subject to legal interpretation), while other transgender people are not included at all. MP Blake Richards (Wild Rose) wrote in rural papers within his constituency to raise washroom fears, something that at least three other Conservative Members of Parliament expressed in interviews across Canada. And Maurice Vellacott (Saskatoon-Wanuskewin) forwarded a letter from "constituent" Jim Hughes, President of Campaign Life Coalition, to other Members of Parliament, which alleged that:

"Creating a right to 'gender identity' and 'gender expression' will result in male cross-dressers and drag queens having the legal right to use girls bathrooms.

"... Imagine a young girl -- your daughter or granddaughter -- goes into a washroom and finds a man there. How is the young girl to determine whether or not the man in the bathroom is a 'peeping tom,' a rapist or a pedophile? It is unconscionable for any legislator to purposefully place her in such a compromising position. Furthermore, if the young girl reacts negatively to the man's presence and he turns out to be a transsexual, she could potentially be charged with a 'hate crime.'

"Proponents of C-389 will downplay or even deny the impact on public washrooms, but cases in the USA have already arisen on the basis of 'gender identity' rights, such as those which C-389 seeks to enshrine in Canadian law."

The latter statement is in fact entirely false. Over 130 jurisdictions in North America have extended rights inclusion to trans people (some as far back as 1975), with no consequential pattern of women or children preyed upon by trans people and / or with trans-inclusive legislation somehow being used to enable predatory behaviour in washrooms. Transsexuals have already been using public restrooms for decades -- there is no law preventing them from doing so, and trans rights bills change nothing in that regard.

Human rights are generally thought to apply to all people, but when a group is subjected to so much ignorance that prejudice becomes likely or inevitable, we specify them as an included class, to send a signal to the public. The reliance of even some MPs on an argument that assumes trans people to be predatory clearly proved the necessity. And so the bill narrowly passed in the House of Commons in the spring -- but died during the election call, while awaiting ratification by the Senate. This bill was reintroduced during the first week of the new session, and is expected to come up for Second Reading in as early as six months.  For it to have any chance in the current Parliament, Canadians will need to express their support.

The struggles of LGBT youth and trans people are both being framed as a conflict of rights. But comparing the rights of people to participate in society to the rights of people who want to intimidate and prevent them from doing so is a false equivalence. Anti-bullying ordinances, positive portrayals of LGBT people in teachings and student-driven initiatives to support LGBT youth are not unreasonable things to ask.

During discussion of the policy proposed in Edmonton, columnists at the National Post complained that the particular ordinance called for affirming LGBT kids. Youth absolutely do have a need and a right to be affirmed as people. The rights of kids to have a safe space should not be trumped by the rights of people to make it hostile.

A longer version of this post appears at DentedBlueMercedes.

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