Remember queer youth when casting your school trustee votes

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In the wake of the recent wave of queer teen suicides due to homophobic bullying, it would be a mistake for Ontario voters to trivialize the Oct. 25 province-wide municipal election of our school trustees. School trustees are also elected in four other provinces across Canada over the next few weeks. If education is a great equalizer in our society, many schools are still not doing enough to provide equal access of education for our LGBTQ students.

Too often, we tend to merely pay attention to LGBTQ students when one of them commits suicide. Last month, we witnessed a string of queer-related teen suicides across the U.S., with one of the victims being an eighth-grader who killed himself in Texas because he was "bullied to death" for being gay, according to his family.

And last month, an Orangeville, Ontario, same-sex couple, Jeanine Blanchette, 21, and Chantal Dube, 17, were found dead in a forested area. According to family, the Orangeville police and OPP didn't conduct a serious search for the two missing women, one of whom had mental health problems and "kept her feelings to herself." In Oct. 2007, a 13-year-old boy, Shaquille Wisdom, living in the Durham, Ont., region hanged himself after bullied both online and in school for being gay. Even though family members knew that Wisdom was physically bullied and "stuffed into a garbage can" a few days before his suicide, school officials claimed they were unaware of any instances of bullying and pointed to the school's "gay-straight alliance" as a good example.

Canadian studies suggest that approximately 32 per cent of lesbian-gay-bisexual youth have contemplated or attempted suicide compared to seven per cent of all youth. The statistics for transgender youth is often worse or non-existent. However, one of the largest trans-focused studies made so far found that 65 per cent of trans people have contemplated suicide. Learn more about the sobering statistics by clicking here.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer teens depend on our elected school trustees to provide a safe and inclusive school environment for all students. According to the 2006 handbook from the Ontario School Board Association, school trustees decide on a range of issues such as "staffing, administration of schools, instructional material, facilities and equipment and student support services." 

In 2002, an Oshawa Catholic school board received media attention when the Catholic trustees refused the request of a Grade 12 student to attend a school prom with his 21-year-old boyfriend. In 2004, a school board plan to include same sex books in school libraries sparked a heated debate from the community in London, Ont.

According to the first National Climate Survey on homophobia in Canadian schools, 73 per cent of LGBTQ students reported at least one unsafe place at school compared to 49 per cent for non-LGBTQ students. Another key finding reported that over half of LGBTQ students "did not feel accepted at school, and almost half felt they could not be themselves, compared to one-fifth of straight students." The full report is downloadable by clicking here

Scott Harrison, the current school trustee representing public schools at Scarborough Centre (Ward 19), stated in an email correspondence that he is against bullying of any kind and supports the Safe and Caring Schools policy of the Toronto District School Board.

That policy is not worth the paper it is written on if it is not actually enforced on the ground. While the Toronto District School Board has approved a policy of Anti-Homophobia and Sexual Orientation Equity, the National Climate Survey reported that 55 per cent of Canadian students do not know if their school had a policy or procedure for reporting incidents of homophobia.

Deborah Courville, an education officer for the Ontario Ministry of Education, clarified the issue in a 2007 article in Xtra, Canada's gay and lesbian news magazine, when she said that it is up to the individual school boards and teachers to implement actual discussion of queer issues in sex education class. If teachers feel uncomfortable discussing queer issues in the classroom, its not hard to imagine how much worse it is like to be a queer kid in a hostile school environment.

I decided to email several trustee candidates running for publicly funded Catholic schools. Carol William, candidate for the Catholic school trustee at Ward 8, kindly emailed back to inform me that Catholic schools are dictated by the biblical teachings and as such, they condemn "any violence against homosexual persons," but they are also bounded to teach children that homosexual acts are ungodly.

Meanwhile, another Catholic school trustee candidate from Ward 8, Theresa Pastore, expressed sympathy toward queer teen suicides but she didn't believe "Grade 3 children needed to know about homosexuality," and she will always present the issue of homosexuality as a "factual matter only." She added that: "[children] must know from the day they are taught about [homosexuality] that it is a sin."

Unfortunately, religious condemnations of homosexuality do contribute to the victimization of LGBTQ teens and adults alike.

To make the school environment even more unwelcoming to our children, the Campaign Life Coalition is publicly targeting candidates that seek to "push failed sex education policies," as well as to oppose the "gay lobby" interested in "ramming through homosexual propaganda materials" into children. You can read more about this on their website.

In April, religious parents in Ontario successfully used anti-sex and anti-queer fear-mongering tactics to force Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to abandon a sex education program for Ontario school children that would have been introduced for the 2010 - 2011 school years. The proposed sex education program would allow "Grade 3 students to being taught about homosexuality, Grade 6 students about masturbation and concepts of oral and anal sex being in the Grade 7 lesson plan." 

According to the head of the Canada Christian College, "it is unconscionable to teach eight-year-old children about same-sex marriage, sexual orientation and gender identity."

Despite religious opposition, school trustees should hire educators who will tell the truth about homosexuality and gender diversity to our children at an early age. Public Health Canada reported that over 105,000 junior and senior high school students in Grades 9 to 12 already identified as non heterosexual or are questioning their sexual orientation in a survey conducted by the TDSB.

Meanwhile, Grossman, D`Augellli, and Salter (2006) reported that the mean age of which transgender youth become aware of their gender identity is 10.4 year.

The Ontario sex education curriculum fiasco only affirmed what the president and founder of the York Region Branch of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays has been saying: Children are taught to hate and homophobia is an institutionalized hatred taught by bigoted and/or ignorant parents.

Taxpayers and anyone who cares about the lives of bullied children should elect trustees who will strengthen inclusiveness and diversity in our schools. After all, more than 250,000 of our children attended schools under the publicly funded Toronto District school Board and 93,000 students are under the jurisdiction of the public Toronto Catholic District School Board. If school bullying is not addressed, students will suffer both academically and psychologically, and we will all lose out in the end.

Our kids depend on us to exercise our power and resources to ensure that no one can get away with their open bigotry and spread toxic messages that destroy both self-esteem and lives.

Inside Toronto, the Toronto community online newspaper, has information on the Toronto trustee candidates who are running and where they stand on issues, here's a link to their guide.

Canadians can also get involved in the Safe Schools Campaign hosted by Eagle Canada.  

Casey C. B. Yau graduated from York University with a bachelor degree in Political Science and Psychology and is a regular poster on babble.

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