Transgender Education Policies Face Catholic Opposition in Canada, U.S.

Edmonton Catholic School Board meeting in September

Policies designed to protect transgender students are facing Catholic opposition in regions of Canada and the U.S. Though some school leaders have failed to prioritize students’ well-being, important progress is being made nevertheless.

Below, Bondings 2.0 offers stories revealing Catholics’ differing responses when it comes to transgender youth inclusion in schools.

Edmonton’s Catholic Schools

The Edmonton Catholic School Board in Alberta, Canada, passed a first reading of a policy which would allow students to self-identify their genders and therefore use corresponding bathrooms and/or participate on athletic teams according to their self-identification.

Consideration of such a change emerged after a 7-year-old girl sought to use the girls’ bathroom at her Catholic primary school but was forced to use a gender-neutral one instead. A September meeting regarding the proposed policy erupted into shouting and tears, and no vote was called as a result.

The Edmonton Catholic School Board’s ongoing failure to prioritize students’ interests or even maintain decorum has cast doubt on its abilities in the eyes of many, including the province’s Education Minister David Eggen. [Because Catholic schools in Canada are funded by local provinces, their governing boards are answerable to provincial officials.]

Eggen expressed his lack of confidence in the Catholic school leaders to Metro News. He hired facilitator David Cummings to, in the minister’s words, help members to “collectively and individually to improve their governance skills.” The minister also reminded all involved that he had power to dissolve the Board, which would be “a step that I must take seriously and I hope Edmonton Catholic takes seriously.”

Beyond the Board’s general dysfunction, critics have highlighted remarks by Trustee Larry Kowalczyk as especially harmful. The sole vote against the drafted policy, Kowalczyk has also claimed that trans people have a “mental disorder” and erroneously argued that transitioning contradicts church teaching, reported the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Kowalczyk further called LGBT advocates “God-hating activists,” according to the Edmonton Sunwhich quoted Minister Eggen’s response:

” ‘We all saw some of the individual comments that still spoke to a lack of education around transgender issues and equality in general and certainly we know, and Mr. Cummings saw it in living colour, just how quickly things break down into animosity with this specific board. . .It’s very important that people respect each others opinions but also don’t overstep and start to just simply misrepresent both science and the letter of the law.’ “

Directly contradicting Kowalczyk’s assertion that the Board should be loyal to Archbishop Richard Smith rather than the provincial government, Eggen said there was “a misrepresentation between who carries the law here in the province of Alberta.”

LGBT advocates and parents are also concerned that the Edmonton Catholic School Board will not be able to protect students sufficiently. Transgender parent Marni Panas told CBC:

” ‘I don’t think there are people that are on this board that are even capable, practically not even willing, to create safe environments for these students. . .Clearly the minister has to step in and take some responsibility for this.

” ‘Every day that we’re waiting without a policy, a child is getting hurt, a child is hurting. . .This doesn’t really help that child feel any better.’ “

Kris Wells, a faculty member with the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies, questioned whether the proposed policy around which such controversy has erupted is even progress. Telling CBC it receives a “C” grade at most, he continued:
 ” ‘It really meets a minimal standard, it’s not inspiring, it’s not comprehensive. . .It’s really a disappointment and a letdown for a board that actually promised to do the work.”
Wells cited the policy’s failure to grant students a right to gay-straight alliances, a lack of protections for LGBTQ staff, and no accountability measures for the Board. Noting the significant discrimination and harm trans youth face, Wells wrote in the Edmonton Journal that each day the proposed policy is delayed, LGBTQ students are at risk. He said, in part:
 “Clearly, many school boards across Alberta have actively resisted and failed in their duties to protect LGBTQ students and teachers from irreparable harm. . .Every day we are without provincial policies and guidelines is another day LGBTQ students and teachers remain at risk. I hope it will not take a tragedy for our government to end all forms of discrimination in our schools. This is no longer a matter of opinion, but an expectation of law, and a moral imperative of our new government.”
Wells also claimed the district’s superintendent, Joan Carr, threatened his job by writing to Wells’ then-supervisor about “relentless” tweets and “disparaging comments.” This email was an effort, in Well’s view, “to silence me and have me dismissed from my job.”  Wells had initially offered suggestions as the policy was drafted, but was barred formally though he continued commenting publicly as an academic according to Metro News.
A second reading of the policy is scheduled for November 24 after a public review period, at which time this policy will hopefully be approved. For a Q & A about relevant Edmonton school policies, check out a primer from the Edmonton Journal by clicking here.
Saskatchewan Catholic Schools
Unlike Edmonton where Catholic leadership is resisting inclusive policies, church schools in Saskatchewan are advancing supports for LGBT students. Progress, particularly when it comes to gay-straight alliances and transgender protections, even comes with the bishop’s blessing and expands existing efforts. These efforts include teacher trainings and non-binding directives about gay and lesbian students from the Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards Association.

Though local politics have stalled passage of laws similar to those in Ontario and Alberta which mandate gay-straight alliances if requested by students or parents, Brett Salkeld of the Archdiocese of Regina admitted to The Star Phoenix:

” ‘We know it’s coming. We know we’re going to get requests in our schools. Our people have been working on this well in advance. . .We don’t want to be at the centre of a public controversy.’ “

Bishop Don Bolen of Saskatoon said church leaders sought to respond to students’ needs by offering guidelines that will detail how to handle student requests for LGBT groups and answer questions gender identity. He explained further:

” ‘Life is messy. Neither the church’s teaching or GSAs in isolation are going to avoid that messiness of life.’ “

Education Minister Don Morgan is pleased with church leaders’ attitudes, suggesting that legislation is unnecessary as long as all schools comply with existing policies to ensure LGBT students are supported.

Nebraska

Further south in Nebraska, the state’s Catholic Conference, in conjunction with other conservative groups, has asked the Nebraska School Activities Association to draft a policy on transgender students in athletics. The desired policy, reported Crux, would deny students’ gender identity and mandate participation according to assigned sex at birth. A policy may emerge as early as this month.

Progress is Needed

Returning to the Edmonton debate, Dr. Lorne Warneke of the University of Alberta advocated powerfully about the need to protect transgender students everywhere. As a psychiatrist specializing in gender, she wrote in the Edmonton Journal about the damaging impact that stigmatizing gender identities can have:

“Not allowing a child to express their true gender identity dampens a child’s spirit. This leads to internalized shame and guilt for being who they are, and to poor self-esteem and a negative self-concept. By adolescence, if forced to lead a life of a lie, this can lead to drug/alcohol abuse, isolation, school dropout, self-injury and suicide attempts. This is unforgivable, particularly if it happens in the context of religious dogma.”

Alternatively, supporting a student in expressing their authentic gender identity leads to better happiness, self-confidence, and school performance and more broadly promotes diversity which, Warneke said, strengthens society. Albertans should “be proud” that their province is generally supportive of LGBT communities, but the psychiatrist continued:

“Everyone has the right to their own religious beliefs of course, but such beliefs should not be imposed on others against their will. . .In in the same vein, Edmonton’s Catholic board is publicly funded to provide education to students, not to act as a church. . .It is sad that organizations where greater understanding and acceptance should be expected instead take the stance of being stigmatizing and rejecting.”

Conclusion:  

In September, when the Edmonton debate began, I commented on the situation, noting that Catholic leaders must discern and enact policies which meet every student’s needs, welcome all into safe spaces where education can occur, and cherish each young person as a child of God.  The same is true in these current debates.

Making harsh statements, challenging governmental authority, and spreading transphobic misinformation do the opposite. It should not take government intervention for church leaders to act with basic dignity and respect towards any student. Their response should come from being Christians, rooted in the Gospel, called to seek the common good of all people.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

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