A Jesuit priest in Toronto, Canada, has emerged as an important voice in support of a national bill for transgender equality.
Fr. Gilles Mongeau, SJ, associate professor of systematic theology at Regis College, Toronto, has spoken out in favor of bill C-16 which would include gender identity and expressions as protected categories in Canada’s Human Rights Act. According to an article in America magazine, Fr. Mongeau stated:
“To the extent that it seeks to protect the quest of trans people to be themselves in a safe environment, Bill C-16 is something to be applauded by Christians.”
The Jesuit priest acknowledges that biological sex and gender may be more complex phenomena than simple physical characteristics. He follows his brother Jesuit, Pope Francis, in describing church outreach to transgender people, saying:
“We must begin from the fact that the church, at this time, has no official teaching about gender identity or trans persons.”
“[Mongeau] underlines the need to, as Pope Francis suggests, accompany real people in real situations. For his part, though the Holy Father has been critical of ‘gender theory,’ he has been sensitive to preferred pronouns in the context of real encounter. That is reflected in his comments about a letter he received from a transgender man: ‘He who was a she, but is a he,’ the pope said.”
The question about pronoun usage reveals a more important question about our understanding of transgender people as human beings, Mongeau noted:
“The question of pronouns cannot be separated from the real lives of people. Asking these questions in the abstract is part of the problem we are facing because it makes it possible to evoke the image or idea that trans people somehow serve an agenda of attacking the moral fiber of society or serve an anti-Christian agenda. Trans people, in my experience, are trying to live healthy, productive and (sometimes) spiritually fruitful lives.”
In the America article, the need for equal civil protections for transgender people was expressed by Janice Towndrow, a Christian transgender woman from Toronto:
“I used to wish I had cancer because when you have cancer all the family rallies around you. But when you’re trans, you don’t have family, they kick you out.
‘It is very difficult,’ she says, even ‘comparable to biblical times,’ when lepers were shunned by the community. ‘You’re distanced; you’re pulled from your family; you’re cast out of the community. So you don’t see your children anymore. If you had a job, you probably don’t have it anymore.’ “
And she noted how important it is for Christian churches to support transgender people and Bill c-16:
“Christian support for Bill C-16 would make a huge difference for transgender people looking to lead healthy spiritual lives, who are often alienated by communities of faith. As Ms. Towndrow explains, ‘I think somewhere along the line, everyone [in the transgender community] turns their back on the church because the church has turned its back on them.”
The bill passed Canada’s House of Commons in December, by a vote of 248-40, and is now being sent to the Senate.
While opponents of the bill continue to make their voices heard, we can thank God for courageous Catholic leaders like Fr. Mongeau and for communities like Our Lady of Lourdes parish for showing their public support for transgender equality.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 31, 2017
Catholic education is a foremost way by which the church influences the world, educating millions of students, Catholic and non-Catholic, globally. Given this impact, how church officials address LGBT issues matters significantly and is therefore, frequently, a source of contention. But when done well, Catholic education can do much good for LGBT youth and their peers. This Bondings 2.0 post highlights how the complexities are playing out in several countries.
The Catholic Church in Scotland will begin training its teachers for gender and sexuality competency inclusive of LGBTI concerns, reported Pink News. A church spokesperson said the church has a “zero tolerance approach” to end discrimination, continuing:
” ‘The Church is working with the Catholic Head Teacher association to ensure that all teachers have adequate knowledge, understanding, and training and feel confident in addressing all aspects of relationships education, including LGBTI matters, in an appropriate and sensitive way.’ “
This commitment comes as the whole nation of Scotland focuses on inclusion in schools, led by the campaign Time for Inclusive Education (TIE) and endorsed by all major political parties. Sixteen years ago, legislators repealed Section 28 which had barred gay-positive education in schools. The repeal did, however, not address what material should be taught. TIE’s objective now, according to The Herald, is “calling for mandatory teaching of LGBTI issues in schools to end discrimination and bullying” to save lives and equalize all students.
Questions remain about how the church’s stated commitment will be concretely enacted, given negative church teachings on homosexuality, For instance, working only through Catholic organizations may limit engagement with actual LGBT people and their families. KaleidoScotnoted:
“The ‘appropriate and sensitive’ way to deal with such matters would arguably be through engagement with the very people directly affected, and liaison with teaching unions and other non-Catholic organisations would surely inform the Church’s thinking. The statement also fails to give any commitment to the teaching of LGBTI matters in Catholic schools. Furthermore, in some respects, the Church spokesperson’s statement suggests that it fails to see the need for significant changes in the way its schools operate.”
It remains to be seen what the Scottish Catholic Church’s commitment to training teachers will mean; hopefully, it will involve liberating education rather then relying on past methods which have suppressed LGBT students and staff.
Peter Norden, a professor at RMIT University and a former Jesuit priest, said failing to support LGBT youth may violate international law. Norden published an article in the Australian Journal of Human Rights saying church teaching about homosexuality can harm young students. According to The Age, he wrote :
” ‘In many ways, same-sex attracted students are being asked to remain voiceless and invisible in some Catholic schools. . .For students that are same-sex attracted, they can be treated like second class citizens.’ “
Australian Catholic schools, which educate a fifth of the country’s students, may violate the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child, Norden said. This Convention guarantees free expression, protection from violence, and dignified education. But a 2006 study of Catholic school students by Norden found high rates of self-injury and suicide, calling into question whether church officials were attending to LGBT youth’s needs:
” ‘You would hope an organisation that values empathy, mercy and engagement might have cause to review their situation.”
LGBT organizations have expressed concerns with Catholic education which, as in the United States, has religious exemptions for how it operates. Micah Scott of the Minus 18, an LGBTI youth organization, told The Age:
” ‘Many topics, including sexual and gender diversity, are unspoken. It sends a message to already vulnerable young people that who they are is institutionally forbidden, and that they should be ashamed of their identity.’ “
Catholic officials have pushed back on these claims, including Ross Fox who directs the National Catholic Education Commission and Stephen Elder, chief executive of Catholic Education Melbourne, who said schools were already focusing on eliminating bullying and unsafe behaviors.
On the other hand, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher’s election document listed the Safe Schools Program as one of the top four issues about which Catholics should be concerned, two others being religious liberty and marriage. The document says the Program “introduces children and teens to the concept of ‘gender fluidity’ and includes activites such as role-playing being in a sexually active same-sex relationship.”
Intrachurch conflicts were apparent, too, during a panel at the National Catholic Education Commission Conference held in June, reported The Record. Panelists largely opposed a proposed plebiscite on marriage equality, including Bishop Greg O’Kelly of Port Pirie who said the church should not campaign on the issue, but also that same-gender marriages have “submerged” the rights of children. But Carmel Nash, deputy chair of Catholic School Parents Australia, said though the church’s teachings should be respected, “many parents have probably, rightly or wrongly, moved on from the at view” and they should be respected having done so, too.
Alberta’s Catholic schools have been wracked by LGBT controversy for over a year. The Edmonton Catholic School Board ‘s consideration of a transgender policy led to one meeting become a “shouting match” last fall. Additionally, the Board approved“just discrimination” in schools as a draft policy last December.
A new independent report questions whether the Board remains viable, noted the CBC. Donald Cummings, a consultant and the report’s author, described the Edmonton Boards governance challenges as “systemic, deep and resistant to change.” He said third-party mediation would be necessary to resolve problems. Alberta’s Education Minister, David Eggen, has intervened and assigned a deputy minister to oversee improvements by and greater accountability for the Board.
Catholic educators worldwide are increasingly being asked to grapple with LGBT inclusion and support, as more students come out and at younger ages, and more faculty and staff enter into same-gender relationships or marriages.
But one Canadian school in Toronto, Loretto College School, revealed a powerful way forward that helps entire communities. Jenna Tenn-Yuk, a spoken word artist, reported on Health and Wellness day at the all-girls high school. During the day’s assembly, the school’s chaplain and six other staff affirmed LGBT students and championed gay-straight alliances. Tenn-Yuk wrote on her blog:
“Staff were standing in solidarity with LGBTQ+ students at the front of the school. . .I was deeply moved and quite emotional before I had to speak. I kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is happening right now. How would my life be different is this happened at my Catholic high school?’ . . .
“There was so much light and warmth in the room and it was an honour to be in that space. This is the start of something beautiful and will impact generations of students to come.”
That light and warmth should be what every student in Catholic education experiences, especially those who are marginalized like LGBT students. This post shows that while progress is, in many ways, being made, much work remains.
As of March 31st ,the 61 schools districts in Canada’s Alberta province submitted draft LGBTQ policies, including all government-funded Catholic schools. For months, the issue of drafting these policies has caused disputes, and even after this latest step there is not yet a visible resolution.
Alberta school districts were required to submit draft policies to the provincial government’s Education Ministry, which will now review them to ensure legal compliance. This ends a process that Minister David Eggen called “a very successful exercise,” but is likely not the end. All 17 Catholic districts submitted policies, though the policies’ contents, as well as some officials’ willingness to participate in the process, have varied. For example:
The Medicine Hat Catholic Board of Education added protections for sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression into existing statements.
St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Schools in Leduc remained silent about gender identity.
Fort McMurray Catholic Schools will require transgender students to use only gender neutral restrooms and private locker rooms.
Calgary Catholic Schools has yet to release its policy to the public, but Calgary’s Bishop Fred Henry said if the Education Ministry refused to budge, “we’re going to end up in court,” according to a columnist in the
Eggen differed from Henry’s approach, reaffirming the Education Ministry’s commitment to finding resolutions which protect human rights while respecting “religious sensitivities.” He told the Calgary Herald:
“Transgender students, LGBTQ youth, will have the same rights and freedoms as any other child here in the province of Alberta. . . We’re not out to do anything but protect a very vulnerable group of students.”
Despite his desire for common ground, that has included a meeting with the bishops, Eggen and the Education Ministry can try to motivate districts’ compliance through funding cuts or the dissolution of school boards if necessary. Minister Eggen said all policies should be in place by the coming academic year.
The possibility of sanctions has arisen before. Bishop Henry’s comments about a lawsuit are but the latest incident from Catholic officials who have opposed these policies aimed at protecting LGBTQ students. Henry himself described LGBTQ guidelines released by the Education Ministry in January as “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic,” writing a second letter in which he refused to apologize for these comments. Other bishops released their own letters of concern, though with far less hyperbole.
The Edmonton Catholic School Board’s actions around a transgender policy have repeatedly made headlines since last summer. Their meetings erupted into a “shouting match” last fall and the Board approved “just discrimination” of some youth in a draft policy last December.
As this process in Alberta ends one stage and begins another, it is worth noting the role Catholic education has played beyond simply being a battleground. This entire process began after a 7-year-old transgender student in Edmonton Catholic Schools sought restroom use consistent with her gender identity. While ecclesial and education officials’ reactions have been split about responding, it was Catholic education which kickstarted a province-wide conversation about sexuality and gender identity.
That conversation has now advanced, but is not over as it seems likely some Catholic districts’ policies will either not meet the legal requirements or be widely different from optional guidelines released in February. But whatever comes next, a question from a columnist in Metro Newsshould help all involved keep perspective:
“. . . [I]n the battle between civil rights and religious freedoms how many LGBTQ children will be collateral damage?”
Charged rhetoric and confrontation by Catholic officials has not prioritized students’ well-being to this point. Hopefully, Catholic bishops and school board members will come to see that protecting LGBTQ students is a vital part of Catholic education and not at odds with the schools’ missions. Otherwise, the process of developing LGBTQ-specific policies may continue for many months, and that would be a defeat for all.
Ahead of a March 31st deadline, the Edmonton Catholic School Board (ECSB) passed a policy on transgender students. But many LGBT advocates are disappointed with last Tuesday’s vote, saying the new policy is insufficient and even meaningless.
Trustees approved the policy in a 5-2 vote, reported Global News. It states that, because “all children are unique, loved by God and created in God’s image,” discrimination should not exist in district schools. The policy does not, however, mention LGBTQ students specifically or support gay-straight alliances, omissions which weaken the policy, say critics.
Marni Panas, the transgender mother of a Catholic school student, criticized the policy as “fine” for other contexts, but insufficient for Edmonton’s Catholic schools:
” ‘I mean 15 months ago, we started this conversation with a policy like that already in place and a child was still discriminated against – this policy doesn’t change that, that could still happen.’ “
The mother of the trans girl whose discriminatory treatment prompted Edmonton Catholic schools’ debate on trans students described the situation as “farther behind” than when it began fifteen months ago. (The mother chooses to be unidentified to protect her daughter.) She told Metro News that Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen should reject the new policy, as it shows “a complete lack of effort” and “protects nobody.”
Kris Wells of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services said the policy approved is “the worst” of three proposed thus far because “it almost means nothing,” reported the Edmonton Journal. He continued in Metro News:
” ‘It’s so generic that it is practically meaningless. . .These kinds of generic policies don’t work when it comes to supporting vulnerable LGBTQ youth.’ “
ECSB chair Marilyn Bergstra and trustee Patricia Grell, the two votes against the new policy, explained their opposition to CBC:
“[Grell,] who first spoke out about the issue last spring, voted against the policy and called it too general and too generic to be of much help to LGBTQ students.
“[Bergstra] also voted against the policy. She spoke about the pervasive ‘myth, fear and a general lack of understanding’ that continues to hamper efforts to embrace LGBTQ students.”
The Edmonton Catholic School Board’s actions around a transgender policy have repeatedly made headlines. Their meetings erupted into a “shouting match” last fall and the Board approved “just discrimination” of some youth in a draft policy last December. Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary described recent guidelines from the Education Ministry to help develop these LGBTQ policies as “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic” and later refused to apologize for his harsh remarks. Letters from Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, Archbishop Gerard Pettipas of Grouard-McLennan, and Bishop Paul Terrio of St. Paul were critical too, but less confrontational.
In related news, the Catholic Board of Education in Medicine Hat, Alberta, approved first and second readings of policy updates to protect LGBTQ students that will hopefully be approved in a third reading later this month. The policy updates, which are inclusive of gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, are intended to meet provincial guidelines released in January, according to Medicine Hat News.
School districts in Alberta, including Catholic ones (because they are publicly funded), are required to submit LGBTQ policies to the Education Ministry by March 31 for review. There are 24 Catholic school boards in Alberta, including Edmonton and Medicine Hat. Education Minister David Eggen declined to comment about how he would handle school boards in Alberta whose LGBTQ policies fail to meet legal norms. Metro Newsreported that Eggen said he would evaluate all policies and regulations “in their totality” once they had been submitted.
Generic and meaningless policies may not be approved by Alberta’s Education Ministry, setting up more months of conflict and potential harm to students in the province’s Catholic schools. With just two weeks left before policies need to be submitted, there is enough time for Catholic educators and school officials to prioritize students’ well being over anti-LGBTQ ideologies.
In Canada, new guidelines from the province of Alberta’s Education Ministry may push transgender policies under development in a positive direction. However, according to one bishop, the guidelines are “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic,” though other Catholics involved in provincial educational systems say the new recommendations are good news.
Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary attacked the guidelines in a blog post titled “Totalitarianism in Alberta,” reported CBC. He wrote, in part:
“This approach and directive smack of the madness of relativism and the forceful imposition of a particular narrow-minded anti-Catholic ideology. . .Such a totalitarian approach is not in accordance with [Canadian law] and must be rejected.”
Henry also said the guidelines “breathe pure secularism” and described gay-straight alliances as “highly politicized ideological clubs” because they oppose homophobia and heterosexism–two influences which he belittled. Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen responded to the comments by saying he would meet with Catholic education officials,, and he was certain that the guidelines offered “a constructive process that will lead to a positive outcome in the end.”
Kris Wells, director of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services had a sharper critique, calling for the bishop to apologize. Wells said:
” ‘The only madness that Bishop Henry describes is his lunacy. . .What the bishop fails to realize is that this kind of harmful rhetoric does great damage to LGBT youth and individuals in our province.”
Mickey Wilson of Edmonton’s Pride Centre said most Catholics want their church “to move past these things,” reported The Edmonton Journal. He also stated:
” ‘It’s just shameful that he would put students in a position where they have to chose between being schooled in their faith and having a safe place.’ “
Chair Marilyn Bergstra of the Edmonton Catholic Schools Board (ECSB) was among those Catholics who viewed the guidelines differently. She was “very impressed” by them, according to The Edmonton Sun. Bergstra, who began chairing ECSB last October, said further:
” ‘My wish would be that every single word in that document is adopted. . .But that’s not how democracy works, and we have to have a fulsome discussion.’ “
The guidelines in dispute suggested that school districts’ policies respect students’ gender identity and expression, specifically when it comes to dress codes, restrooms, and athletics. Non-discrimination protections for all LGBTQ employees are also suggested.Though not binding, the guidelines come from the Ministry which will be reviewing board policies once they are submitted in March. Catholic schools in Canada receive government funding, so they are not exempt from LGBT protections. You can read the guidelines by clicking here.
ECSB’s discussions about a policy for trans students have been particularly heated. The Board approved a draft policy in December which would allow “just discrimination” of LGBT youth. Previous meetings became shouting matches such that Minister Eggen mandated professional mediation. Trustee Larry Kowalczyk is on record saying trans people have a “mental disorder” and this whole initiative is due to “God-hating activists.”
Despite the new guidelines, approving a policy which actually protects trans students at Edmonton’s Catholic schools may be a challenge. But the guidelines would be immense progress if ECSB members integrate them into any new policy, a reality highlighted by transgender parent Marni Panas who told CBC:
” ‘These are words in a document and they’re really solid words, they’re really good words, but they will mean nothing unless we see action and we see these students protected.’ “
Protecting students should be a first priority of Catholic education, but somehow not all Catholics believe these protections should be afforded to transgender students. Rather than rejecting these guidelines outright (or going so far as calling them “totalitarian”), ECSB and all Catholic trustees should carefully read them and come to understand there is little, if nothing at all, in them which contradicts Catholic teachings. Indeed, they affirm the fundamental call of the Gospel to care about and provide for each person’s well-being, as well as the common good of all people.
With just over two months until a policy is due, Catholic officials in Alberta should put the harsh rhetoric aside. Instead, they should be open to the guidelines and to new understandings of LGBT people..
Trustees on the Edmonton Catholic School Board (ECSB) debated the finer points of discrimination in late November, and they approved a second reading of a draft policy on transgender students that now implicitly allows “just” discrimination for their school system, which is located in the Canadian province of Alberta.
“On first reading, the draft policy included the sentence: ‘All members of the school community have the right to an environment free of discrimination, prejudice and harassment.’
“But on second reading Tuesday evening, that sentence was altered to add the word ‘unjust’ before the word ‘discrimination.’ “
According to trustee Cindy Olsen, the edit differentiates between just and unjust discrimination. Wording which includes “unjust discrimination” was in the second reading approved in a 5-2 vote. A third reading is required for final approval after being reviewed for legal compliance by Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen.
Not all involved in the process believe discrimination should be parsed in the policy. Two trustees, Marilyn Bergstra and Patricia Grell, voted against the new wording. Bergstra, who excused herself as chair so she could speak candidly, said the policy must be “black and white” so as to clearly articulate “what is expected.” Grell, who sponsored the policy, explained further:
” ‘It’s almost like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Is what is unjust sort in the eye of whoever is deciding what is unjust? It seems to be open to interpretation.’ “
Marni Panas, a transgender parent in Edmonton Catholic schools, asked who decides what is considered just discrimination. She told the Edmonton Journal that, after eleven months, “we’re not further ahead.”
Kristopher Wells of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies said the policy is essentially meaningless. What is needed are “specific, comprehensive and stand-alone policies [that] are targeted interventions” supporting LGBTQ students.
A September meeting on the draft policy devolved into a “shouting match.” Trustee Larry Kowalczyk has said trans* people have a “mental disorder” and the policy is backed by “God-hating activists.” Minister Eggen mandated professional mediation lasting two weeks after this meeting.
Debates by Edmonton Catholic officials mirror emerging debates in the wider Alberta School Board Association, though perhaps less intensely. At its fall meeting, he Association failed to achieve a 2/3rds vote to allow discussion of transgender policies. Interestingly, the Catholic School Board voted in favor of the discussion which Bergstra called “emergent.”
Minister Eggen has since mandated that all Alberta school boards, including the the Edmonton Catholic School Board, must develop policies supporting LGBT students by the end of March 2016. In this case, ECSB chair Marilyn Bergstra says her board hs a “head start” and could assist other boards just beginning the process of creating transgender polices.
ECSB’s “head start” did not come as a result to any trustee’s initiative, but because they were faced with the the incident of a 7-year-old girl being barred from the girls’ bathroom at her Catholic primary school. The proposed policy is intended to protect transgender and gender non-conforming students, but by allowing “just” discrimination it may only increase the already exorbitant risks trans youth face.
Catholic education, whose mandate comes from the Gospel, has a duty to ensure all students flourish by providing high quality education in safe and respectful environments. As it is written now, ECSB’s policy will not move their schools towards this end for trans students or their family, friends, and educators. Catholic officials attempt to differentiate “just” and “unjust” discrimination is not a new tactic, but it remains a failed and dangerous one.
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 Sun, which 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.
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 Journalabout 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.”
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.