LGBTQ Policies Fight in Alberta Unresolved After Deadline Passes

April 4, 2016
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Education Minister David Eggen holding LGBTQ guidelines released in January that helped inform new policies

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.
  • Multiple districts developed similar policies, which the Edmonton Journal noted, were “using identical phrases, and in some cases, written in the same fonts.” These included the Holy Family Catholic Regional School DivisionGrande Prairie and District Catholic SchoolsElk Island Catholic Schools, and Edmonton Catholic Schools, which had earlier approved a policy  described as “practically meaningless.”
  • 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 News should 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.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Catholic School Backs Away from Banning Transgender Students

March 29, 2016
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Students at Mount Saint Charles Academy

A Catholic high school in Rhode Island has taken a step away from its ban on transgender students  after receiving sustained criticism from alumni and the local community.  This move follows earlier conciliatory statements from officials at Mount Saint Charles Academy (MSC), Woonsocket, attempted to explain its original ill-conceived policy banning transgender students from enrolling.

In their latest statement, quoted by an MSC school board member at The Valley Breeze, MSC officials said that they deeply regret “unintended hurt feelings at and seeming insensitivity of our policy regarding the acceptance of transgender young people.” The policy that banned trans students was recently removed from the online version of the Parent-Student Handbook for 2016-2017.

That action, coupled by an invitation from MSC President Herve Richer to meet for discussion, was welcomed by those involved with the Facebook group “Concerned Alumni of Mount Saint Charles.” Organizers explained in their own statement, reported by RIFuture.org:

“Mount has always been a home to us, and we are happy to see that they understand our concern and agree the language in the policy needs to be changed and a solution for accommodation implemented. We will be accepting an offer to go to a meeting with the administration to add our help and talent to finding a solution for all parties.”

2004 graduate Mike Martin told NBC 10 he was glad the discriminatory policy had been removed noting that it was progress toward the institution living up to “what it taught me to do, which was to accept people for being people.”

Another alumnus, Brendan DeBeasi, crowdfunded over $5,000 in just two days to help MSC develop and implement accommodations for trans students, reported The Valley Breeze. DeBeasi spoke to the impact Catholic education had in rallying alumni to the defense of LGBT students:

“It is my belief that Mount did not include this provision intentionally out of hate. .Students at MSC are taught acceptance, love, and service. . .It was these values Mount instilled in us that led to the rapid organization against this new policy.”

But what meaning can be attributed to the handbook changes seems somewhat unclear. In a The Valley Breeze news report, President Richer said that he had welcomed the debate which had emerged at the school and on Facebook, and again explained:

“[Richer] said school officials are also currently revisiting the handbook to see if the policy was ‘phrased correctly.’

“Our conversation has never been about whether or not we want transgender students in our building. It’s been: How can we serve transgender students?”

This statement echoes MSC’s earlier explanation that, in implementing a ban on trans students, the school actually aimed to help trans students by acknowledging the school had no support system in place. Some critics questioned the logic of that rationale.  The school has not yet made a statement of explicit openness to trans students, nordid MSC officials offer information about any policy for admitting trans applicants. This lack of clarity leaves the situation unresolved, but this latest round shows that a way for reconciliation and for growth is still available.

Thomas Ward, a new MSC board member, welcomed the handbook change as the school’s latest evolution in its 92-year history and admitted more work was needed to accommodate all genders. He wrote in The Valley Breeze:

“Those hurtful – and completely unnecessary – lines have now been removed, and I’m glad they have. . .Mount’s been here before! As boarders left, the girls arrived, and the all-boys school had to accommodate young women they had never welcomed before. . .It has always been this way. Now, there is more evolving to do.”

Ward, who is also a 1971 alumnus  and parent of former students, pointed to Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua, New Hampshire, about which he wrote:

“A sister school to Mount, also founded and run by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, it currently serves a transgender student, and accommodates them. Mount has never been asked to. No doubt, in time, that will change. We should learn a lot before that day comes.”

Removing the ban on transgender students from MSC’s Handbook online is a start. Such a step would be aided by administrators’ assurance that not only would such policies never reappear but that MSC would be adding gender identity to its non-discrimination protections for all community members. Meeting with concerned alumni and LGBT advocates will be beneficial, too, but only if administrators are really willing to hear criticism and to prioritize the steps necessary to provide transgender accommodations.

Thomas Ward is completely correct that, if it has not already happened, soon enough MSC will need to help students of all genders flourish. Let’s hope that other board members and the entire MSC community will join him to thoughtfully and quickly make MSC a more inclusive space, not only because they face public criticism but because doing so is intrinsically connected to the school’s Catholic mission. They could become a shining example to hundreds of other Catholic high schools.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 


Gay Author Turns Down Catholic School Which Tried to Silence His Identity

March 15, 2016
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William Kostakis with his book, The Sidekick

An Australian Catholic high school has asked an an author who had been invited to the school to refrain from speaking about his latest novel, which contains a gay character, after the writer came out as a gay man.

De La Salle College, a high school located in the Sydney suburb of Revesby, had invited William Kostakis to speak about his new book, The Sidekicks, in March and in June. But Kostakis withdrew from the engagements after being asked in a staff member’s email to him, that he be silent about his new book, The Sidekicks, which has a gay character in it. According to News.Com.Au, the school leader’s email stated that the institution had:

” ‘. . .a concern about promoting your new book at our school as it is a Catholic school. . .We were reading over your blog and I think it might not be appropriate, and parents might not be happy.’ ”

The school had successfully hosted Kostakis when a previous book of his, The First Third, was published.  Kostakis writes for a teen-age audience.

The school was also concerned about a blog post  Kostakis wrote recently in which he acknoledged his sexual orientation and discussed a former boyfriend’s cancer diagnosis.

The author posted the staff member’s email on his blog, as well as part of his response to the school’s request:

“Coming out publicly was difficult. I feared I would have to choose between doing what I love/earn a living from – engaging kids to read and be truthful in their writing – and not having to hide my partners from colleagues as ‘friends’. I had hoped, having spoken at some Catholic schools, those schools would be comfortable with my revelation knowing what I bring to my presentations and workshops. And that my sexuality, while it informs who I am, is not the subject of my presentations.

“Professionally, it would probably be wise to still present in June, your students were a lovely audience, I have to stick up for my 16 year old self, and say this is personal. . .The First Third was acceptable, but now I have a blog post saying I like men, The Sidekicks is not.

“And that is not something I will accept for the promise of a pay cheque.”

Kostakis mentioned, too, that he is grateful that his high school teachers were courageous enough to have students read diverse literature, even if some people were uncomfortable with those choices, because it made him, a closeted gay student, feel safe. He concluded that he hopes teachers at De La Salle College would have courage to do the same.

The book in question, The Sidekicks, is a novel for young adults that is “mostly a book about the fear of closets, and why teenagers in real life have to stay in the closet,” said Kostakis. The only sexual activity in the book is a kiss, which is far less than his earlier work, The First Third, that the De La Salle official asked him to speak about instead.

This incident occurs as St. Joseph’s College, the nation’s only Catholic high school which chose to participate in Australia’s Safe Schools Program, an anti-bullying effort, faces intensifying criticism from conservatives to withdraw from the program.  Additionally,  Australians are weighing a potential plebiscite this year on marriage equality.

But politics should never dictate students’ well-being. It seems a visit from William Kostakis to discuss his books and his career would have benefited all students at De La Salle College, as it had previously, and particularly those who might be LGBT in and not yet out. It is sad that Kostakis’ coming out was treated as grounds for trying to silence him, rather than as a teachable moment.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 


Nebraska Bishops Promote Anti-Transgender Policy for High Schools

January 8, 2016
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Nebraska School Activities Association logo

Nebraska’s Catholic bishops are actively opposing a state education association’s draft policy aimed at protecting transgender athletes in the state’s high schools. And instead, they are supporting an anti-trans proposal offered by Catholic schools in the state.

The Nebraska School Activities Association (NSAA) is currently considering three trans-related policy proposals, one which would be a policy implemented by the NSAA board, and two others, proposed by member schools, which would be by-law changes .

The NSAA board will vote on the first policy on January 14th. This policy would “put the initial decision [about gender identity issues]. . .in the hands of parents and local school districts.” If questions arose, an NSAA “gender identity eligibility committee” could review a student’s request and require documentation of at least one year of hormone therapy or gender-confirming surgery.

Each side of the debate in Nebraska has criticized this draft policy. Natalie Weiss of the Nebraska Trans Community told the Journal Star she thinks the policy is incoherent and unfair to trans students. A single vote on any such committee could deny a trans applicant access to high school athletics; religious schools could simply deny transgender athletes. All transgender students would beforced to use either private locker rooms and bathrooms or those matching their assigned sex at birth. Danielle Conrad, executive director of ACLU of Nebraska, said any policies which disregard gender identity as a civil rights issue are legally questionable.

Nebraska Catholic schools announced a second proposal in response to this first draft policy. Known as the “at birth proposal,” this bylaw change would define athletic participation according to assigned sex at birth. It is supported by the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC), the state bishops’ policy arm.

A third proposal amends the “at birth” proposal to allow for “birth certificates legally altered to reflect gender change after surgery,” according to the Lincoln Journal Star. This third proposal, coming from schools friendlier to trans concerns, would allow athletic participation only to those trans students whose legal documentation corresponds with their gender identity.

NCC is urging Catholics in the state to support the “at birth” proposal by contacting educational officials.  They oppose the first and third options. A joint statement in December from Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, and Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt of Grand Island called even minimally trans-inclusive policies “unjust” and said they would “allow a harmful and deceptive gender ideology” into the state’s schools, both public and private. NCC Policy Director Sheri Rickert said gender identity issues are “really a rejection of God,” reported the National Catholic Reporter.

The current discussion was prompted by two transgender high school students near Omaha who expressed interest in athletic participation. If the first draft policy is approved by the NSAA board, it would be immediately effective, but it could then be overturned if the bylaws are change in April. Regional votes on the second two proposals, which are bylaw changes, will be held on January 6th and 13th, reported the Lincoln Journal Star. Three of six NSAA districts must approve a bylaw change for it to be then considered during the Association’s general assembly in April, where it would need a two-thirds vote to be formally approved. If neither the “at birth” proposal nor its modified form receive approval by three of six NSAA districts this January, then they will be shelved. District VI voted last Wednesday in favor of the “at birth” proposal backed by church leaders.

Transgender students in Nebraska deserve to have their gender identity respected,  and should be allowed to participate in athletics according to their identity. Catholic principles of justice, human dignity, and equality mandate that Catholics support policies which advance the good of LGBT students rather than diminish their identities, as the “at birth” proposal does.

Catholics, particularly Nebraskans, can contact NSAA representatives in the coming week to oppose the “at-birth proposal” and demand policies which protect transgender students. To take action, fill out the form below. For a sample message, which you can copy and paste into the ‘Message’ box, see below a sample letter based upon a message sent by Nebraskan Catholic and former NSAA participant John Noble.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Sample Letter:

Dear NSAA Member,

I am writing you today as a Catholic opposed to the “sex at birth” bylaw proposal currently before the NSAA. This proposal disrespects the dignity of transgender Nebraskan students and would bar their participation across the state.

As a Catholic, I believe in the life and dignity of all persons, including our transgender siblings. This proposal disrespects these fundamental tenets of Catholicism by denying transgender students’ life and dignity, opting instead to let fear help creater unsafe environments for such students.

Please oppose the “sex at birth” bylaw proposal and support the Gender Participation Policy. The safety and dignity of transgender Nebraskans depend upon your support.

 

 


Catholic School Board Calls For “Just” Discrimination of Transgender Students

December 11, 2015

View of Edmonton Catholic School Board’s December meeting

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.

The draft policy changed between a first reading approved in November and the second reading last week, reported the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:

“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.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Catholic School Student Told Not to Use Harvey Milk Quotation

February 2, 2014

In Ontario, Canada, there has been an ongoing struggle in state-funded Catholic schools to comply with a law there to allow gay-straight alliances (GSA) to form.   This controversy added a new wrinkle to it recently when a Catholic school in a Toronto suburb refused to allow a student to use a quote from gay-rights leader Harvey Milk on a poster for the GSA.

Christopher Karras holding an image of Harvey Milk

Student Christopher Karras, who attends École Secondaire Catholique Sainte-Famille, part of the Conseil Scolaire de District Catholique Centre-Sud (Catholic Central South District School Board) in Mississauga, chose a quote from Milk to advertise the existence of the newly-formed student organization.

DailyXtra.com reported:

“The Milk quote — ‘All young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential’ — has been deemed to be too controversial, according to an email Karas received from his vice-principal in October.

“ ‘I was told that I can’t have a picture of Harvey Milk or his quote on the posters,’ Karas says. ‘I also had “sexual orientation” written on the posters.’
“But Karas says vice-principal Vicki Marcotte told him to change that to ‘self-expression’ because ‘she felt it was too much about LGBT community and not inclusive of everyone.’ “
In an email, Marcotte said she would not allow the quote because it was “tendentious.”

Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk was the first openly-gay man elected to public office in California when he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the 1970s. He was assassinated by Dan White, another member of the Board of Supervisors.

The earlier controversy over establishing such clubs focused around the Catholic schools board’s wish not to name them “gay-straight alliances,” but “diversity clubs.”   The group in the Mississauga school is not labelled as a GSA, but is called “Porte Ouverte (Open Doors).”
Yet, the struggle for the group’s identity has not ended by simply changing the name.  Karras says there has been other intervention by the school administration.  According to DailyXtra.com:
” . . . he says the school is trying to prevent it from becoming ‘too focused on queer stuff.’
“Karas feels the board and school administrators are censoring and restricting the content of the group and making it difficult for the group to present itself as a GSA.
“Davina Smith, another of the group’s founders, says the posters have caused unnecessary friction between the group and the school’s administration.
“ ‘This gets on my nerves,’ she says, noting that the objection to the poster design gives the impression that the board is homophobic. ‘That’s the impression that I get . . . Harvey Milk is talking about giving youth hope. What’s wrong with that?’ “
Catholic school officials need to learn that opposing discussions of sexual orientation among students is not going to keep students from discussing these topics.  Furthermore, wouldn’t it have been nice if the vice-principal could have seen that what Harvey Milk’s quote was saying is really not very different from their own goals as a Catholic school?  Much education remains to be done.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Canadian Catholic Schools Update LGBT Policy, But Not All Are Satisfied

September 16, 2013

Vanier Catholic High School

A Catholic school district in Canada has released a new draft policy on homosexuality, after controversy erupted in April at a high school there. The policy has pleased Church officials in the area and is acceptable to government officials, while others remain ambiguous on this latest action to make Catholic schools in that nation more LGBT-friendly.

In April, a gay teenager who was a student at Vanier Catholic Secondary School complained to the provincial government that the school’s document on LGBT issues was homophobic and violated civil law. Giving the state funding that Catholic schools in Canada receive, they must adhere to laws about non-discrimination and LGBT rights. Officially, the education minister in Yukon stated the document violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Yukon News reporters further:

“The new document, released for public review on Wednesday, would serve as a replacement for a former policy that called homosexuality a ‘disorder’ and an ‘intrinsic moral evil’ – words that echo the church’s official views on the matter…

“The controversial language found in the old policy is gone, although the new document still cites the same church documents that describe homosexual acts as sinful – the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a 1986 letter from the Church to its bishops are both listed as footnotes on the new policy.”

However, the new policy also speaks about the Church’s commitment to respecting the dignity of every person and implements a plan to ensure discrimination and hate crimes are dealt with in a timely manner.  This change comes after another gay student at Vanier Catholic was forced to use a locker with an anti-LGBT slur carved in it for two weeks in 2012. Anti-bullying measures are elucidated for staff, and students will now be allowed to form gay-straight alliances, which henceforth have been barred.

Not all find the policy a step forward, including Professor Kristopher Wells of the University of Alberta, who studies sexual minorities. CBC News reports:

“Wells says the Yukon Government already has a sexual identity and gender identity policy in place. He says a second policy creates two classes of personal rights.

” ‘So the question to ask is, would we do that to any other group of students? … For example, would we have a completely separate policy for Aboriginal students that limits their abilities and freedoms within schools? Really there can be no separate but equal. What this policy does is it creates an educational apartheid in our schools.’

“Wells says Vanier school adopting its own sexual orientation policy is a step in the wrong direction. He says policy must apply equally to all students in publicly funded schools, adding anything less is discriminatory.”

The policy will now go before the Whitehorse council for Catholic schools to be approved or reworked. In the meantime, it is likely that LGBT advocates will continuemaking Catholic schools in Canada more LGBT-friendly.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


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