Ryan Clayton and Kaitlin Burnett traveled to Victoria, B.C., late last month to meet with Minister of Education George Abbott.
During their meeting, they handed him 250 letters written on purple paper, each one asking that a sexual orientation and gender identity policy aimed at stopping homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism in schools be implemented province-wide.
The Vancouver School Board (VSB) adopted the sexual orientation and gender identity policy aimed at creating a safer environment for lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and questioning students (LGTBQ) seven years ago.
But to date, the VSB has failed to come up with a way to measure the policy’s effectiveness in achieving that goal.
Moreover, according to Glen Hansman, vice president of the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF), the majority of the 5,100 teachers and staff in the Vancouver school district haven’t even been trained on how to implement the policy.
Voters in Vancouver will be electing nine School Trustees for the board in local general elections on Nov. 19.
High rate of bullying
The policy was developed between 2000-2003 and adopted by the VSB in 2004 as a response to a homophobic and transphobic environment of discrimination and harassment in schools that had led, in some cases, to students committing suicide, said Jane Bouey, the school board’s vice chair. It was put together with input from community organizations, queer groups, students, teachers and parents.
Students identifying as LGBTQ across Canada cite an alarmingly high rate of bullying. The most recent study conducted to assess the rate of bullying prompted by sexual orientation and gender identity took place between 2007 and 2009 by Egale Canada Human Rights Trust.
Of the more than 3,700 students surveyed, Egale found that 55 per cent of students who identified as a sexual minority and 74 per cent of transgendered students had been victims of verbal harassment.
The same study found that 21 per cent of (LGBTQ) reported being physically harassed or assaulted due to their sexual orientation.
Listen: Ray Clayton explains the genesis of the Purple Letter campaign
Clayton believes that homophobic bullying needs to be treated differently than forms of harassment not rooted in sexual orientation or gender identity.
“When it comes to LGBTQs, bullying has a stigma attached,” he said. “It is deep-seated in society; it is discriminatory.”
But Ted Hewlett, president of the Parents and Teachers for Life organization in Vancouver, believes evidence of bullying in schools is being used as an excuse by members of the LGBTQ community to promote its interests, and as such is deeply critical of the sexual orientation and gender identity policy aimed at addressing it.
“[It] is legitimizing homosexual marriage, giving a favourable view of same-sex marriage and placing it at the same level as traditional marriage that has been the norm for 1,000 years,” he said.
“Education should not be propaganda for a harmful lifestyle,” said Hewlett.
Other voices objecting the policy are stronger. At the start of November, five months after Burnaby became the 14th of B.C.’s 58 schools districts to adopt it, one of its teachers received a related death threat.
With resistance like that, the Purple Letter campaign founders may have a long road ahead of them in trying to get such a policy implemented across the province.
If B.C. adopts this policy it will become the second province in Canada to have done so, joining Quebec.
Adopting a policy is one thing. Implementing it is another. In any case, at this point it’s unclear to what degree schools in Vancouver have managed to do.
“Students are dying over [homophobic bullying],” said Maria Foster, the VSB anti-homophobia and diversity mentor, whose job is to support, guide and educate staff, teachers and students regarding LGTBQ issues.
“This needs to stop.”