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  • Writer's pictureGordon Nore

Homophobia and the “Sex Ed” Curriculum

Homophobia and The “Sex Ed” Curriculum by Gordon Nore Toronto Teacher Winter 2016 Vol.6. No. 1 I was sitting in the staffroom at lunch hour one April day in 2010, when a colleague came bursting in. “You won’t believe what’s on the radio,” she announced.

We tuned into a phone-in show on the AM band. The host was taking calls from listeners who were opining about a “sex ed” curriculum they had not read. The reason they hadn’t read it was that it had just been released that day, and so the host was teasing out the juicy bits over the air.

In the third grade, seven and eight-year-olds will learn about homosexuality.

Not exactly.

In the third grade, children were to learn about differences that can be seen and those that cannot. A possible student response to an optional teacher prompt included the following: “We all come from different families. Some students live with two parents. Some live with one parent. Some have two mothers or two fathers…” In other words, third graders weren’t learning anything about “homosexuality” that they didn’t already know about “heterosexuality.”

The usual suspects piled on… Charles McVety of Canada Christian College and The Institute for Canadian Values, along with Campaign Life Coalition, and Real Women of Canada. A small but vocal group of religionists threw a scare into then-Premier Dalton McGuinty, whose political fortunes were waning. Within in two days, the Premier withdrew the curriculum, saying, curiously, that it needed “a rethink.”

The 2010 document had, in reality, been rather thoroughly thunk. Seventy organizations and 2000 individuals had consulted on its development, meant to replace its twelve-year-old predecessor. References to sex, sexuality and gender identity are actually sparse in the 2010 and 2015 documents – they comprise a small portion of the health units, with the balance devoted to physical education. Realistically, the so-called “sex ed” portions will likely take up no more than a handful of lessons in given year in any classroom.

But rather than defend the curriculum, the Premier caved like a cheap suitcase in the rain. Immediately after winning the Liberal Party leadership, Kathleen Wynne promised a comeback for the document, a promise she renewed after earning her first mandate as Premier. By the time the slightly revised version of the 2010 document appeared on the Ministry website in February 2015, the fight began anew – with some noteworthy changes. Traditional opponents, like Mr McVety, took a backseat, as a seeming grassroots protest grew. Organizers, reflecting a range of ethnic and religious backgrounds emerged in Toronto, Halton, Peel, and elsewhere. Using social media as a platform, groups quickly formed, and disseminated information – much of it astonishingly wrong.

Leaflets in Peel warned of grade one children disrobing for “graphic” lessons on genitalia. Eager to build an audience for his new online platform The Rebel, former Sun News Network talking head Ezra Levant produced videos in which he enunciated words like vulva and vagina like a child eating broccoli for the first time. An oblique reference to anal sex and oral sex as part of a seventh grade lesson on abstaining from sex acts became yet more evidence of a conspiracy to normalize homosexuality – as if to suggest that anal and oral sex acts are solely the purview of same sex partners.

And then there was the spectre of disgraced former Deputy Minister of Education Ben Levin, whose convictions on charges of child pornography and counselling to commit a child sexual assault led to logic-defying accusations that the curriculum was a covert effort to groom children for sex. With breathtaking frequency, a press photo from Toronto’s 2013 Pride celebration of Dr Levin with Premier Wynne and federal Liberals Bob Rae and leader Justin Trudeau was splattered across social media, the Sun’s television and print platforms, The Rebel, and numerous blogs. The Premier’s promise that consent would be included in the curriculum was construed as evidence of the nefarious plot.

A Liberal lesbian Premier, allied with the charismatic son of the Prime Minister who struck down sodomy laws, cozied up with a soon-to-be-convicted sex offender – it made for an ugly brew. Right wing columnists feasted on the spectacle. As I watched this sideshow, I cringed at the thought that parents could be so easily persuaded to believe that teachers would blithely participate in a plot to damage children. As a member of the LGBTQI community, I despaired that we were dragged backwards into long-discredited stereotypes of queer people as pedophiles and recruiters.

It would be easy to dismiss the protest as comparatively small and largely misinformed. What continues to disturb me is the impact it may have had on youngsters with questions about their own sexuality or gender identity, as well as those who consider themselves allies. News media have captured protestors in unguarded moments. The Thorncliffe Parents Association Facebook page includes a message admonishing Principal Jeff Crane for not disclosing to them the hiring of LGBT staff. Ugly and hateful remarks abound.

Speaking about the parent strike this fall in Thorncliffe Park – the epicentre of the anti sex-ed controversy – the Premier referred to a “thread of homophobia” running through the protests, sparking yet more recrimination.

Whenever the Premier has assigned words “homophobia” or “transphobia” to the protests, the usual suspects re-emerge to reprimand her for name-calling – representatives from Campaign Life Coalition and The Institute for Canadian Values. These very same groups decried the advent of equal marriage federally a decade ago; they railed against the Ministry of Education’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy; they protested The Accepting Schools Act over the inclusion of Gay Straight Alliances in public schools and the update to the Education Act’s human rights policies regarding sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

They even rallied against recent Provincial legislation delisting from OHIP “conversion” therapies and further making it illegal to offer these medically discredited treatments to minors.

To call it a “thread” of homophobia is mild.

After lo these many months, the protest seems to have lost momentum. Thorncliffe organizers had aspired to prevent three area federal Liberals from taking office in the recent election, only to see a Liberal sweep. A local homeschooling group had briefly held makeshift classes for hundreds of children kept out of school gradually dwindled to fewer than 200 before being disbanded. Representatives from several faith communities have spoken against the protest. Parent groups have mobilized online in support of the curriculum. Both TDSB and Peel have issued statements making clear children cannot be exempted from content which is human rights based.

Gordon W.E. Nore © 2016

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