New Washrooms Policy Divides Vancouver

by Janice Thiessen (@automaticjane) in Vancouver

The Vancouver School Board trustees’ approval last month of a policy to accommodate transsexual students in schools has triggered corrosive divisions in the community, challenging Canada’s view of itself as a society that celebrates diversity.

The controversy pits the obligation of the public school system to accommodate transgendered students and ensure they feel safe and secure, against the reality that in a linguistically and culturally diverse city such as Vancouver, there is a continuum of tolerance for and experience with transgendered students.

After speaking to several sources on both sides of the controversy, this reporter came away with the impression that newcomers to Canada are not necessarily conservative or fundamentally opposed to the GLBTQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) lifestyle.

Communication has been a significant issue in this debate and language barriers can prevent those who don’t speak English well from understanding the nuances of the issue.

Not enough consultation

Two leading opponents of the policy, trustees Ken Denike and Sophia Woo, argue that there was insufficient consultation with the community, and that parents of international students, who comprise a considerable number in the Vancouver School Board, could be uncomfortable with the change, and that in turn could affect enrolment.

The new policy, passed 7-2 by the board, is an update of a 2004 Sexual Orientation and Gender Identities policy. It stipulates that single-stall, gender neutral bathrooms be installed in all school buildings so a child won’t have to reveal to anyone their gender based on the bathroom they used. The new policy also pledges to reduce or eliminate the practice of segregating students by their gender.

Denike said he and Woo support GLBTQ students but wanted more time to deliberate, and more specific language in the policy. “What we were upset about is there was very poor consultation with the community. People could have translators but there was still a real issue of communication.”

 “There are potential effects on enrolment of international students. It was our view that further consultation could relieve those concerns,” added Denike.

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]“We had spoken with parents who are realtors with expansive networks in the international community. They expressed concern about changes to the GLBTQ policy without sufficiently inclusive consultation – and the potential effects on enrolment of international students. ”[/quote]

Real estate impact

Following their June 13 news conference outlining their opposition to the new policy, Denike and Woo were expelled from the Non-Partisan Association, a group that nominates candidates for Vancouver Parks, City and School Board trustees.

Peter Armstrong, NPA President, defended this draconian measure.

 “The Caucus has had ongoing issues with Ken and Sophia for a long time and the Board has been aware of this,” he said. “The raucous news conference called by Ken and Sophia last week was just one issue among many that forced the Caucus to take action.”

Woo defended the media conference, saying she was giving many people a chance to express their concerns about the new transgender policy. “The Vancouver School Board is highly dependent on international students for budgeting purposes. Cuts of over $11 million were required for 2014/15.

“We had spoken with parents who are realtors with expansive networks in the international community. They expressed concern about changes to the GLBTQ policy without sufficiently inclusive consultation – and the potential effects on enrolment of international students. ”

Woo said she heard from hundreds of parents expressing concern over details of the policy. “The limited consultative meetings held by the Board were filled to capacity with concerned parents. The May 29 public meeting, which lasted for over six hours, ended before many parents had an opportunity to speak. Over 14,000 parents signed petitions within a four-week period before June 16 calling for further consultation.”

Protecting all children

But Patti Bacchus, Chair of the Vancouver School Board, said that the policy merely codifies and formalizes the 2004 policy, and is intended to protect all children. “One of the newspaper articles I read quoted a 15-year-old who was thinking about returning to school because of this policy. It gave me a great feeling that kids are more inclined to feel safe at school.”

Trustee Denike preferred the 2004 policy, which gave more leeway for staff to interpret how to implement it.

He says the controversy has caused the parent advisory groups to split along racial lines, with many in the Chinese community opposed.

Cheryl Chang, chair of the Lord Byng Secondary School Parent Advisory Council, wrote an open letter to the Vancouver School Board in May outlining her concerns that the policy was not written by medical or health experts, and that it could have long-term damaging impacts on children.

She urged that the vote, originally scheduled for May 20, be delayed.

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]“When people come to Canada, part of what draws them is the climate of relative safety that we enjoy here, and the opportunity to live in a place where there are democratic pluralistic values and respect for difference and diversity,” said Jordan.[/quote]

Agreement in principle

Charter Lau, former Burnaby Parent’s Voice trustee candidate, said he supports GLTBQ students but is concerned that a person with male body parts may enter a change room for females and harass them. Alternatively, male students could feel embarrassed with the presence of a student with female body parts who identifies as transgender in their change room.

“It’s very unfortunate that some of the media put parents in the opposition side, when in reality we are all on the for side, no one is against the intent of the policy. We all agree to the principle, to respect all students, but we need to address both concerns, obligation to satisfy all students, not just a small group.”

He claims that Bacchus stated the policy had to be voted on in June and there could be no more delay, but Lau asks, “What’s the rush?” He added that he has a sibling who is a part of the GLBTQ community. “We love and support each other. Disagreement doesn’t constitute opposing, we don’t agree with everything but we are still a part of one family.”

Intersecting gender and race

The debate over the policy is sensitive and fraught with potential misunderstanding, in part because it deals with prejudices against both gender and race. Rainbow Refugee, which advocates for those seeking protection based on sexual orientation, gender identity and HIV (Aids) status, said differing communities face differing degrees of tolerance.

“We do know that racialized GLBTQ youth are particularly vulnerable. This is an issue that we are all working on changing together,” said Dr. Sharalyn Jordan, assistant professor in of counselling psychology at Simon Fraser University and Rainbow Refuge representative.

“When people come to Canada, part of what draws them is the climate of relative safety that we enjoy here, and the opportunity to live in a place where there are democratic pluralistic values and respect for difference and diversity,” said Jordan. “This policy helps schools provide a place where people can learn about gender and racial and cultural diversity.”

High level of support

In spite of very vocal opposition, the motion did pass with a majority vote, showing the high level of support from teachers, the administration and some parents. “These policies are in place so students can better learn about diversity in a safe environment. It’s about re-tooling what is there to make it more inclusive and building inclusive infrastructure when new spaces are built,” said Lau Mehes, youth worker, Qmunity Gab Youth.

Qmunity Gab Youth works with Vancouver schools and the community to provide a safe space in which young people can learn about GLBTQ issues, access to services and referrals, provides special events and leadership training. People from every background are included and encouraged to participate.

Often people who are from a different cultural background and GLBTQ may have a more difficult time finding support. “One of the biggest problems that occur with trans/homophobia is that it intersects with racism. (It’s) a big struggle. I think it’s tied to systemic discrimination around homophobia. Anyone outside the gender binary, the strict idea that there are only two types of people, very masculine and feminine; any threats to this are hard to understand for some people.”

A global issue

A study by the University of British Columbia (UBC) Faculty of Nursing found that GLBTQ students reported lower rates of high-risk behaviours such as binge drinking when they are in a safer, more comfortable climate. They also had lower odds of discrimination, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts after schools had anti-homophobia policies in place.

Whether people support the policy or not, one thing is clear: the GLBTQ community has supporters and opposition in every community around the world. With such a diverse population, it’s no surprise there would be a wide variety of views in Vancouver as well.

“Cultural attitudes toward GLBTQ people vary widely. In Uganda, we know there’s a death penalty for being gay, but in Sweden, it’s not celebrated but accepted,” said Mary Little, chair of Trans Alliance (non-profit advocacy and outreach service provider for trans people).

“If people love their children, if they find out one of their children are transgendered, they adapt their opinion to that reality. We applaud the policy and hope other school boards in the province and the country do the same.”

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