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Sex versus Relationships:  The Surrey book banning case.

Is the banning of elementary school books depicting same sex parents an issue of when to introduce children to the concept or one of homophobia and discrimination?  Or is it about something else?  Both sides talk to

In June of this year the British Columbia Court of Appeal heard arguments for and against the earlier Surrey School Board decision to ban the use of three elementary school books which depict same sex parents.  The case has received national attention and is expected to be brought all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The lawyer for the school board told the Court that the issue is "age appropriateness" of the depiction.  The lawyer for the petitioners argued discrimination.  The school board is estimated to have spent over $800,000 so far on the legal battle, and the petitioners have received the support of the BC Teachers' Federation.

The dispute arose in 1996 when gay teacher James Chamberlain requested approval to use the books in his kindergarten and Grade 1 classes.  The request was denied by the school board at the trustee level.  A group of petitioners - including teachers, parents, students and authors - sued the school board and won.

In its judgment, the BC Supreme Court ruled that the school board had erred due to its decision having been made largely on religious grounds and declared that the book banning violated the free expression and equality rights of gay and lesbian students and parents.

The school board - the largest in BC - appealed the lower court's ruling.

Murray Warren is spokesperson for the petitioner group and a gay teacher in nearby Coquitlam - a different Vancouver suburb with a different school board.  He spoke to regarding the use of the books.

In BC, teachers have a mandated curriculum in 'Personal Planning' at each grade level, he explained, and curriculum subjects are accompanied by defined 'Outcomes.'  Those for the section entitled 'Family Life Education' at kindergarten and Grade 1 include:  "Children will come to know that there are different models and configurations of families; they will come to understand that there are similarities and differences among families."

Incorporating same sex parents into the curriculum is consistent with achieving that outcome, he says, and elementary school teachers in school board jurisdictions other than Surrey - including himself - make use of the books in question without any resulting problems or controversy.

Indeed, same sex parents exist, and recent surveys indicate that they do so in surprising numbers - as high as 20% for lesbian women.

Mr. Warren described how books come to be chosen as classroom resources for achieving the educational outcomes.

A list of recommended resources is provided by the BC Ministry of Education, he stated.  It is not exhaustive, nor can it so reasonably expected to be.  Teachers use the list of 'approved' resources as a starting point and exercise their discretion in choosing from the plethora of others that are available.

Should a topic of education be considered 'sensitive' the school board must be consulted in the process of selecting resources.

Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education doesn't define 'sensitive,' says Mr. Warren.  The Surrey School Board does, however, and has taken the depiction of same sex parents - at any grade level - to be 'sensitive.'

What this meant for teacher James Chamberlain in 1996 is that he had to request approval for the resources he chose to use to achieve the kindergarten and Grade 1 educational outcomes in the area of family life education.  The denial of that request has led to a four year legal battle, and, perhaps more revealing, a clash of paradigms.

Hard to swallow

"Look at the untenable position I'm in - having to discriminate against my own [form of] families!" exclaimed Mr. Warren, who, together with his partner of 29-years, has a gay foster son.

The teacher, common law partner and foster father explains that the requirement alone to obtain permission to depict an example of a family situation identical to his is hard to swallow.  The fact that the request by teacher James Chamberlain was denied adds insult to injury and smacks of discrimination.

According to Mr. Warren, should the school board deem curriculum content to be 'sensitive' then parents have the right to remove their child from the class during the presentation of that content.  This brings parents into the picture as well as their 'approval' for the depiction of a family situation that not only exists in reality but is that of Mr. Warren.

All of these regulations are independent of the grade level at which the depiction is made.

But it's not about sex, explains the teacher who has used the same three books in his own Grades 2 and 3 classes.  And it's not a sensitive issue, he asserts.

"Kids take it on the surface," Mr. Warren explained.  "Parents see it as a sexual issue because our relationships have been so sexualized," he stated.

The spokesperson for the petitioners group added that the school board's rationale of "age inappropriateness" for the denial was not initially provided.

"They banned the books without any reasons whatsoever," he declared.  " 'Age inappropriateness' came later."

But how far will he go, as a teacher, with the depiction?  If pupils ask for clarification of same sex parents, what sort of explanation does he provide?

" 'In some families there are two moms or two dads who love each other and support and love their children' is a typical response," he said.  His experience has been that pupils accept it and move on without further analysis.

"It's inappropriate to discuss sex [with pupils at that age]," he declared.

An issue of beliefs

Surrey School Board Vice-Chairwoman Mary Polak doesn't see it quite the same way.

"Truth be told we're fighting a common enemy," she told  "This cuts across whether you're gay or straight."

That enemy is beliefs, she seemed to be trying to say during a 45-minute interview.  Or more accurately, it seemed, the goal of teaching respect irrelevant of beliefs.  Kids at that age can't absorb beliefs, she intimated, and this is necessary when presenting this issue.

Ms. Polak seemed to be trying to explain that gay and lesbian people deserve respect but that not everybody issues it, such as parents of some faiths.  The school board views itself as being responsible to those parents, or perhaps, it seems, unwilling to counter possible backlash from them.

According to a school board "Update" almost 3000 letters of support for their actions have been received compared to some 500 ones of opposition.

When asked point blank what her feelings were on being gay or lesbian, the elected official and Catholic didn't go so far as to say that it was a choice or was wrong - intimating something about sexuality being both on a continuum and sexual behaviour ultimately being a choice - but did assert that the issue of teaching it involved both beliefs and the respect of others' beliefs.

"What needs to happen if we're going to move forward is if this moves off a discussion of books and we as a community come together to talk about 'How do we build a strong and loving community for all of our kids'," Ms. Polak stated.

Notwithstanding, the belief of the Surrey School Board seems to be that the depiction of same sex parents is about sex, and not about two people who love each other and their children and who happen to be of the same gender.  This is entirely different from what the teachers who make the depiction believe, and according to them, how the pupils take it.

Hot spot

The banning of these books is not the first time the Surrey School Board has attempted to censor controversial issues.  Furthermore, it can't seem to stay out of the national headlines on gay and lesbian ones.

In March of this year the school board reportedly decided to forbid the formation of any gay-straight alliances in its schools pending the development of rules for them, and a memo to that effect was issued to principals.  The decision coincided with both a vote that month by the BC Teachers' Federation in favour of creating such support clubs and the then week-old suicide of a 14-year-old student who had been taunted extensively for being perceived as gay.  The boy's suicide note had said he could no longer tolerate being relentlessly picked on.

In May the school board suspended two teachers for alleged remarks made following that suicide.  The parents had reportedly complained that both had made public comments at the time suggesting their son had been gay.

One of the suspended teachers was James Chamberlain - the teacher at the heart of the book banning case.  Mr. Chamberlain has also campaigned for the formation of gay-straight alliances.

The move was criticized as homophobic by Mr. Warren, who is also spokesperson for the group Gay and Lesbian Educators of British Columbia (GALE).

"This board has had a vendetta out against Mr. Chamberlain for quite some time," he told the press.  "If the Surrey School Board is not homophobic, I don't know what is," he continued, and stated that after a review of all documentation he could find no evidence that Mr. Chamberlain had referred to the late student directly in any of his remarks.

It was GALE who first developed the list of resources for gay and lesbian inclusiveness in the curriculum.  The school board banned that list, too.  In fact, the petitioners want that ban quashed by the courts along with the denial of Mr. Chamberlain's request.

In addition, the BC PWA Society has reported that the Surrey School Board is distinct provincially in banning the HIV/AIDS prevention and education services provided by an organization called YouthCO.

And finally, school board Chairwoman Heather Stilwell came out against a resource guide released this month called Challenging Homophobia in Schools.  The founding president of the Christian Heritage Party told the Globe and Mail that the issue of discrimination can be dealt with in a general way and that students don't have to necessarily discuss the specific topic of homosexuality.

According to the BC Teachers' Federation, as early as 25-years ago the school board had attempted to ban a slide-tape presentation on the history of racism in BC.

In the judges' hands

Beliefs aside and discussion over, the book banning case is now in the hands of the BC Court of Appeal.  Its resolution may well hinge on legal technicalities such as who exactly has the authority to decide what books to use in the classroom.

"We say the issue is this:  When is it appropriate to teach children about same sex parents?" lawyer for the school board John Dives told the Court.  "Is it 'K' to '1'?" he asked.  "Or is it at a later level?  And fundamental to all of that - who decides?

"Had the Ministry [of Education] put its stamp of approval on these books, there would be nothing for the board to do."

Mr. Dives argued that the school board was entitled to ban the books as well as incorporate the religious and moral opposition of parents in their decision-making.

Joe Arvay, lawyer for the petitioners group, asked the Court to consider that books depicting interracial parents or those from different faiths would be a non-issue.  Gwen Brodsky, on behalf of EGALE (Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere), "combin[ed] legal, personal and community perspectives into a powerful reminder of the effects upon youth and our communities generally of invisibility, exclusion and our systemic erasure from the school curriculum," according to Executive Director John Fisher who was present.

Added Mr. Fisher in an update to members of EGALE later, "Several times, the Court questioned whether it was appropriate for 5-6 year olds to be 'exposed to' books depicting same-sex families, showing apparent sympathy for the argument of the Surrey School Board that depicting heterosexual families is 'normal' and 'natural,' while same sex families are unfit to be named until some (unspecified) later date in a child's development.

"At one point, the lawyer for the School Board even said that the problem with the books is that they depict same-sex families as morally equivalent to opposite-sex families, and stated bluntly that our families have less value than heterosexual families ... The Court appeared mostly unsympathetic [to the petitioners], however, and at one point Joe even felt it necessary to remind the Court that they could not assume themselves to be immune from the heterosexist biases that permeate the rest of Canadian society."

Mr. Fisher later told that "the case is about the rights of youth to a bias free education and to see same sex families accorded equal treatment and respect within the education system," adding that he believes it will likely end up before the Supreme Court of Canada, one way or the other.

A larger issue of inclusiveness

According to the petitioners, the school board is avoiding gay and lesbian inclusiveness.

"The Surrey School Board has proved itself over and over again to be homophobic and heterosexist.  This case is just one manifestation of how it treats queer parents and teachers ...." Mr. Warren said in opening with

He described the three books as innocuous and the plot of one of them as depicting same sex parents only in passing.

"I've been in communication with [the school board vice-chairwoman] and the Ministry of Education for the past four years and my own school district, Attorney General and Auditor General, trying to bring about an awareness of the difficulties that this question brings - and convince them that they can't go on hiding behind this 'sensitive' issue and can't keep avoiding making the curriculum inclusive," he said.

The BC Teachers' Federation agrees with the petitioners' assessment.

"Apparently this board would prefer to remain in denial about the presence of gay and lesbian students and families in our schools and communities," said President David Chudnovsky in a statement.  "We are very concerned when a public school board continues to establish public policy as if sexual minority youth do not, or should not, exist," he added.

"Unfortunately, this school board seems intent on imposing its private religious agenda on the public school system."

For its part, the school board officially maintains that its concern is "age appropriateness, relevance to curriculum, and suitability in the local community."  It says it has no problem with the books being included in schools' library collections - although also admits this decision is entirely within the authority of the librarians.