Editor’s Letter (February 2012): why Ontario schools should talk about homosexuality in the classroom
When I was in the sixth grade, a health instructor employed by the board of education was parachuted into my classroom to talk about puberty. She arrived with two life-size felt cut-outs of naked, child-like bodies—one male, one female—which she hung on the blackboard. After a brief preamble, she asked the class to name the changes bodies experience during puberty. Kids tentatively put up their hands, offering ideas: “Girls grow breasts,” and “You get pubic hair,” and “Boys grow moustaches.” After every correct answer, the health instructor dug into her bag and, without even a sprinkle of humour, extracted small felt swatches of pretend armpit hair and cushiony stuffed pretend breasts. As she Velcroed them onto the nude figures, we watched the nameless doll figures grow up before our eyes.
By that point, a few kids in the class were already going through puberty, so most of this wasn’t news. But it was helpful to have the subject released from behind a cloak of confusion and shame. The rest of my preteen sexual education was provided by Sue Johanson, who was a sex educator in North York classrooms before she became a media personality. On her Sunday night call-in show, she took all questions seriously, no matter how goofy, offering frank answers. She believed that everyone had the right to enjoy sex, safely and sensibly, and I can’t imagine a better way to learn about it.
As I sat awkwardly through further sex ed sessions in junior high school and then high school, I began to notice a peculiar omission: no one ever mentioned homosexuality. At home, my parents had taught me that it was common, a natural phenomenon. Why was sex in the classroom always heterosexual?
This month, Jan Wong’s column (“Body Politics,” page 24) is about why the Ontario Liberals have buried a new sex ed curriculum the government took nearly three years to produce, in consultation with school boards, health organizations and hundreds of students. As you may recall, during last fall’s provincial election the Liberals were viciously criticized for potentially corrupting kids with the proposed curriculum. The vocal opposition came from a group of fundamentalist clergy who object to many aspects of the curriculum, particularly its de facto approval of homosexuality.
I find myself appalled and bewildered that we are even having a conversation about the importance of talking to kids about homosexuality in a non-judgmental environment. Toronto is a pioneer in the gay rights movement; gay Torontonians won the right to marry nearly a decade ago, with little controversy. Gay rights are firmly entrenched in our culture and in our legal system.
Last summer, while reading a Toronto blog called the Ethnic Aisle, I came across a link to a terrific article by a writer named Canice Leung. It was a candid account of growing up Chinese-Canadian in Richmond Hill, the daughter of loving parents who belonged to a 5,000-member mega-church. Her parents told her they were voting Conservative because they opposed gay marriage. Is it possible that a growing number of Toronto immigrants who, like Leung’s parents, view homosexuality as immoral are fuelling the debate? Many congregations in Toronto that promote literal interpretations of ancient texts are seeing their numbers grow with the immigrant population. Did the Tories make a fuss about sex ed during the last provincial election in order to win the immigrant vote?
I don’t envy Dalton McGuinty on this. He is trying to establish what kind of sex ed best reflects our values at a time when many of our values are in conflict. And for all his trouble, the fundamentalists are accusing him of being a lousy Catholic.
In December, when McGuinty introduced strident anti-bullying legislation, he stood up for gay rights, declaring: “Schools will be warm and accepting of all our children, regardless of their sexual orientation.”
A group of Jewish and Christian leaders accused him of using the legislation as a sneaky way to implement his “radical sex education” platform. I hope McGuinty ignores them.