By Fae Johnstone
If the Catholic School Board is truly committed safe and accepting schools, they owe LGBT students an apology, an explanation, and a plan.
On January 15, it came to light that the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB) had quietly banned Raina Telgemeier’s Drama, from their elementary schools because it wasn’t ‘age appropriate.’ Drama is a popular graphic novel about a junior high student who works in her school’s drama production crew. It includes a subplot about two boys who are attracted to each other and share a kiss onstage during a play.
In response to overwhelming condemnation of the decision to ban the novel from local politicians, parents and concerned community members, the OCSB then rescinded the ban on January 16, with a statement emphasizing their commitment to safe and accepting schools.
If the Ottawa Catholic School Board is truly committed to safe and accepting schools, why did they ban a book with LGBTQ content in the first place? And why did they only reverse the decision after public condemnation?
Despite this victory, the question remains: how did this ever happen to begin with? There is nothing remotely inappropriate about two boys kissing. Kids at all ages witness straight couples kissing. To set a different standard on LGBTQ intimacy is nothing but bias and bigotry.
Students need to learn about LGBTQ identities, and they’re never too young to do so. Kids are exposed to diverse identities and experiences every day of their lives. Many come from LGBTQ families. Others come from straight parents. All deserve to see themselves and their loved ones reflected in their schools. And all deserve to be accepted and loved for who they are.
In fact, the rights of LGBTQ people are protected under both the provincial and federal human rights codes. Discrimination against LGBTQ young people is illegal, as it should be. Our schools have a legal and moral responsibility to protect and support LGBTQ students.
In spite their change of pace, the decision of the Catholic board to remove a book with LGBTQ content, without explanation and as quietly as they could, demonstrates a clear failure of the OCSB to support their LGBTQ students.
Catholic school boards in Ontario have long been resistant to LGBTQ inclusion. For decades, LGBTQ teachers in Catholic schools had to hide their identity, fearful of repercussions to their careers and livelihoods should they come out to their peers and students.
In 2012, Catholic boards across the province opposed the then Liberal government’s introduction of Bill 13, a bill to ensure all schools with students who wanted gay-straight alliances were legally permitted to have them – and that their schools were required to support them.
Most recently, in spite of an overwhelming majority of secular public school boards decrying the decision of the Ford government to ax the 2015 sex ed curriculum, Catholic boards across Ontario remained absolutely silent. Not one Catholic board in Ontario spoke up in defense of comprehensive sex education or the rights of LGBTQ students.
When the OCSB announced that they would repeal the ban, they stated they “remain fully committed to having safe, inclusive, and accepting schools.” But if they are truly committed to safe and accepting schools, why did they ban a book with LGBTQ content in the first place? And why did they only reverse the decision after they were publicly condemned for it?
If that is the standard for inclusion in the Catholic school board, I’m worried for the health and well-being of any LGBTQ kids under their jurisdiction.
As an educator and advocate for LGBTQ kids, I’ve heard too many stories of bias and bigotry directed at students from our communities in Catholic schools. From simple erasure of our identities to active discrimination, Catholic schools are failing to deliver LGBTQ students the safe and accepting classrooms they deserve, despite their rhetoric to the contrary.
I hope these stories are isolated experiences. And I hope the initial decision to ban Drama was an accident that will never happen again. But I don’t know. The OCSB hasn’t explained itself.
If they are truly committed to safe and accepting schools – and I genuinely hope they are – they owe us an apology, an explanation, and a plan. An apology for the harm done, an explanation of how it happened, and a plan for how they will live up to the safe and accepting schools they claim to have.