What does Doug Ford’s plan to scrap the sex-ed curriculum mean for queer kids?

The success of an LGBTQ poster campaign running in Toronto schools and exhibiting during Pride suggests support for progressive sex-ed

In January, Hall of Justice poster project held its first exhibition at Glad Day Bookshop. Coincidentally, that same day alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur was arrested. John Caffery, the project’s founder, thought the arrest was a pointed reminder of the LGBTQ community’s struggles at a time when young people are claiming space and celebrating heroes.

The posters feature 11 activists, among them bell hooks, George Takei, Sylvia Rivera, Syrus Marcus Ware and Alex Abramovich, whose work encompasses issues such as race, class, gender, HIV/AIDS and sex work. The goal is to educate youth about the broad spectrum of 2SLGBTQ identities and communities.

So far there’s a lot of interest: Hall of Justice posters are displayed in 109 schools across the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).

As Pride month began and Caffery prepared to exhibit the posters again as part of art festival Nuit Rose, he received another reminder that the struggle is not over: the election of Doug Ford as Ontario’s next premier. One of the Progressive Conservative leader’s key campaign promises was to scrap the outgoing Liberal government’s sex-ed curriculum.

“It’s really important that our premier understand the issues at stake with this curriculum,” says Caffery, who has worked with queer and trans youth for 15 years via community organization Supporting Our Youth.

When Hall of Justice emerged, the sex-ed curriculum – which covers sexual orientation and gender identity – had already been implemented, so the project became an additional resource. Caffery says it’s essential for youth to see themselves reflected in the places they frequent as erasure is linked to community rejection and suicide ideation.

“I hope that our trustees and our school board are able to advocate for the importance of these types of issues and materials,” he adds.

J Wallace Skelton, the gender-based violence prevention student equity program advisor for the TDSB, said that when Caffery contacted the board about the posters, it was exciting to say yes.

“I am side-stepping the sex-ed conversation because the Human Rights Code and the Education Act says this work is necessary,” Skelton says.

Without commenting directly on Ford’s plan to repeal, Skelton noted Ontario’s Human Rights Code states that schools are obligated to protect sexual orientation, sex, gender identity and expression, and that supersedes the Education Act.

“Homophobia and transphobia are still present in our society and our schools are a reflection of our society,” Skelton says, adding that educational tools incorporating more people of colour are often missing in mainstream LGBTQ sources.

“They also speak to LGBTQ people having a history,” Skelton adds. “If you don’t feel like you have a history, you feel like you have to do all of the inventing of who you are and what it means to be you.”

hallofjustice-sylviarivera copy.jpg

Hall of Justice campaign posters highlight the work of late trans activist Sylvia Rivera and Toronto activist Alex Abramovich.

Carly Basian, founder of My Sex Ed, an initiative that holds workshops for educators on how to teach the new sex-ed curriculum, echoes Skelton’s sentiments about Ford.

She has obvious concerns about the incoming premier’s promise, but believes he’ll have a difficult time repealing it.

“He can refute that all he wants,” Basian says, “but at the end of the day, teachers have an obligation to teach a curriculum that’s in alignment with our laws and our codes of humans rights.”

For example, Basian says that if Ford were to scrap the grade-three-specific expectation to identify visible (skin colour) and invisible (gender identity) differences, teachers could still teach students to have respect for each other based on race and gender identity because Canada celebrates diversity and inclusion.

“Even though it isn’t in the curriculum, there’s no way a teacher will be punished for teaching their kids that,” she explains.

According to Basian, discussions around topics that rankle Ford and other detractors are fundamental to human growth and development, and therefore appropriate to be talked about with kids.

Out of all the workshops she’s led and discussions she’s had with hundreds of teachers and parents, she has yet to meet anyone who is anti-curriculum.

“I still don’t quite understand what Doug Ford is so concerned about,” Basian says, adding that she is especially confused by his comment that more parents should be consulted on the curriculum despite the curriculum going through heavy consultations. The Ministry of Education surveyed around 4,000 parents – one for every school in the province.

“How many more people can you have provide input?”

As for Caffery, he believes that if he had seen a campaign like Hall of Justice in his high school library, it would have shown him a community he didn’t know existed.

“There were no conversations happening in the classroom,” he says. “Those conversations happened on the playground, and it looked like othering, it looked like bullying, it looked like cruel jokes.”

He created Hall of Justice as part of his Master’s program in environmental studies at York University. It has received resounding support from the TDSB and community, and he has yet to receive any backlash.

“People are seeing the need for this type of imagery,” he says. “It’s a really replicable model. Whether Indigenous youth or newcomers, we can use these types of projects to see how others people have gotten through struggles before.”

Caffery says that while creating the project, as someone who has worked with queer and trans youth for 15 years, he realized that this population has been over-studied and did not want the project to be obstructive.

“I really wanted to focus on ways in which our communities have thrived despite oppression, and to look at the strategies and approaches of these incredible people.”

Hall of Justice is on display at 519 Church as part of Nuit Rose until Saturday (June 16). nuitrose.ca.

Correction: July 16, 2018 An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified J Wallace Skelton’s job title. This version has been updated.

edintern@nowtoronto.com | @JordGoldman

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