Amid furious controversy over an ad placed in the National Post this week by an evangelical Christian group, the Toronto District School Board is defending lesson plans that teach kids to question gender roles at an early age.
The controversial ad is for a campaign led by a lobby group called the Institute for Canadian Values, and since running in the Post it has provoked public outrage and allegations of transphobia from gay rights groups.
The full-page ad equates teaching young students about transgenderism and transsexuality with "corrupting children," and suggests that parents should be allowed to remove their kids from classes addressing LGBTQ issues. Quoting from a Toronto District School Board teacher's resource guide, it also claims that a "homosexual curriculum" could confuse children and cause them to question their own gender identity.
While the ad insinuates that children are being encouraged to swap gender roles in classrooms on a regular basis, Kenneth Jeffers, coordinator for the TDSB's gender-based violence prevention program, says the board's anti-homophobia resource guide is not a mandatory part of the curriculum. Rather, he says it's often used by teachers after a homophobic or sexist incident has taken place and students are already discussing issues of gender or sexuality.
"The ad tries to create the idea that something is wrong with what we're doing. Nothing could be further from the truth," he said. "Kids learn about gender at a very young age. Boys and girls have very stereotypical ideas of what a boy looks like and acts like. There's nothing wrong with saying that's true for some people but it's not true for others."
Jeffers says the goal isn't to make kids question their own gender, but to shake up entrenched ideas about what constitutes normal gendered behaviour, so that if a little boy shows up to school in a pink t-shirt or decides to take dance lessons, he's not singled out as a target for bullying.
"One of the worst things that a boy can say to another boy in grade one is ‘you're a girl.' These lessons aim to deconstruct that, so kids aren't pigeon-holed," Jeffers explains. "We see the aftermath of bullied kids becoming depressed or even committing suicide, and our response ends up being very reactionary. All the research indicates the best interventions are the early interventions, in the earliest grades."
A study by gay rights group Egale Canada found that 74 per cent of trans youth reported being verbally harassed about their gender expression. Thirty-seven per cent said they have been physically assaulted.
According to media reports, National Post advertising manager Enzo Loschiavo says he is not sure how the ad got into the paper and is investigating the situation after receiving a high volume of complaints.
The Institute for Canadian Values did not return a request for comment.
Lucas Silveira, himself a transgendered man and lead singer for the rock band the Cliks, says he felt physically sick when he saw the ad. He believes the ad is hate speech and says he intends to take it up with the Canadian Advertising Standards Council.
"The problem is people don't see public transphobia as a hate crime," he said. "But if someone put an ad in the National Post asking for Black History Month to be removed from the curriculum, that would be considered unacceptable."
If Silveira proceeds with filing a complaint about the ad, he could have a strong case. The ad council's code of standards states that ads should not condone discrimination, encourage bullying, or demean an identifiable group.
The council is an industry self-regulating body however, and if the Post was found in violation the worst penalty it would face would be being asked to amend or withdraw the ad. That the paper will do so voluntarily is already almost a certainty, given the public criticism it has faced since running the ad.
According to correspondence between Silveira and the Ontario Human Rights Commission, advertisements in the media are beyond the reach of the commission and so it is unlikely the Post or the Institute for Canadian Values could be charged with discrimination.
UPDATE: The National Post has issued an apology for running the Institute for Canadian Values ad. The unattributed statement released online Friday says that in this case the paper's procedures for vetting ads were not properly followed and, "An ad that should not have run in its proposed form was allowed to run." The apology sates the ad will not be run again, and proceeds the Post received from it will be donated to "an organization that promotes the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people."