It was not surprising to me that Doug Ford won the Ontario election. With all the tension around social justice issues lately, such as the anti-LGBTQ protests targeting Pride marches across the province, it’s clear that bigoted populist politics are on the rise in both Canada and the U.S.
The Ontario New Democratic Party may have become a strong opposition, but a majority government still means a blank cheque in the realm of lawmaking. I felt awful, and so did my friends and colleagues who began to send despairing messages over Facebook and Twitter when the announcement was broadcasted across the province. For those of us in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) community, this is a nightmare scenario as far as politics goes.
Among concerns about what right-wing austerity measures might mean for social services, environmental protection and access to healthcare, there is also the pressing concern about inclusivity and diversity within our educational institutions.
The health of school children
A rigorous sex-ed and LGBTQ inclusive education was implemented into Ontario’s elementary and secondary curriculum by the Liberal government in 2015. This became a major campaign issue for the Progressive Conservative party during the 2018 election.
Ford tapped into deep-seated anxieties about the “gay agenda,” allegedly arguing that this legislation forces children to learn about “six different genders and all the nonsense.” After he won his majority government, he made sure to publicly announce his commitment to repealing the legislation.
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, urged the Ford government to reconsider its plans to scrap the legislation, which she asserts contributes positively to the health and safety of children and which teaches about consent, sexting and online dangers like cyberbullying.
My concerns about Ford’s plan to scrap the sex-ed legislation is that he will likely also drag back any progress Ontario has made in educating youth about what it means to identify in the LGBTQ spectrum.
Allowing children to make informed decisions
Sex-ed in Ontario is currently listed under the health and physical education curriculum and is carefully spread out between primary and secondary education. Specifically, it’s listed under the “healthy living” section with the intent of giving children enough knowledge to make healthy decisions.
The Liberal government’s efforts to improve sex-ed are entirely supported by a scientific consensus that these changes will contribute to the healthy development of children.
The government’s website currently reads: “Teaching about sexual health and development does not increase sexual behaviour, and can actually prevent risky activity.”
The education is in place so that children will be able to make informed decisions to protect themselves against early pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Furthermore, they will gain clear ideas about bodily health, emotional wellbeing and consent.
Meanwhile, Ford and his supporters have called this curriculum “radical” and “ideological,” which seems to be because anything outside of cisgender and heterosexual realities is left-wing propaganda.
Dangerous steps backwards
It is clear from Ford’s populist campaign that he is no ally to the LGBTQ community. This is evident from his courting of a virulently homophobic and transphobic conservative base. His party is likely going to seek to exclude our communities from children’s education, and I would like to warn that this is a dangerous move.
Feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith once observed that “our culture does not arise spontaneously; it is manufactured.” Collective culture in Ontario emerges from the ways children are socialized into the world and this socialization shapes our sense of self and our positions within society.
When I was younger, and still presenting as a straight man, I was afflicted with many psychological and social issues. While I attended school, I did not learn what it meant to be bisexual or transgender. Because of this, I had no language to explain how I felt or why I didn’t quite fit into the mould that I was being forced into. I didn’t even know that transgender people existed.
You learn how to behave through a process of socialization that happens through the influence of families, media and school. A child’s time navigating through educational institutions is an opportunity to teach that child what is and isn’t acceptable.
Up until the Liberal government’s sex-ed changes, children would learn that there are boys and girls, and that boys date girls. Anything concerning LGBTQ realities were excluded, and this institutional silence allowed discrimination and ignorance to flourish.
Sex-ed isn’t going to turn you gay
This is problematic for two reasons. First, people are LGBTQ whether they know what that means or not. It isn’t a choice. Sex-ed isn’t going to turn cisgender, straight kids into pansexual trans persons. When LGBTQ children have no means to understand their feelings, they become alienated from themselves and others.
As a transgender child, I had no idea how to interpret my gender dysphoria and really didn’t figure it out until I was close to 30. As you might imagine, I wish I could have figured it out when I was in high school.
Second, when LGBTQ diversity and inclusion are not taught, children pick up on social and cultural cues that informally teach them that it is wrong to be queer. Not only does a LGBTQ child feel an enormous amount of self-shame, if found out, they are also exposed to an enormous amount of homophobia and transphobia.
This is the status quo the Ford Nation wants to maintain.
Though it might not be readily apparent, the culture war afflicting educational politics in Ontario literally costs lives. As social worker Michel Dorais pointed out in his qualitative research into gay students and masculinity in Ontario high schools, the exclusion and stigmatization that these students experience from their peers and their teachers because of their sexual identity heightens their chances of becoming suicidal.
This depressing reality isn’t set in stone. We can still stop Doug Ford and his politics of exclusion. Removing sex-ed and LGBTQ material from educational institutions is an act of discrimination against our community and we need to use every tool that we can muster to resist the PC government’s efforts.
We need to file human rights complaints with the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) and litigate his repeal in the name of the public interest. We need to mobilize in the streets and in classrooms to show him that we won’t stand for being thrown back into the closet.