Alberta, a province that remains the heartland of Canadian conservatism, did a good thing last week when it released a set of recommendations aimed at helping all of its schools accommodate transgender students.
The Ministry of Education document, called the "Guideline for Best Practices: Creating Learning Environments that Respect Diverse Sexual Orientations, Gender Identities, and Gender Expressions," lays out practical ways to make trans and gender-diverse students more comfortable.
Some of its suggestions include allowing students to self-identify with a particular gender or sexual orientation and to choose their own name/pronoun; modernizing school uniforms to allow for gender neutral options; steering away from "girls versus boys" set-ups for activities; allowing students to participate in sports that reflect their gender identity; creating gender neutral spaces in bathrooms and change rooms as well as letting students use the bathroom/change room in line with their gender identity. School boards now have the task of drafting policies that reflect these values by the end of March.
Naturally, this has created an absolute shitstorm.
While the idea behind this guideline is clearly to create a more inclusive school system, that's not necessarily what you'll gather reading some of the inflammatory reactions currently being espoused in the media. Instead, you could be fooled into thinking the new policies will allow "peeping toms" to enter girls' bathrooms and change rooms and potentially assault them. Or that parental rights are under attack. Or that the NDP government is trying to inflict a "totalitarian" regime over schools.
These views range from misguided to outright transphobic.
Fred Henry, a Calgary-based Catholic bishop, penned a borderline hysterical open letter to his "brothers and sisters in Christ" in which he asserted that "totalitarianism" was alive and well in Alberta.
The NDP directive amounts to a "forceful imposition of a particular narrow-minded anti-Catholic ideology," he said. He took issue with Gay Straight Alliances because they condone an anti-Catholic view of sexuality and said the church teaches women and men to accept their sexual identities.
Meanwhile, a post on The Rebel by rhetoric flame-thrower and unofficial Alberta opposition leader Ezra Levant, claims the new rules are "dangerous" and will be abused by "peeping Toms."
"Based on other jurisdictions' experience: this will result in sexual assaults. It may even result in rapes, as it has in Ontario," he said, a statement that doesn't even require any fact checking given its excessive bullshit smell.
Others, including Donna Trimble, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education, said keeping a child's sexual orientation or gender identity from parents is a misstep.
"The vast majority of parents prove to be loving towards their children, regardless of sexual orientation. In the rare cases where children are not given adequate care from parents, support can and is provided by outside resources on an individual basis," she wrote in a Calgary Herald op-ed.
I can understand why parents would want to know if their child is gay or trans but it's also tough to argue that gaining a student's "explicit permission" before disclosing that information is a bad idea. If kids are choosing to tell someone at school about these issues, it's because they feel comfortable doing so and may not be ready to tell their parents—possibly because they fear negative repercussions. Revealing that information to a homophobic/transphobic parent could result in the student feeling more isolated or even being removed from a school that supports them. Isn't it better for them to have at least some adult guidance rather than none at all?
Levant has started a petition against the guidelines while Henry and Trimble are calling for their outright rejection.
Yet these reactions seem beyond extreme for the guideline is just that—a guideline, not an iron-clad manifesto. At the time of publishing, there's no word as to what consequences, if any, school boards will face if they fail to meet the requirements, but we can assume that boards with questions won't be forced to "dissolve" as Levant has dramatically inferred.
As for the policies being, "anti-Catholic," well, we know that there are gay and trans kids who grow up Christian. They deserve the same protections as everyone else, protections that Catholic school boards haven't yet done a great job of providing.
Part of the huffing and puffing is no doubt due to the fact that some of these adults are uncomfortable with the idea of a more gender neutral community. But that's exactly why the guideline needs to be so specific—the alternative makes it too easy to brush these issues under the rug by having schools simply claim "we respect everyone," as they have done in the past.
Studies show that more than one-third of trans youth in Canada have attempted suicide. There may still be some specifics to work through but the reality is this new guideline couldn't come soon enough for many Alberta kids.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.