Alberta education curriculum creates exclusionary atmosphere, critics say

“Dear Parents, your child is enrolled in Religious Studies. Alberta Learning and the Calgary Catholic School District require that parents be informed that human sexuality instruction will occur as a unit of study in this course.”

As a youth, bringing this letter home meant nervous giggles from my fellow students, learning about our changing bodies and human intimacy.

What I didn’t expect was feelings of exclusion, a loss of voice, and isolation from my peers.

I never experienced a proper sexual education as an LGBT youth in Calgary. Questions I had concerning my sexuality and being sexually active as part of the LGBT community went unasked and unanswered in the classroom. I was clueless on what to do in a sexual situation, or how to handle the multitude of issues the LGBT community faces.

 While one could argue my experience was isolated, being the sole openly gay student at my junior high, and one in only a handful of LGBT students in high school, I was not alone.

“As far as it went, we learned it in religion class,” said former Bishop Grandin High School student Geri Mayer-Judson. “There was mention of the stereotypical gay lifestyle in the textbook, like the promiscuity and going out; it was established that sex that was not for the purpose of procreation, that there was no possibility of procreation was just against God.”

Identifying as bisexual, Mayer-Judson said she felt excluded on many levels.

“There was nothing there for me,” she said. “Information I needed to know before I was sexually active was never given to me whatsoever.

“If I wanted to have heterosexual sex then, I would be well prepared but there wasn’t anything if I wanted to be with someone of my own gender,” she said, adding transgendered issues were never once touched upon in her entire education.

Like me, Mayer-Judson turned to the Internet to educate herself.

This resonates with Amoreena Ashe, who experienced her own troubles with sexual education in the public school system. Identifying as a lesbian, she went to friends, books and the Internet for sexual education as a teen as it wasn’t formally touched upon in the classroom when she attended Queen Elizabeth High School.A third-year nursing student at the University of Calgary, Amoreena Ashe wants to see more inclusive and gender neutral vocabulary in sexual education. She also adds there isn’t any LGBT topics in health care education.

Photo courtesy of Claire Gjertsen

Now a third-year nursing student at the University of Calgary, Ashe notes a large gap in the system.

“It needs to start early and it needs to be mandatory in younger grades and continuing on,” she said. “They need to not leave it up to teachers at the school who may or may not be informed themselves.”

ADMINISTRATIVE FIREWALL

These experiences with LGBT sexual health are what trouble Kristopher Wells, director of programs and services at the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta. He described the exclusionary atmosphere for LGBT students in Alberta classrooms as a “process of othering.”

“The problem is the gatekeepers,” Wells said. “It’s the administrators and the school board trustees and these politicians that come from a different generation. But that’s not today’s reality. That’s certainly not the reality of today’s young people.”

According to Alberta Learning, sexual health education begins in Grade 4 in Health and Life Skills for Alberta students. High school sexual health education is taught in Career and Life Management (CALM). Alberta Education confirmed that all school boards, including separate, must teach the curriculum.

However, both documents fail to mention specific LGBT topics, only one outcome in CALM stating, “Students will examine a range of behaviors and choices regarding sexual expression.”

Lesson plans pulled from www.teachingsexualhealth.ca — a website produced by Alberta Health Services, the Calgary Board of Education and many other associations — mentions LGBT topics in CALM only once as a discussion of values.

No other identifiable mention of LBGT topics could be found within the curriculum.

A section of the site is reserved for parents addressing general definitions and common questions regarding LGBT and sexuality. Alberta Education said the resources from this site are encouraged for teachers to use, not mandatory.

Despite access to these resources, some students still may not receive the sexual education they deserve.

DISCRIMINATORY LEGISLATION?

In 2009, the Alberta government passed the controversial Bill 44. While the bill was lauded for finally writing sexual orientation into the Alberta Human Rights Act, Section 11.1 received sharp criticism for allowing parents to pull their children from the classroom for topics of sexual education and orientation.

Director of Programs and Services at the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta Kristopher Wells said Bill 44, which allows parents to opt their children out of LGBT topics in the classroom, is the most contentious issue facing the Alberta government.

Photo courtesy of Kristopher Wells
Advocates for parental choice in education also give praise, but Wells voices concern for LGBT students and for creating a no-discriminatory atmosphere.

“Section 11.1 really undermines the role of education to prevent discrimination,” Wells said. “This is arguably the number one issue that Alberta has in regards to government’s policy and legislation.”

Comparatively, British Columbia does not allow parents to opt their children out of curriculum where LGBT issues are discussed.

Pam Krause, president and CEO of the Calgary Sexual Health Centre (CSHC), recognizes while some parents might be uncomfortable with classroom topics concerning sexual health and LGBT issues, youth need to be given an opportunity to explore their own values.

“What we’re doing is giving youth an opportunity to explore their values, and then what we want to have happen in every case is that they then develop them with their family, with the people around them.”

Krause calls for a standardized, comprehensive and inclusive sexual education, noting while CSHC reaches over 9,000 youth each year in public and some private school outreach, schools in the Catholic system are not reached due to strained services.

Ashe reiterated this, noting the effect of inclusive and gender-neutral language.

“So instead of being, ‘There are people who are gay and they have sex too,’ and just teaching one little unit on that…with a tiny bit of conscience around it, you can actually speak about sexuality, gender and stuff like that, that are not exclusive to a group of people,” she said.

“There are really easy ways to use inclusive language like the term ‘partner’ and that makes a huge difference to any queer teen that is maybe out, maybe not out of the closet. Wherever they are, that language makes a difference,” Ashe said.

“For someone who’s heteronormative they might not notice that, but I can say personally I do.”

WHO MAKES THE DECISIONS?

The implementation of an improved sexual education Krause and Ashe call for rests in the hands of Alberta’s education minister, Gordon Dirks.

Dirks’ past work as a pastor at the Centre Street Church (CSC) has drawn sharp criticism and doubts on future policy in respect to LGBT students.

The church speaks against sexual relations between members of the same sex in their statement of theological principles and ministerial practices.

Dirks has worked to mitigate any doubts they will be protected, meeting with Wells to discuss LGBT issues within education, Wells is calling for future action.

Alberta Party leader, Greg Clark, also calls for action on this contentious issue. Clark said he expects no less from Dirks than to repeal Section 11.1 of Bill 44, pass motion 503 to support gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and to also work towards an “inclusive, comprehensive, unbiased and face-based sex education.”

“LGBT youth are hurt by views that make them lesser of a people. It is not
acceptable, it was never acceptable, and it is certainly not acceptable today,” Clark said.

Dirks initially declined an interview to the Calgary Journal before the byelection. But following his win over Clark in the Calgary-Elbow riding on Oct. 27, Dirks said he is committed to “balancing and protecting the rights of all students, of all parents, and of all school boards in our province.”

For Mayer-Judson, her solution on LGBT sexual education means inclusion and focus on issues that affect LGBT youth.

“There’s nothing worse than being a confused adolescent already and being either not given any information about what you want or being that you’re wrong and you shouldn’t do it, and you’re excluded from a whole part of life.”

cperrier@cjournal.ca