A personal reflection on why the new sex-ed curriculum matters.
In my younger days, I had no objections to attending Catholic school. The elementary school down the road from my childhood home is Catholic, and having been baptized in the church to follow family tradition, I fit right in. There were no qualms about moving from a Catholic elementary school to a Catholic high school, either. My big brother was accepted to a fairly new faith-based school in North Toronto—a place named after Canada’s father of communications philosophy, rife with new technology and media—so I would automatically have a spot there. I was sold.
Back then, I didn’t know much about identity. I had, all of my life, regurgitated religious teachings; told to memorize them, I was obedient. But seldom did my teachers invite me to reflect on their meaning. At the same time, I was surrounded by anti-gay rhetoric. It was commonplace for the adults around me to sound off about the gay marriage debate that was brewing before I entered high school. “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” they’d joke.
Then I entered Grade 9, turned 14, and came out as gay. Catholic school didn’t seem like such an afterthought anymore; rather, its climate only seemed to elevate the discrimination I faced. In true high-school-bully fashion, I was subject to taunts and rumours and uncomfortable stares. One of my peers managed to out me to students of neighbouring schools in the district; riding the bus home, girls I had never met would sneer at me between comments on my sexual orientation. My locker, decorated with gift wrap for my 17th birthday, was vandalized—in thick black lettering, someone had written “DYKE” across the paper. I learned to keep my head down.
Much of this bullying, I like to think, was the result of misinformation. Perhaps I was the first gay person my classmates had ever met. Perhaps the adults around them, like those around me, spat out homophobic jokes without ever considering their ramifications. Perhaps their families thought less of the LGBTQ community, and they absorbed those views. Perhaps all they needed was a little education.
Reflecting on my own experience, it seemed fitting—exciting, even—that this past month, some leaders of religious communities affirmed Ontario’s new sex-ed curriculum. Introduced at the onset of the 2015 school year, the curriculum seeks to teach a more inclusive understanding of sexuality to students in elementary and secondary schools. Students will learn about sexual orientation and gender identity, and the stereotypes that surround those identities—counteracting the kind of hatred I experienced as a teenager.
At the Peel District School Board, west of Toronto, four local imams have given their approval of the new curriculum. “I look at it as things going on in society at large, and the response from our government and the ministry [of education] to handle those types of situations,” Imam Zahir Bacchus told the Toronto Star in November. “These are things our youth are facing, no matter what their religious background is.” Some imams will also participate in information sessions where parents can better understand the curriculum.
For leaders in Islamic communities—so often pegged as intolerant and unaccepting of those who identify as LGBTQ—to support these teachings is groundbreaking. It sets a precedent for all religious leaders, especially those who teach in Toronto’s faith-based schools, to build more inclusive classrooms. Most of all, it creates an atmosphere in which students can be themselves without fear—the opposite of the kind of learning environment I endured for four years.
Yet, some educators still hesitate to embrace the curriculum. An article published in the Catholic Register a few weeks ago notes the trend of parents enrolling their children into private, not publicly funded, Catholic schools. “When the Ontario government introduced its revised sex-ed curriculum, many parents suggested they’d turn to private education,” the story reads. And back in June, two Toronto Catholic District School Board trustees tried to delay the curriculum because “substantial parts… contradict Catholic teachings.”
Though news of the curriculum seems to have fallen off the radar as of late, these denunciations continue. It is an unfortunate circumstance surrounding an issue that matters even once the television cameras stop showing up and the novelty has worn off. Youth are the ones most affected. They are at the core of this debate. They are why the curriculum matters.
This problem, of course, is not exclusive to faith-based schools and its religious teachers and staff. It is ignorance, not religion, that creates a barrier to access better education. But Toronto public schools are the institutions that have appeared most willing to give the curriculum a shot, and faith-based schools could stand to follow their lead.
If only such a curriculum had been proposed while I was still a teenager, still so uncomfortable in my own skin. I wonder how different my high school years could have been: Would I have accepted my sexuality sooner had it not made me a target for bullying? Would I have been more involved in my school community had I not feared for my safety and emotional well-being? I will never know. But with a framework in place to better educate youth, today’s students shouldn’t have to ask themselves those same questions.