After seeing the headline “Catholic School Board Raises Concerns Over Teaching Homosexuality in School” the other day, I got to thinking that there’s still a lot of confusion about “inclusive” education. Teaching homosexuality!? What exactly does that mean? Here’s my take on the question based on the headlines in my home province of Ontario, a supposed bastion of mythic Canadian “tolerance.” (Dont even get me started on the word tolerance.)
In April 2010, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty unveiled an update to the sex-ed curriculum that has been in place since 1997. In response to some proposed curriculum reforms, a right-wing Christian group ran the above left image in the National Post (which was later forced by activists to apologize through a variety of creative means—the above right image is one gay activist’s spoof.) As one Toronto Star article details, it would have meant that “Grade 1 students were to be taught body parts, including the correct terms for genitalia” and “more controversially, Grade 3 students would have learned about homosexuality and, in Grade 6, masturbation. Concepts of anal and oral sex were part of the Grade 7 lesson plan.” After pressure from a small minority of conservative religious leaders and parents, the plan was revoked 54 short hours later. The almost comic dimensions of this notwithstanding—the fact that many young kids engage in forms of masturbation about as soon as their motor skills allow it and that plenty of students might come from queer families where homosexuality isn’t something one has to “learn” about in the safety of a ministry-approved environment—the curriculum debacle points to some other vital issues in what it would mean to “include” the queerness that has been sanitized out of every school subject, not just sex-ed.
Apparently, allowing kids to support each other through gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in schools can also raise the spectre of “teaching homosexuality.” After the May 2011 publication of EGALE’s first National Climate Survey on Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia in Canadian Schools (in which the Catholic School Board refused to participate, by the way), and rumblings of federal anti-bullying legislation, Catholic School Board officials went to the press to express concerns about “teaching homosexuality” including “in the context of bullying prevention” (Kate Hammer, Globe and Mail, A13, August 2011). That legislation is now the Accepting Schools Act, which is on its second reading, and there are still fights about it going on. The pedagogical clash is being framed yet again as one of freedom of religion “versus” any other number of “secular” freedoms. Some proposed an amendment to education policy stipulating that: “Where there is an apparent conflict between the [ministry’s policy] and the denominational aspect of Catholic schools, the protection of the denominational aspect take precedence.”
But who gets to determine what that denominational aspect actually means?
Having one foot in the Religious Studies program at my school, I’ve read a fair amount of rebuttals against right-wing religious rhetoric on homosexuality and the moral vulnerability of children. These rebuttals, like those of Ann Pellegrini and Janet Jakobsen for the U.S. context, brilliantly point out that the conventional polarization of queer-positive left and religious right makes it out so that conservatives are the only real voice of religion—which is totally unfair to the many queer, queer-friendly and otherwise progressive religious people out there! It also ignores what religious studies scholars call “lived religion” and how the force of a community of faith is located in that community, not just in elite interpretations of scripture. Plenty of religious leaders have even argued that it infringes on their freedom of religion to be prohibited from performing same-sex marriages or teaching about the deep equality and social justice they believe is part of their tradition. I just love it when queer-positive folk beat the haters at their own word game.
There are a few other points that I would add to this debate. They’re not totally novel, but I think they lend some perspective:
1. The concerns of people who are freaked out about their kids’ moral vulnerability to representations of sexuality ring a little hollow in face of the fact that they don’t seem to care much about the content of the media they’re all watching and the ads they’ve told marketing firms, as consumers, they’re interested in seeing. As Edward Ingebretson points out (in a fantastic book chapter that’s actually on the topic of clergy abuse of children in the Catholic church), the narrative framing of almost literally everything we see, read, and hear as content consumers, has to do with (hetero)sex.
2. Homosexuality isn’t just about gay sex. The term homosexuality is already loaded with the signifier “sex,” even though it can have a lot more to do with your social positionalities than the number of times you have sex with a member of the “same” sex, whatever that might mean. (Biologists have suggested there are at least six recognized markers of “biological sex,” after all, not to mention the infinite possibilities of gender expression). In the popular imagination, this term implies that the issue is about who has what types of licit or illicit sex with each other. But when I think “homosexuality,” I think about the possibilities of non-normative sexuality. I think about: a continuum of sex practices that range from the hetero sex sanctioned by the Christian hegemony of Western states to sexual subcultures like BDSM which could be called queer without ever involving homosexual acts; queer ways of challenging social norms; and forms of extended and chosen family in which rights and responsibilities are meted out in ways that the state pretends it can’t handle either morally or bureaucratically.
So what would it mean to really “teach homosexuality”? It would have to start with throwing out the fantasy of partition between queerness and religious faith, and it would see queer narratives, lives, struggles and successes leave the confines of the gender studies class or the anthropology course and resurface in all the other disciplines—history, music, economics, art, science—in which they rightfully belong.
I have a feeling that might go a long way toward making queerness not just “tolerable” but also accepted and expected.