Before I was invited to Regina to speak at the Gay Pride Parade, I had read about the city’s fundamentalist Christian, anti-gay and anti-abortion activist in the Star Phoenix and thought to myself. “Ah yes, another person who gives religion a bad name as he peddles hatred on the street corners.” I walked along in the parade and saw Bill What’s-his-name and another male protester. It looks like Bill has a boyfriend now!
As an openly gay man teaching Kindergarten in Surrey BC, and as a gay youth who grew up in the Fraser Valley (often referred to as BC’s bible belt) I’m quite familiar with the prejudice preached by those who abuse religion with their “respect the sinner hate the sin” message. Over the years, similar people have referred to me as a pervert, pedophile and recruiter of children into the “gay lifestyle” simply because I speak out for acceptance of same-sex families and lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) youth in schools.
My classroom has been picketed by people from outside my school community trying to make headlines in the media and trying to intimidate parents into removing their children from my Kindergarten class. Parents who have had their children enrolled in my classroom have been spat upon and called “faggot lovers” by these homophobes, but time and time again their tactics have backfired. The net result of such actions have been only positive in the schools I have worked in. Colleagues and parents have rallied around me. Kindergarten registrations have gone through the roof. Letters of personal support have arrived from strangers while letters of condemnation of such anti-gay behaviour have appeared in local newspapers.
The one thing I’ve learned from all this is that o hate mongers are sometimes our best allies in our fight for equality. Our schools and communities are slowly changing for the better because the average fair-minded citizen has no desire to be bedfellows with a bigot. It may sound like a cliche but I believe that something good always comes from our community’s negative experiences. Their Prejudice becomes our Pride in the most unexpected ways. One of the most powerful contributions you can make is to be out and proud of who you are. I have learned this time and time again. Parents, families and children have respect for us when we shed the shameful lies told about us by others and project an image of dignity and pride in who we are and whom we love. It opens doors to communication, dialogue and learning when we patiently answer the questions of others with honesty and understanding. Celebrating pride in ourselves everyday in whatever way we can is the gift we give to ourselves and those around us. Prejudice has no place in the hearts of those who know us as people rather than as faceless, nameless negative stereotypes.
It is unfortunate that here in Saskatchewan and in other parts of Canada we must use the court system to secure the most basic of human rights for our community. Be it Pride proclamations from civic authorities or books about same-sex families in schools, the legal system sometimes is our only method of recourse to the actions of some civic politicians.
Earlier this month the case of Chamberlain et al versus the Surrey School Board was heard by the Supreme Court of Canada. The case involves the banning of books about same-sex families from public school classrooms. In 1997 I submitted three children’s books (Belinda’s Bouquet, Asha’s Mums, and One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads) to the School Board for approval for use at the Kindergarten and Grade One levels as resources for the Personal Planning curriculum. The books feature children who have two moms or two dads. The parents from my classroom read the books and made a presentation to the school board in favor of their use. Seventeen of twenty families from my classroom signed a petition which they presented to the trustees asking for the books to be approved.
The Board refused to allow the books to be used anywhere in the District because there were parents who complained that their religious beliefs would be offended by acknowledging in the classroom that there are children who have same-gender parents. The school board continues to argue that the books are not age appropriate, yet their only objection to the content of the books is that there are same-sex parents portrayed in them. The school board has spent close to $1,000,000 of taxpayer’s money to keep these books out of classrooms. A Supreme Court decision in our favour will have far-reaching implications for children, same-sex families, educators and school boards across the country. It is about preventing school boards from making educational policy and decisions based on the religious beliefs of some members of the community, who choose to discriminate against same-sex families and LGBT people.
Such a decision will send a clear message to school boards across Canada that they must adhere to the principles of a pluralistic, inclusive public education system. The religious right need to get one thing clear when they use their hateful rhetoric about us having a “gay agenda” in schools. Our agenda is clear. We want pride not prejudice to prevail in our schools. We want our children and families to be safe, to be valued equally, and to be accepted in schools and society at large. Any child can be the target of homophobia in schools and every child benefits when they hear positive messages and see accurate portrayals of same-sex families in classrooms. Extremists have no right to impose their beliefs on the public school system and hold a veto over the discussion of the positive value and reality of same-sex families in classrooms.
This case goes to the heart of children’s rights to have their realities, including their family models, reflected in their schools and in the curriculum. This case has been extremely taxing for myself and the other litigants. It has been a long arduous fight and we are over $200,000 in debt for which we are personally liable.
Each one of us in our own small way has the potential to create positive change in others. Prejudice has been around for a long time but I am very optimistic about our future. Pride not Prejudice will win out in our fight for equality. I appreciate each of you who has the courage to be visible and not be silent, for living your lives as proud lesbian, gay bisexual and transgendered people, and for being our families, friends and our straight but not narrow allies.
James Chamberlain is a Kindergarten teacher in Surrey BC. This article is an edited version of the speech he gave at the Regina Gay Pride Parade. Please visit the website at www.galebc.org for more information on the case and to find out how you can make a donation.
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