Queer students react to discriminatory education system

'That sounds very much my experience, unfortunately,’ UMSU LGBTTQ* representative

News that the provincially-appointed board overseeing the Manitoba Human Rights Commission buried an investigation that found Manitoba’s education system discriminates against LGBTTQ* families is striking a chord with former students.

Nearly three years after initial complaints were submitted by two Manitoba families regarding a lack of inclusivity in the province’s classrooms, CBC reported last week that a commission investigation determined the curriculum is, in fact, discriminatory against LGBTTQ* families.

The investigation found that Manitoba’s education system lacks diversity in sexual education by excluding gender identity and sexual orientation in learning materials.

The report’s dismissal is being challenged in court.

The commission report reveals a number of ongoing issues, including that a lack of a clear definition of diversity allows teachers to meet curriculum requirements even if they exclude sexual orientations, gender identities or family structures different from the cisgender heterosexual standard in lesson plans.

UMSU LGBTTQ* representative Trevor Smith said the environment detailed in the report reflects his own time in Manitoba’s school system, saying “That sounds very much my experience, unfortunately.”

“When I was in high school, I really felt like I was the only queer person I knew,” he said. “I definitely felt a sense of isolation.”

“I think that the report, from what I’ve heard, illustrates something that’s quite clear and probably the experience of most queer students in Manitoba,” he added.

Smith, who said he was the only openly gay student at his school, recalled a moment during sex education in high school when his teacher told the class that they would not be discussing homosexual sex because it was not the curriculum.

“It’s not like he was trying to be rude or anything,” said Smith. “He was just straight being like ‘I don’t really have the tools to […] teach this properly.’”

Smith said the teacher acknowledged there were other resources available, but did not know how to point him in that direction.

The lack of LGBTTQ* representation and education in curriculum is not a new phenomenon and is in fact something school communities have struggled to address.

In response, gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and queer-straight alliances have emerged in schools across the country in recent years.

The alliances are peer support networks run by students and supported by school staff. They are meant to be a safer space where students and allies can gather, connect and even receive safer sex supplies and directions to resources for sexual education.

Leo Lemire-Dawson, a graduate from Kelvin High School in Winnipeg who assisted in running Spectrum, a rebranded form of a GSA, said they learned about queer sex education outside of school through programs like the Rainbow Resource Centre and Teen Talk.

Rainbow Resource Centre is a non-profit organization that supports the LGBTTQ* community with counselling, education and programming for individuals of varying ages. Teen Talk is a youth health education program that provides services to youth in the hopes of assisting with harm reduction, focusing on sexuality, reproductive health, body image, substance use awareness, mental health, issues of diversity and anti-violence issues.

Lemire-Dawson said schools must include queer education — and it should not be restricted to sex education programming.

“I think that it needs to be mandatory for teachers to talk about it, even science teachers,” they said.

“I think there should be a small portion on gender because in biology, which is what I was interested in, it has a lot to do with sex chromosomes and stuff but that gives room for a lot of teachers to just be transphobic.”

“I definitely think that teachers focus — especially in health classes and curriculums — that teachers focus a lot, like 99.999 per cent of the time, on heterosexual sex and not a lot on queer sex.”

Smith agreed diverse sexual education should be presented to all students, saying “Whatever your family beliefs are at home or what your parents think ultimately shouldn’t dictate your access to information about diversity.”

“The fact that parents can pull their kids out of that type of content is also problematic,” he said.

“Ignorance doesn’t change the fact that there is diversity, all it does is hinders students from actually learning more about it and it encourages bigoted types of attitudes.”