Ontario needs new sex education curriculum to help protect children’s human rights

Monday, November 7, 2011

Discrimination. It involves treating people negatively because of their race, age, sex, religion, sexual or gender identity. It's a word, that as Canadians, we rarely apply to ourselves. Instead, we like to think that we uphold diversity as an integral part of the fabric of our society. This is not the case in Ontario public schools.

Imagine if tolerance for racial diversity was no longer part of the elementary school curriculum in Ontario public schools? What if, for instance, racial slurs were no longer shunned? Canadians would rightly be worried about the repercussions for children of colour and their families in our publicly funded schools. While racial slurs are shunned in public schools the term ‘gay’ is frequently used as an epithet.

Our curriculum must provide equal support for youth who belong to sexual minorities, and to children from families that include sexual minorities. Homophobia and racism are both forms of discrimination. We should teach grade three students in Ontario that sexual and gender diversity, like racial diversity, are integral parts of the fabric of Canadian society. The freedom to live without discrimination because of your race or sexual orientation are human rights in Canada.

Race and sexual orientation are both protected characteristics under Canada’s constitution. Neither has priority; there are no equality rights that are more or less protected than others. Why, then, is there such an uproar when elementary school teachers are asked to teach our children about equality for sexual minorities? Simply put it is because the equality interests of sexual minorities are frequently treated as less important than others.

Critics would have you believe that by excluding sexual minorities from the public school curriculum we are protecting our inherently straight children from the threat of ‘recruitment’ into a ‘deviant lifestyle’. Haven’t we moved beyond such hollow claims? Extensive international research has concluded that belonging to a sexual minority is not a lifestyle choice, it is an unchangeable personal characteristic like race or ethnicity. One cannot be recruited into being gay, anymore than one can be recruited into being South Asian. The fear of ‘recruiting’ is merely a mask for homophobia, what is really at stake here is the health and human rights of Ontario public school students.

Who is most impacted by treating sexual minorities as less worthy of tolerance and human rights protection? Youth who belong to sexual minorities, and children whose families include sexual minorities. Recent research conducted across Canadian public schools shows that one in four sexual minority students have been physically harassed about their sexual orientation. Three-quarters of sexual minority students feel unsafe in at least one place at their school, such as change rooms, washrooms, and hallways. Half of straight students agree that at least one part of their school is unsafe for sexual minority students. 46 percent of gay and lesbian youth have attempted suicide at least once. The average age of a first suicide attempt is 13 years.

Excluding sexual minorities and their families from the public school curriculum is not going to make them disappear. Silence on issues of sexual and gender diversity can only serve to isolate sexual minorities, and to normalise and perpetuate discrimination.

The introduction of sexual minorities and their families into the elementary school curriculum is widely discussed as a moral issue, because of its inclusion in the sex education curriculum. This criticism is premised on the idea that discussion about sexual minorities necessarily involves discussion about sex. However, belonging to a sexual minority is no more and no less about sex than being heterosexual. Sexual minorities and their families suffer homophobia while they are grocery shopping, learning in public schools, and playing at the playground, places where sex is completely absent. Talking about sexual minorities in elementary school is in large part talking about identity, families, relationships and inclusion rather than sex. It is an issue of human rights, not of sexual morality.

Homophobic bullying and harassment in Canadian public schools is at a crisis level. The Ontario government must introduce progressive school curriculum to begin to turn the tide. Recognising the existence of Canadians who belong to sexual minorities can only help to ensure that human rights in Canada are meaningful for us all.

Angela Cameron is an Assistant Professor in the faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa.
Designed by Rachel Gold.