Agreeing to Disagree
How LGBT and religious students can (and should) be able to coexist in public schools.
Several years ago, when I was chaplain to Queen’s University, a trans man of indigenous descent visited me to see if my husband would be willing to teach a self-defense class for trans students concerned about being targeted because of their identity. Our plates were full, so I spoke to my chaplaincy colleague, who is also qualified to teach self-defense. My colleague is an Imam who is socially and religiously conservative—so I expected he would not be willing to do the class, but that perhaps he would be able to help make a connection to someone who would. To my pleasant surprise, he agreed to run the class himself. I admitted to him that his decision surprised me, since I thought his involvement in a class like this would be considered haram (forbidden.) “No,” he said, “I don’t agree with their decision to defy God’s will for their bodies, but they are human beings and have a right to defend themselves in the face of violence.” We made the arrangements, and my colleague began teaching a weekly course that “centered women, trans, and BIPOC” people.
More recently, I had a conversation with that same Imam about a controversy at an Edmonton school, in which a teacher unfairly berated Muslim students for not attending school on a “pride” day. My colleague and I come from different schools of religious thought with differing views on gay and trans people. Still, we largely agree on the importance of protecting civil rights for all Canadians. Together, we have spent a lot of time thinking through what constitutes “reasonable accommodation” and “undue hardship” under the Ontario Human Rights Code. This includes situations of “competing accommodations,” such as how many people feel entitled to sex-segregated spaces, while others believe these restrictions constitute discrimination against transgender people. Sex and religious identity—often the reason people insist on protecting sex-segregated spaces—are both protected classes under the Ontario Human Rights Code, so both sides are deserving of protection. Parents who do not want their children participating in pride celebrations and teen students who decide for themselves not to participate are entitled to simply disengage, as long as they do not prevent those on the other side from freely participating. On the other hand, students and parents who are eager to hold pride celebrations are entitled to do so as long as they do not force others to partake against their will. For either side to force their beliefs on the other would violate the guarantee to freedom of conscience in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
I am what many would call a classical liberal. I have rejoiced at every move our country has made towards equal rights for gay and trans people. For the enduring protection of those very rights, I would like to see pride activities toned down in public schools. I was raised in a conservative Christian home, before equal rights for the LGBT community came to fruition. Many of my church friends went to Christian schools. I have served in a variety of institutions as a multifaith chaplain and have ministered to a variety of people who were raised in secluded religious enclaves. Their parents had kept them in these enclaves to “protect” them, but instead of feeling protected, they often felt this experience left them unprepared to be functional members of a liberal society.
Public schools should be universally welcoming in a neutral way. There is an argument to be made that pride events in school, as long as they remain age-appropriate, are in the best interest of gay kids from homes that will reject them on the basis of their sexual orientation. Why? Because if they are raised in religious enclaves where gay people are invisible in some cases and viscerally condemned in others, they will have no hope of inclusion in that environment and no hope of discovering who they are as they grow into adults. It is also true that we should take care not to chase conservative religious families out of the school system with overweening pride events, as that will further isolate those children. I believe there is a way for LGBT students and straight/religious students to coexist and, perhaps, even learn from one another.
Protests against teaching gender ideology to children are planned across Canada this September. The protests are being mischaracterized as “far right” and “religious bigotry.” I am sure some of the people involved do hold views that can be legitimately characterized as bigotry, but that is not the whole story. Many are concerned about the age appropriateness of sex and gender teachings in schools. Children do not have the developmental capacity to understand gender ideology. It is developmentally inappropriate to introduce detailed information about sex acts to prepubescent children. There is more nuance in the arguments for and against gender ideology than most media would have us believe, but that is for the adults to investigate. Public schools should teach respectful co-existence with neither fear nor favour.
There are now same-sex families and same-sex attracted teachers in virtually every public school. I am happy that people can now be “out of the closet” without having to fear professional or legal penalties. I hope we can work toward a place where being “out” is not a big deal, but rather a matter of fact. Sexual orientation should neither bolster nor detract from human dignity. When someone's sexuality is a relatively neutral fact, kids who need to know they are not alone can have integrated role models. When it is a relatively neutral fact, more people can take a “live and let live” attitude. Religious families should not feel any more threatened by queer theory in schools than gay kids should feel by religious beliefs or studies. Neutral public schools focused on academics will take the heat out of the conflict and give all kids the best chance of participating in our society as equal citizens.
Sometimes, the best way forward really is agreeing to disagree.
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