Sex and politics: sex education and the Ontario PC leadership race

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14 February 2018

The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario (PCPO) is in the middle of a leadership race brought on by the unexpected resignation of leader Patrick Brown. Surprisingly, the province’s 2015 revised sex education curriculum has emerged as a hot-button issue in the race. All three main candidates have issued policy statements on the subject, and a fringe candidate is apparently throwing her hat in the ring solely to fight it. The curriculum revisions were long overdue and provide sensible guidance to teachers on a variety of issues of sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity. LGBT students in Ontario’s public schools, and their families, deserve to be treated with understanding, inclusiveness, and compassion; the current curriculum achieves this while allowing teachers the flexibility to best deal with sensitive issues of sexuality in the classroom. Much of the rhetoric about the sex ed curriculum is over-wrought, and some of the opposition to it is based on rumours and misinformation. PCPO leadership candidates should resist pressure to revisit this issue.

People advocating wholesale revisions of the curriculum in order to limit the coverage of LGBT issues in Ontario schools are advised to read the curriculum document itself rather than judging it based on the exaggerated claims of social conservative opponents. The full document, Sex Education in Ontario, is available here. In summary, the subjects of sexual orientation and gender identity are dealt with as follows:

Grade 6:

  • how stereotypes such as homophobia and assumptions about gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, culture, and abilities can affect how a person feels about themselves and their feelings of belonging and relationships with others
  • appropriate ways to respond to and change assumptions and stereotypes

Grade 7:

  • physical, emotional, social, and psychological factors to consider when making sexual health decisions (e.g. STIs, pregnancy, side-effects of contraception, social labelling, cultural teachings, gender identity, and impact on other relationships)

Grade 8:

  • gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, and how to identify factors that can help all young people develop positive personal identities

Grade 9:

  • gender identity and sexual orientation, and how different things like acceptance, stigma, stereotypes, self-awareness, culture, religion, & media can influence a person’s understanding of themselves

Grade 10:

  • how a variety of factors (e.g. values/beliefs, media, setting & communicating limits) can influence a person’s decisions about sexual activity
  • common misconceptions about sexuality in our culture, and how these may cause harm to people and how they can be responded to critically and fairly

In an overall message to teachers called Teaching the Curriculum, the document states:

  • The Human Development and Sexual Health (sex ed) component of the Health and Physical Education curriculum guides teachers to plan what they teach with the goal of establishing a foundation of mutual respect, and understanding for diverse perspectives in the classroom.
  • It will not replace the role of parents in educating their children about sexual health.

Social conservatives in Ontario who are loudly protesting the province’s sex ed program are not complaining about instruction related to birth control, pre-marital sex, or sexually-transmitted infections; they are principally agitated about the provisions of the curriculum that deal with sexual orientation and gender identity. This is troubling; public schools in Ontario exist to teach a secular program that is open to all students, regardless of their backgrounds. Although social conservatives are of course free to educate their children privately as they see fit, opposition to sex education based on the demands of social conservatives should not over-ride the broader needs of students in public schools. LGBT students exist in the school system, and for most of them there is no alternative. A curriculum that, at best, ignores these children, or at worst, denies their existence, does a serious disservice to them.

No one has suffered more from a lack of adequate education on human sexuality than the LGBT community, young members of which are frequently in the closet at home and school and often rely on dodgy information gleaned from the internet or popular culture on how to deal with their emerging sexuality. No group is bullied more in Ontario schools than LGBT students. LGBT youth have significantly higher rates of homelessness, substance abuse, depression, and suicide. It is not something inherent in the “homosexual lifestyle”, so often derided by social conservative extremists, that can lead young LGBT people into risky behaviours and mental illness; these harmful outcomes result from a lack of acceptance and understanding from compassionate authority figures, bullying by peers, insufficient support from friends, families, and schools, and a lack of positive role models. Straight students are taught the parameters of a healthy sexual life in Ontario’s public schools; LGBT students deserve no less.

From a purely political standpoint, most Ontarians want their government to address the issues of economic decline, high energy costs, and fair taxation. Most Ontarians, and a majority of Ontario conservatives, are not interested in restricting the education of Ontario’s children, even when the issue at hand may be controversial or uncomfortable to some people. For the PCPO to win the June 7 election and to claim legitimacy as a representative government, it must appeal to a broad cross-section of Ontario voters. Divisive issues like revising the sex ed curriculum may motivate a small percentage of conservatives, but a platform that focuses on these issues repels centrist voters and does not reflect the values of most Ontarians. An election fought on the sex ed curriculum will damage the PCPO’s credibility and electoral viability.

PCPO leadership candidates Doug Ford and Christine Elliott are on record saying they would revisit the curriculum after consulting with parents. Candidate Caroline Mulroney has stated that she would not support “undoing any of the changes that have already been made” but would include parents in any future revisions. There may well be a need for a discussion about the appropriate age for teachers to deal with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms, and perhaps the Ontario sex education curriculum needs some minor revisions on that front. However, demands to remove these elements from the curriculum are unwarranted and harmful to LGBT students.

We urge PCPO leadership candidates to resist pressure from a small segment of voters to strip the curriculum of its components that deal with LGBT students in a compassionate and understanding way. The PCPO’s viability as a party is at stake; but more importantly, the health and well-being of LGBT children in Ontario’s schools are at risk.

 

LGBTory Canada

Toronto, Ontario

 

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article contained the statement “there is no mention of ‘six genders’ or anal intercourse anywhere in the document“, referring to the Ontario Ministry of Education’s sex education curriculum. This statement was made in reference to the document “Sexual Health Education by Grade” which can be found here: https://www.ontario.ca/page/sex-education-ontario. There are in fact references to gender and anal intercourse in the full Ontario Health & Physical Education curriculum (found here: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/elementary/health1to8.pdf) which are given as suggested teacher responses to hypothetical student questions, but they are not part of the mandatory curriculum.)

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