The UCP's reversal of amendments made in the Education Act by the previous government to accommodate Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) and add a layer of protection for LGBTQ2+ students is a step backward and ignores the fact that this demographic still faces significant discrimination when compared to their peers.
Yes, it's a sensitive situation when lawmakers step in and give educators the power to withhold information from a student's parents. That concern was bolstered by reports of students being taken off school property without parental permission, which should actually have had nothing to do Bill 24. School policy should always be that teachers can't take students on field trips or excursions without parental permission and there are very good reasons those policies exist. If a student's involvement in a GSA and that policy conflict, then there will need to be alternatives found to off-campus activities.
That being said, the UCP's changes have effectively demonstrated ignorance and an overall lack of concern for the realities faced by LGBTQ2+ students.
The rate of discrimination experienced among students who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans-identified, Two-Spirited, Queer or Questioning (LGBTQ2+) is three times higher than heterosexual youth, according to the Canadian Health Institutes.
Those stats alone demonstrate a need to not only protect LGBTQ2+ youth from potential harm but also for the need to build understanding and community with their peers.
Airdrie-Cochrane MLA Peter Guthrie told the Cochrane Eagle last week that there will not be automatic notification to parents of their child's involvement in a GSA, that children still retain anonymity and that the privacy commissioner has issued a statement that individual rights prevail. While that is good to hear and we will definitely be watching to ensure that statement holds true, the rest of the Bill 8 amendments are concerning in their anti-LGBTQ undertones.
If the UCP's concern was simply parental rights and inclusion, then why use Bill 8 to strip away the other protections Bill 24 offered students wanting to set up GSAs?
The new amendments not only create uncertainty in the approval process of a GSA, they also make appeals to the process onerous. Though the amendments still compels principals to approve GSAs, students would have to go through a very bureaucratic and intimidating process if they felt the club approval was being intentionally delayed.
Most disturbing is removing the protections for students to incorporate words such as queer or gay into their club's name. That amendment is counter to inclusive community building and suggests there is something potential unsavoury about the language. Those who argue there is something untoward about the words gay or queer, only serve to demonstrate why extra layers of protection are needed to protect LGBTQ2+ youth.
It is also concerning to hear talk about GSA involvement lean toward discussions about social services and counsellors. Do such conversations happen when people join the chess and math club? Doubtful. In fact, we feel safe in assuming parents don't give a second thought to any other clubs. The fact there is so much discussion about GSAs again demonstrates why they are needed.
Gay Straight Alliances are great mechanisms to build peer and community support, create awareness and help people feel safe and protected in their school community, qualities we should strive to foster, not hinder.