Respect Diversity. Foster Respect.
When one of my teens came home from a friend's house a couple weeks ago, angry about the latest thing the NDP had done to our province, I didn't believe him. “They've passed a law saying that boys can use the girls' restrooms, just because they want to,” he said. I raised an eyebrow and shook my head. That, I knew, was an exaggeration. It was just too outrageous. I even googled it. Nope, I said. They just passed a law making it illegal to discriminate against people who are transgender.
I was wrong.
Days later, an email from a friend of my own tipped me off to Alberta's new guidelines for supporting transgender students and their families. I googled it again and found out that the outrageous things my son had told me were true! Not only could any students now use the bathroom and join the sports team of whichever gender they chose, but they could also insist on being called by the name, title and pronoun of their choice.
I was wrong again.
The truth is, the guidelines are not quite as arbitrary and nonsensical as some media reports have made them appear. They are designed to respond to a genuine and urgent need. But they would enforce a perspective that's at odds with vast portions of our society, to the point that they threaten freedom of conscience. And they seem to be written without any comprehension of their very real potential for abuse. So what, exactly, do the guidelines aim to accomplish? And what should concerned people of faith and good will do about them?
It should be recognized that the guidelines are not designed to be divisive. They're intended to help school boards provide “welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environments,” especially for LGBTQ students who are frequently marginalized and bullied. The document calls for individualized supports to such youth that are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, with issues being “resolved in a collaborative manner that involves the student in the decision-making process.”
This means, of course, that no boy can arbitrarily decide that he wants to use the girls' bathroom, or vice versa. It also means that kids can't just change their names on a whim. My preteen son was planning to insist on the title “Lord” and the proper name “Your Highness,” but that's not going to fly.
The goal of “welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environments” is a worthy one. Unfortunately, the guidelines extend beyond that goal and even beyond the government's mandate. According to the School Act, boards must provide such learning environments, ensuring that they "respect diversity and foster a sense of belonging” (Guidelines, pg 2, paragraph iii, italics added). But the Guidelines call for more than that. They want to “foster diversity and nurture a sense of belonging and a positive sense of self” (Guidelines, pg. 1, paragraph iv, italics added).
Fostering diversity is not the same as respecting it. What we respect, we treat with dignity and kindness. What we foster, we promote and create more of. But is more diversity in gender identity and sexual orientation actually a desirable goal?
If gender identity is solely subjective, if sexuality is a morally-neutral, biological imperative, and if the anguish experienced by LGBTQ people is fully traceable to homophobic and transphobic attitudes in society at large, then maybe it is. Maybe, if we foster more diversity, those attitudes will disappear and all the anguish will go away.
But if sexuality is actually designed by our Creator to unite men and women into strong, procreative families, if gender is an integral part of our God-given roles, and if sexual relations outside of man-woman marriage are actually contrary to our design and harmful to our psyche, then fostering diversity in this area isn't going to do away with the anguish. It will multiply it.
Albertans differ on this. That's diversity and it needs to be respected. We need to treat each other with dignity and kindness, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation and religious beliefs. But that doesn't happen when the government sides with one perspective and decides to require that public, private and faith-based schools foster diversity in gender identity and sexual orientation.
What happens instead is that the government starts quashing ideological diversity, as seems to be the case with Edmonton Catholic School Board. Last Spring, Edmonton Catholic came under fire for requiring a 7-year-old transgender student to use a gender-neutral bathroom rather than the girls' restroom. This January, after the Board sent parents a pastoral letter that criticized the new guidelines, Education Minister David Eggen told the Edmonton Journal that he might need to dissolve the Board. Ouch! So much for safe learning environments.
So what do we do to restore respect for diversity?
First of all, we avoid making the mistakes that are guaranteed to exacerbate the situation.
1. We don't assume that the NDP are pushing an agenda to do away with religious rights and to erase the concept of gender altogether. We don't because doing so invites them to think we're pushing an agenda to do away with homosexuals and force everyone into rigid gender roles. Radical agendas exist on both sides of the political fence but they have scant support. They only manage to make headway when they can goad people of good will on both sides of an issue into extreme measures, aimed at defending themselves from the extremism of the other side. Our job, whatever the issue, is to respond to genuine needs rather than react to assumed agendas because the fuel for every destructive agenda is an unmet need.
2. We don't listen to anyone who seems intent on stirring us up to fear or anger. Those are the tools of demagogues and tyrants, who understand that when people are angry and afraid, they're quick to act and slow to think. We refuse to hand over our higher processing skills to manipulators who are intent on exploiting the situation to promote their own interests.
Instead, we do the following.
1. We take the time to deeply understand the unmet needs to which the new guidelines are designed to respond. We find some trustworthy voices, and then we open our hearts and listen to the experience and anguish of children and teens who suffer from gender dysphoria and/or same-sex attraction. Those trustworthy voices will probably arise out of our own faith communities. For me, the personal stories at the official LDS site on same-sex attraction, at Josh Weed's blog, and at John Alden's essay on gender identity are both prejudice-shattering and profoundly inspiring.
2. We build resilient communities. That means communities that are safe and welcoming to everyone, that are mutually respectful. We don't wait and hold our breath, hoping that none of our students will try to launch a Gay-Straight Alliance. No, we watch this video to get a sense of why such alliances can be life-saving and then we seize the day and get our kids involved in founding them. Alliance is a good word. It connotes mutual trust, respect and support. But whether we call it a GSA or something else, we help create safe havens where kids support each other in their struggles, whether they be with gender dysphoria, same-sex attraction, anorexia, mental health, or something else. We create a culture where elementary school kids no longer throw epithets like “that's so gay,” at each other, and where there's no shame in using the gender-neutral bathroom because all sorts of kids use it. We make sure that every teen who's struggling with gender identity, same-sex attraction or something else gets the message loud and clear that they have reason to hope, whatever their struggles, and that they are loved and valued, whatever their choices.
3. We form broad alliances. We don't have to see eye to eye with our allies on everything. We just have to agree on the fundamentals of protecting and serving our kids. In this case, we ally with feminist organizations and women's shelters to make sure that the safety of our girls is not overlooked.
4. We join parent committees to collaborate with our schools and ensure that we have an active part in deciding how the guidelines will be implemented. If it comes to the point that Ministry of Education staffers come to meet with our school boards, we make sure that we're there, to represent our concerns to the government.
5. We ensure that our restrooms, change rooms and our sports teams are safe for all students. We simply do not accept anything less.
All this is considerably more work than signing a petition. But petitions are notoriously ineffective. It's time instead for earnest study, respectful dialogue, and persistent involvement.