A new toolkit to assist Alberta teachers with LGBTQ discussions is being slammed by critics for suggesting drag shows could be staged in schools and students be addressed as "comrades" rather than boys and girls.
Those are just two of the proposals in a 150-page document from the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA). The "Prism Toolkit for Safe and Caring Discussions" aims to help teachers create classrooms and curriculum that are more LGBTQ inclusive.
The backlash over the toolkit, being distributed in schools this month, is just the latest in a divisive battle over LGBTQ rights for students, pitting advocates against religious and parental groups.
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The toolkit document includes four pages of LGBTQ terminology, as well as the history and legal framework surrounding LGBTQ issues and lesson plans for students in Grades 7-12 on a variety of subjects, including math, biology and religion.
While the ATA argues the document, developed internally, will help teachers create a safe and inclusive environment for all students, some critics say it excludes many points of view.
"There is this implicit presumption that everyone already agrees on this very specific singular perspective of gender and sexuality," said Theresa Ng, a mother, former teacher and parent rights activist who writes a blog called Informed Albertans. "There's no honouring or valuing of alternative perspectives on this issue."
'Comrades' an alternate for 'boys' and 'girls'
One activity, titled "Drag 101" for cosmetology and drama students, suggests inviting local drag queens to teach makeup techniques and organizing a drag performance for the school.
The toolkit advises teachers to use gender-neutral language. For instance, rather than relying on the traditional terms "boys" and "girls," the guide suggests using alternative terms like friends, folks or "comrades."
Terms such as "caretaker," "guardian" and "responsible adults" can replace "mom" and "dad."
"Grade 7-12 students have no choice to decline these lessons, which happen during mandated instructional time, and are powerless to object to their learning time being used toward political activism for the advancement of LGBTQ rights or watching a school-wide drag performance," Ng wrote in her blog.
Andrea Berg, head of the ATA's human rights and diversity division, said the toolkit was created based on demand following a similar document released four years ago for elementary school teachers.
"The document came about as a result of demand from teachers in the field who saw a need in their classrooms on how to create the welcoming, caring, safe and inclusive learning environments," said Berg.
She pointed to the high rates of bullying, self harm and suicide among sexual and gender minority students.
Berg said it is hoped the document will help teachers cultivate safe and supportive discussions in the classroom. It includes advice for teachers if a student comes out about their sexual or gender orientation, as well as dealing with homophobic and transphobic behaviour.
The suggestion of staging a drag show "was recommended as an optional activity that teachers could choose to participate in or not," Berg said.
A purple unicorn is used in the guidebook to describe "a more authentic way of understanding gender."
A picture of a purple, cartoon "gender unicorn" is shown under the heading: "Where do you fall on these spectrums?" It lays out a range of options for gender identity and expression, as well as sex assigned at birth, and physical and emotional attraction.
"Everything in here speaks to a theory of how some people — and I recognize some people feel this way, that gender to them means this, and that's perfectly fine," said Ng. "But what this resource assumes is that is what gender and sexuality mean for everyone."
Ng called for a resource that balances all views in a pluralistic, multicultural, democratic society "without ever abusing our authority."
She urged Albertans to sign up for a campaign launched by Parents for Choice, a parental rights group, demanding that parents be the primary authority in education.
But Berg said the ATA's perspective is "that it is the duty of all teachers to respect all diversity of students, regardless of religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity."
She estimated it cost the association between $30,000 and $35,000 to develop the toolkit, plus part of a $6,000 grant from Alberta Education.
Asked whether use of the toolkit is optional, Berg responded that "it is a requirement from the School Act that schools and teachers work to create welcoming, caring, safe, inclusive learning environments for all students."
But she added: "As far as how teachers are going to use this particular document, it's one tool in their toolkit they can choose. It is absolutely optional if they want to use this."
Ng noted the document contains a warning that suggests optional usage may be subject to interpretation. "Canadian courts have found that schools that fail to address homophobia and heterosexism can be in serious breach of their professional responsibilities and considered to be engaging in educational malpractice," the section reads.
"I think that when teachers read that they see this resource as being not so optional," Ng said.
Education ministry chief of staff Jeremy Nolais said the PRISM toolkit is one of the resources produced from a $191,000 grant to help school authorities implement amendments to the School Act.
"Neither Alberta Education nor the minister require school authorities to refer to the PRISM toolkit or any other external resources," Nolais said.
But school authorities are legally responsible to provide caring and safe learning environments for all students, including LGBTQ pupils, he added.