Transgender students have 'mental disorder,' Edmonton Catholic school trustee says

Transgender students should be considered as having a mental illness, an Edmonton Catholic School Board trustee said in an interview with CBC News ahead of a vote on an inclusiveness policy for city schools.

Trustee opposes policy that would allow transgender girl to use female washroom

Catholic school trustee claims attack by former deputy premier

8 years ago
Duration 1:34
Featured VideoCatholic school board trustee Cindy Olsen angry accuses Thomas Lukaszuk of calling her a homophobe online.

An Edmonton Catholic School Board trustee says transgender students should be considered as having a mental illness.

"I see that as a mental disorder, my faith sees it as a mental disorder," Larry Kowalczyk said in an interview with CBC News Tuesday prior to a meeting of the school board.

At the meeting, trustees voted to refer a decision on an "inclusive community" policy for the city's Catholic schools, a policy prompted by complaints over the treatment of a transgender student, to their next meeting.

Kowalczyk took part in the board meeting by phone.

In the earlier interview, he compared transgender people to those suffering from schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder.

"My stand is with that of the church," he said. "God has not made a mistake in the gender of me, or you, or anyone else."

Even so, Kowalczyk said, he does not think transgender students should face discrimination in school and they "should be treated as human beings," but added that shouldn't be confused with "agreeing with the position they have taken."

Following the meeting, fellow trustee Patricia Grell said she couldn't understand Kowalczyk's views. 

"Everyone is allowed to have their own opinions on things ... but I think there's really a lack of education on this issue," she said.

The trustee said he would not support a policy that would allow students to use the washroom designated differently from the gender they were born with.

Instead, he would support a policy crafted by the Edmonton Archdiocese, which would encourage Catholic schools to set up gender-neutral washrooms available for all students.

The policy would also leave decisions on field trips and sports teams involving transgender students up to individual principals.

The school board's attitudes on gender identity were thrown into the national spotlight earlier this year, after a mother protested that her seven-year-old transgender daughter was banned from using the female washrooms at her school. CBC has agreed to not identify the girl or her mother due to fears of discrimination.

The board reversed its decision following public criticism from Grell. It then promised to consider a new policy after consulting with the Catholic church and medical officials.

Former deputy premier 'attacked' her, says tearful trustee

School board trustees debated the proposed policy in a tense, sometimes-emotional meeting that stretched for hours.

The seven-year-old's mother urged the board to pass a policy allowing her daughter to use the female washroom, before being cut off due to time limits on speaking.

"By allowing a policy to be adopted without education on, comparison for, nor understanding of the topic of transgender is blasphemy in itself," she told the meeting.

"I hold myself accountable for being naive enough to believe what this board has told me about having my child's best interest in heart when that, to date, has not been the case."

Few trustees spoke out against the actual policy, although several argued that it was little more than a retread of the board's current non-discrimination policy. Most trustees favoured deferring policy, citing a need for more consultation with school and church officials as well as parents.

"I think the wisdom of the board ... was 'let's wait and do this right,' said trustee Cindy Olsen.

Kowalczyk remained firmly opposed to the policy, arguing that banning a transgender girl from female washrooms in favour of a gender neutral facility was not discriminatory —  a remark trustee Marilyn Bergstra called "a sad moment."

Tempers flared several times throughout the three-hour meeting. At one point, Olsen said she was "being attacked" online by former deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk, who was at the meeting.

She accused him of smearing her reputation by sending inflammatory tweets during the debate.

"I have an email here saying 'wow, homophobic much? Wow, you're a piece of work. I hope God condemns you to hell.'"

"I take exception to this. I am not, and never have been, homophobic."

Olsen demanded an apology. After the meeting, Lukaszuk told reporters that he had been tweeting and was critical of the board's decision, but denied sending anything like what Olsen described.

Trustee emails 'filled with misinformation,' advocate says

During the debate, the seven-year-old's mother says she was disgusted by emails sent by Kowalczyk earlier this year.

In a June email exchange provided to CBC News, Kowalczyk discussed the proposed policy changes with other trustees.

Marni Panas, a transgender advocate who supported the child, was also included in the exchange.

Kowalczyk wrote: "I know very little about transgenderism I have been trying to bring myself up to speed on the subject."

His responses included links to a Youtube video by a Minnesota-based pastor who related transgender people to individuals with anorexia and body dysmorphia. The video described transgender people as "broken" and said they had inaccurate perceptions of reality.

Another board trustee, Marilyn Bergstra, pushed back against Kowalczyk's comments.

In an email reply, Panas wrote Kowalczyk's comments were "filled with misinformation and dangerous rhetoric about what it is truly like to be a transgender person and the issues we face."

She went on to call the video "disgusting and dehumanizing."

Kowalczyk confirmed in an interview that he sent the June emails.

The school board will consider the inclusiveness policy at its next meeting.