When I first heard that the Surrey School Board was about to ban gay-positive children’s books, I was appalled, then furious. “Not on my watch!” I said. So with a half-dozen other members of Out on Campus and the SFU Pro-Choice Group, and brand-new hand-made signs, I drove over to Surrey on April 10th to join with other protesters.
I remember the meeting place was packed, with so many people that most couldn’t get into the board room. They also didn’t have microphones, which meant we could hardly hear what was going on. So we waited, while the board voted on other motions. Finally they came to ours. Speeches were made, trustees spoke, TV cameras took in the whole thing. When the motion passed, with a vote of 4 to 3, the crowd let loose with “Shame! Shame! Shame!” It was a terribly frustrating experience for me, a sort of double failure. Not only did the motion pass, but the protesters didn’t have a chance to do anything. Even worse, the actual motion itself left me confused. During the debate, Board chair Robert Pickering—the one who proposed the motion—assured people it wasn’t actually a ban, he just wanted to make the point that books had to go through proper channels before they were accepted.
Afterwards I learned a little more about the background of the motion. James Chamberlain, an elementary school teacher, had requested three children’s books dealing with, or having minimal content dealing, gay and lesbian parenting (Asha’s Mums, Belinda’s Bouquet and One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dad) along with a package circulated by Gay And Lesbian Educators of BC (GALE-BC). He invited the parents of his class to read the books. All of those who did saw nothing wrong with them. (I personally have read two of the books: One Dad, Two Dads… is a delightful reminder that families come in all sizes and colors. Belinda’s Bouquet only has a single line about Belinda’s “mums.” The book is actually about body image and self-acceptance, using the metaphor of the bouquet of flowers to illustrate the point that we are all different, yet all beautiful.)
Despite all this, Pickering—who never read the books—proposed a motion opposing the use of the GALE package, and it was this motion that was passed April 10th. Two weeks later, the Board passed another motion to ban outright the three children’s books, as well as “resources from gay and lesbian groups such as GALE or their related resource lists.” So much for proper channels.
But anyone who knew about Pickering and his slate, the Surrey Election Team, shouldn’t have been surprised. They had already banned condom machines and Planned Parenthood from Surrey schools. Even more disturbing are the SET’s strong ties to the Religious Right. Trustee Heather Stilwell was a founder and leader of the ultra-right-wing Christian Heritage Party (whose principles include the belief that the Bible is “the inspired, inerrant written Word of God and the final authority above all man’s laws and government”). She is also leader of the homophobic Family Coalition Party of BC. Pickering is married to a federal candidate of the CHP; he is also a former director of the Citizen’s Research Institute, a right-wing organization that was a major force behind the ban. The CRI has been promoting a five-page “Declaration of Family Rights,” which forbids school children from being “exposed to and/or involved in any activity or program which discusses or portrays the lifestyle of gays, lesbians, bisexual and/or transgendered individuals as one which is normal, acceptable, or must be tolerated.” The CRI’s leader, Kari Simpson, is the local contact person for the Christian Coalition of BC. This is just a very brief overview of the well-organized and determined network of far right lobbyists working to deny us our rights.
It is encouraging, though, how much opposition the ban is facing, and not just from queer groups and the left. The Board has come under fire from the Surrey Teachers’ Association, as well as the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation—which, a month earlier, had passed a resolution “to form a panel which would create a program to eliminate homophobia and heterosexism from within the BC public school system.” Both BC Education Minister Paul Ramsey and BC Premier Glen Clark have publicly denounced the Board’s actions. But it would be a mistake to celebrate just yet. Ramsey and Clark may have issued public statements and warnings, but so far have taken no concrete action. The SET is still in power until 1998 (albeit with a slim voter majority, and they will probably not get reelected); the CRI and the Christian Coalition are not going away anytime soon. And it must be remembered that, until and unless a move is made by the courts or the government, the ban is still in effect.
Besides, censorship is nothing new in Canada, nor is it limited to Surrey. There have been many cases over the years of books and publications being banned with the consent of the governments or local authorities: sized at the border, or removed from public libraries, news stands and schools. When the books in question have gay content, the issue becomes even more explosive. Right-wingers constantly spread the stereotype of homosexuals “recruiting” children, or of children “learning” homosexuality. Even learning to tolerate sexual diversity is too much as far as they’re concerned. People like Pickering, Stilwell and Simpson would rather keep children in the dark about the realities of today’s families than educate. They would rather have queer children growing up confused, alone and self-hating than happy and proud. Even knowing the statistics of gay teen suicide, they are willing to sacrifice other people’s lives to their own ignorance and prejudice.
Pickering and the SET will lose, eventually. But they are only some of the people working to take away our rights, silence our voices, impose their narrow vision of love, sexuality and family on the rest of the world. In the long run, education is the only answer to these people.
Asha’s Mums would probably be a good place to start.