School board battle: Edmonton Catholic struggles to create LGBT policy

The Edmonton Catholic School Board meets on Sept. 15, 2015. Kent Morrison, Global News

EDMONTON – It started earlier this year when a seven-year-old transgender girl wanted to use the girl’s washroom in her Catholic school.

She was no longer identifying as a boy and didn’t want to stand out by having to use a new, gender-neutral washroom.

In May, the school in Edmonton had agreed she could use the female facilities.

But the girl, whose mother knows her daughter is wise beyond her years, wasn’t buying it.

“I’m actually going to need to see that in writing, Mama,” the girl’s mother recalls her saying. “To date I haven’t been able to give it to her.”

READ MORE: Local mother accuses Edmonton Catholic School Board of discrimination

The family filed a human rights complaint and Edmonton Catholic Schools has tried several times since then to craft a broader policy – dealing with more than just washrooms – that protects gay and transgender students while falling in line with the church.

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The issue may reach its boiling point Tuesday when the school board holds its next meeting over a washroom controversy, which has ballooned into a contentious religious debate over transgender rights.

The school board requires schools to have all-gender washrooms. But the girl’s mother, who has asked not to be named to protect her child’s identity, says the decision on which washroom her daughter uses is ultimately up to the principal.

READ MORE: Vote on transgender policy put on hold after heated debate by Edmonton Catholic School trustees

The board’s last meeting in September was fiery. One trustee cried and shouted over accusations she was homophobic. Another trustee, Larry Kowalczyk, told media that he considers being transgender a mental disorder.

The province’s education minister intervened. Several trustees were called to a closed-door meeting with David Eggen at the legislature, where he warned there could be consequences if board members “didn’t get their act together.”

Board chairwoman Debbie Engel has admitted creating a policy is an “emotionally charged issue,” but has expressed confidence one can be developed similar to one adopted by Edmonton Public Schools a few years ago.

The public district became the first on the Prairies to develop a stand-alone sexual orientation and gender-identity policy. It lets students use the washroom and locker room that matches their self-identified gender.

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Part of the reason the Edmonton Catholic district has delayed its policy is that it was waiting for the Council of Catholic School Superintendents of Alberta to suggest a provincewide one, with advice from Catholic bishops.

That document was made public last week and while it says schools should support inclusive communities and treat everyone with dignity and respect, it also includes an explanation of why being transgender doesn’t fit with the church.

“The Catholic church teaches that the body and soul are so united that one’s gender identity is rooted in one’s biological identity as male and female … genetically, anatomically and chromosomally, the body reveals the divine plan.”

READ MORE: Majority of Alberta Catholics support gay-straight alliances: poll

Lorraine Turchansky, spokeswoman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, says it’s unusual to have such input and attention on policy development.

The parents of the 40,000 children in Edmonton’s Catholic schools have chosen the separate system with “the full knowledge and understanding that Catholic faith is part of the education those kids receive,” she adds.

Kris Wells with the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies calls the church’s proposal “transphobic” and says religion can’t be a shield to justify discrimination.

He says policies are needed to help teachers too.

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A transgender teacher with the nearby Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools still has a complaint before the human rights commission over his removal from its substitute teacher list in 2008.

Wells says eight of Alberta’s 61 school divisions have LGBT policies – none is Catholic.

The issue is a struggle in other provinces too, Wells says. School districts in British Columbia were among the first to start adopting polices a decade ago. About half now have them.

“They make good progress but you can see how slow it is. It’s such a piecemeal approach.”

That’s why he has called on the Alberta government to implement a provincewide policy.

Eggen has said he prefers to let democratically elected school officials build their own policies. He hopes Edmonton Catholic will set an example.

“This is a great teaching moment,” he has said. “There are many other boards across the province that need to work through this process.”

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