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Headshot of me with long hair, pink lip stick, light makeup Kara Babcock

Pride isn’t up for debate

When we allow elected representatives to debate recognizing Pride Month and symbols, we send a message that 2SLGBTQ+ people’s rights are up for debate.

Last night, the Toronto Catholic District School Board trustees voted to officially declare June as Pride Month henceforth, and to fly the Pride flag at all TCDSB schools, as well as its board office. This is a sharp contrast to what happened at Halton Catholic District School Board last month. This is a victory and should be celebrated as such. The TCDSB is one of the largest school boards in the province, certainly the largest Catholic board in Ontario. Hopefully, other Catholic boards that haven’t yet followed suit will take this as a sign to do so—this could lead to significant, meaningful change in the way 2SLGBTQ+ students feel represented and welcome within these schools. Kudos to teachers like Paolo De Buono who have been campaigning for better 2SLGBTQ+ inclusion despite facing significant personal reprisal, as well as to the students and student trustees who lead the way on showing us that these issues are indeed important to them.

Yet amid that feeling of triumph, I also feel compelled to ask the question so many were asking on Twitter last night and during the HCDSB board meeting: why did this come down to a vote at all? Why didn’t the Directors of Education for these boards simply authorize the flag being flown? Why did trustees get to debate the acceptance and support of a portion of their student population, all while accepting delegations that describe 2SLGBTQ+ people as “not happy or joyful”?

Much of last night’s opposition seemed to come down to an a fortiori argument that Catholic schools shouldn’t display any “secular” symbols, and therefore the Pride flag was out of the question. A quick digression, if you will, to explain to anyone confused about why flying the Pride flag in schools matters so much.

According to an Egale Canada survey, 2SLGBTQ+ students face a great deal of bullying, both active and passive, specifically directed towards their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. School boards have a legal obligation under the Education Act to create safe and inclusive spaces for all students. Some trustees and delegates last night were opining that TCDSB can achieve this for 2SLGBTQ+ students without flying the Pride flag. No. You can’t claim that when one of the trustees who still sits on your board and participated in last night’s meeting made homophobic comments and has refused to apologize for them because he believes they are consistent with his understanding of his Catholic faith.

Flying the Pride flag doesn’t fix any of the oppression 2SLGBTQ+ students might face in your school. But it signals a clear commitment to fixing that oppression. It recognizes the validity of queer identities in a way that is visible and inarguable, and that is why we should be celebrating today. When that Pride flag rises above TCDSB schools on June 1, it’s a sign that maybe, just maybe, we are going to see some systemic change. Because it is a lot harder to erase us when our flag is flying outside your school.

And make no mistake, that’s what some of the people involved in this debate—like the aforementioned trustee Del Grande—seem to want to do. Not flying the Pride flag is a form of erasure. It’s a tacit way of saying, “we don’t want this to be an issue; 2SLGBTQ+ students should go away and stop complaining so much.” I am not particularly sympathetic to the arguments of Del Grande and others that raising the flag goes against Catholic values. Like I said before, school boards in Ontario have an obligation to uphold our rights under the Charter and the Ontario Human Rights Code. If you try to invoke something like section 93 of the Constitution to argue that this doesn’t apply to Catholic boards, you’re resorting to sophistry to declare that you basically want a legal basis for being hateful towards an entire population. That’s supremely uncool. And while I am an atheist raised in Protestant land and therefore not an expert on Catholic values, I kind of feel like hate isn’t one of them?

So that brings me back to the vote. Without opening a can of worms about the larger tension between the agonistic process of democracy versus humanist obligations towards universal rights, I just want to state that I am incredibly uncomfortable when issues of rights come down to a vote. Yes, last night the TCDSB made the right choice—but as we saw last month with HCDSB, it could have gone the other way. What we saw last night was the victory of learning that the Pride flag would fly but also confirmation that my rights as an asexual, aromantic trans woman are up for debate. That it’s ok to malign my sexual orientation and gender identity as long as you do it under the guise of your religious values. You might not succeed, as was the case last night, but you’re still allowed to try. And that is what bothers me so much.

Unfortunately, this reflects a larger trend in our society. We saw it in the decisions of the Toronto Public Library and the Vancouver Public Library to host transphobic speakers like Meghan Murphy in the name of free speech and public debate. You’re allowed to question my right to exist as long as you speak hypothetically and preferably cloaked in the language of academia and science. You’re allowed to frame my rights as debatable, contextual, conditional.

Human rights don’t work that way. (But this is nothing new in Canada, given how dearly we cling to colonialism as we continue to steal land from Indigenous peoples while refusing to make sure First Nations have clean drinking water.)

2SLGBTQ+ students are seeing all of this. They are seeing their existence publicly, vocally, vituperatively debated in these public spaces. When they speak up, we either ignore their voices, or if we let them speak as in the case of delegations and student trustees, we pat them on their heads for sounding smart and then ignore them anyway. So they are sidelined and forced to watch as adults tell them they don’t matter and probably shouldn’t exist, and it is heartbreaking. School board trustees literally have one overriding duty: to ensure a safe school experience for all students. How can you do this if you refuse to support 2SLGBTQ+ students?

These issues should not be up for debate. These issues should not come down to a vote. The Ontario government and Ministry of Education should be issuing clear directives that leave no room for error or interpretation. Until they do, we will keep having these debates and according them a legitimacy they don’t deserve. Because when you put recognition of Pride month or flying a Pride flag at a school to a vote, then regardless of how the vote goes, you’re sending me and every 2SLGBTQ+ person in this province a terrible message. You’re telling me that my safety in your school is contingent on your good grace. You’re saying our society should continue to debate if I deserve rights.

I’m happy for the students of TCDSB today. But I’m sad—and scared—in general by these trends in our society. We need to do better.

Cover photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.