Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in conservative religious communities is not new, but in recent months protests that claim to “stand against gender confusion, sexual orientation, and the indoctrination of children in schools” have focused attention on the role of public education in teaching meaningful inclusivity. Parents and communities who fear a conflict between the contents of the Human Development and Sexual Health component of the Health and Physical Education curriculum and their religious beliefs have expressed their perspectives through protests and active lobbying. These perspectives fuel anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and intensify the isolating experiences of many LGBTQ youth and community members.
Sister Fit centres the experience of women who are Muslim, diverse, and/or part of the LGBTQ community. The intersection between gay and Muslim communities is a complex one where religious beliefs and identity conflict in often combative and rigorous ways. Our gym is a community hub that affirms, protects, and elevates the identities of our members. This means that when there is misinformation about the LGBTQ community, or when there are religious sentiments and attitudes that feed rhetoric that is harmful and that makes the lived reality of gay people and gay Muslims intensely difficult, it is important to respond.
Misinformation about the Human Development and Sexual Health curriculum serves as a vehicle for hate rather than an avenue for religious freedom and protection. Providing unchecked platforms for conservative religious opinions about LGBTQ identities and communities have deep consequences: they fuel environments of suspicion and provide encouragement and protection for discriminatory actions that create terrible experiences for LGBTQ people.
Natasha Faroogh is an openly queer educator who teaches high school in Ontario. She is also an energetic and committed member of Sister Fit, currently enrolled in our boxing program. Natasha is energy personified; she runs down the stairs into each class session, a fireball of energy and enthusiasm. This devoted energy translates into her profession where in her role as a teacher she serves as a resource for her diverse students and students who identify as LGBTQ.
Her lived experience as an educator provides valuable insight into the current curriculum. We had the opportunity to interview Natasha to help us clear up misconceptions and perhaps tamper some misplaced hate.
1 – How long have you been teaching? What age do you teach and for what school board?
I am going into my 5th year of teaching high school. I teach teenagers. Currently I am at the Durham District School Board which is a public school board. I have also worked in York Region and in Peel Region. Prior to that, I taught pre-schoolers in Private Montessori Schools both in Canada and abroad.
2—What does the sex-ed curriculum entail and how has it changed in the last five years?
Human Development and Sexual Health is a component of the Health & Physical Education (HPE) Curriculum under the strand Healthy Living. The HPE covers the strands Healthy Living, Active Living, and Movement Competence. The curriculum is very broad and covers a range of topics from sports, nutrition, drugs, as well as consent, healthy relationships, anatomy, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity at certain grade levels.
The Grades 9-12 curriculum has stayed the same since 2015.
The Grades 1-8 curriculum was updated in 2019, and the changes include additional learning around Bullying, Cannabis, Concussions, Consent, Healthy Body Image, and Mental Health at various grade levels. You can learn more about “What’s changed” on the Ontario website.
You can also discover a breakdown of what is taught at each grade level for the Human Development and Sexual Health component.
Perhaps the most contentious topics are topics around Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. These are the topics I will discuss at length in this article.
To examine when exactly these topics are taught, and how, it is helpful to look at the curriculum. I will pull out the exact grades & items taught. The following text is quoted directly from the curriculum.
In Grade 5 – students will learn:
about factors that may affect the development of a person’s understanding of themselves and their personal identity, including their sexual orientation (for example, body image, self-acceptance)
In Grade 6 – students will learn:
how stereotypes — and assumptions about gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, culture and abilities — can affect how a person feels about themselves, their feelings of belonging and relationships with others
appropriate ways to respond to and challenge assumptions, stereotypes, homophobia and racism
In Grade 7 – students will learn:
about the physical, emotional, social and psychological factors to consider when making sexual health decisions (for example, the risk of STBBIs or of becoming a parent before they are ready, emotional readiness, sexual orientation, moral and religious considerations, cultural teachings, and impact on other relationships)
In Grade 8 – students will learn:
gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation, and to identify factors that can help all young people to develop positive personal identities
These topics around sexuality and gender are taught alongside understanding around consent, healthy relationships, sexually transmitted diseases, and anatomy.
With regards to these specific topics, the grade 9 curriculum covers essentially the same content in the following strand:
C1.5 demonstrate an understanding of factors (e.g., acceptance, stigma, culture, religion, media, stereotypes, homophobia, self-image, self-awareness) that can influence a person’s understanding of their gender identity (e.g., male, female, two-spirited, transgender, transsexual, intersex) and sexual orientation (e.g., heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual), and identify sources of support for all students [PS]
As seen in the curriculum, students are being made aware of various sexual orientations in grade 5. It isn’t until grade 8 where students will learn about the ways in which people might express their gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.
How precisely these topics are taught, as in what books, videos, or texts are used in class and discussed, are left to individual teacher discretion. However, all teachers are required to follow the curriculum as set out above. Teachers use professional discretion to choose appropriate texts.
It should be noted that parents can exempt their children from learning about the Human Development and Sexual Health Component in elementary school due to a province wide Exemption Policy mandate. However, students will be made aware of these topics in grade 9.
3—What does the school board say about inclusivity? How do they suggest teachers incorporate inclusivity into their teaching?
Although students explicitly learn about sexual orientation and gender identity among other topics in the Health & Physical Education curriculum, this is the only time that students can be exempt from learning about these topics.
However, students cannot be exempt from learning about the fact that people of various sexual orientations and gender identities exist in the world. Indeed, school board policies and most subject curriculums explicitly encourage inclusivity in the choice of texts and resources we use.
This is important because students come from diverse families. I’ve had students with same-sex parents (two mom/two dads). I’ve had students with parents who publicly identify as queer. I’ve also had students who have been open about their own sexual orientation and gender identity at school with teachers and peers. It is important that all families and students feel welcome at school.
Therefore, a class may read books about families with two mommies or two daddies, and school boards are not required to inform parents every time students encounter these resources. Nor can parents have their child exempted from this learning. A class may learn about a trans or queer athlete or changemaker during Pride month. This is approached in the same way that students will have books read to them about people from various religious backgrounds, ethnicities, or races.
Various subject curriculums also encourage inclusivity. I currently teach French, and the French as a Second Language Curriculum (2015) also explicitly encourages inclusivity:
“In an environment based on the principles of inclusive education, all students, parents, caregivers, and other members of the school community – regardless of ancestry, culture, ethnicity, sex, physical or intellectual ability, race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or other similar factors – are welcomed, included, treated fairly, and respected. Diversity is valued, and all members of the school community feel safe, comfortable, and accepted. Every student is supported and inspired to succeed in a culture of high expectations for learning. In an inclusive education system, all students see themselves reflected in the curriculum, their physical surroundings, and the broader environment, so that they can feel engaged in and empowered by their learning experiences” (45-46).
In essence, all students, including people of various gender identity and sexual orientations, should see themselves reflected in the curriculum. Even in French class!
4—What in particular, do you think, has sparked outrage in Muslim parents?
I don’t think I can speak specifically for Muslim parents, because I am not Muslim, or a parent. However, I can contemplate on why some religious folks of all backgrounds, including parents, may be concerned.
I think part of it has to do with the fact that the Health & Physical Education curriculum affirms that people of various sexual orientations and gender identities exist when some people would rather their children remain ignorant of these identities. Further, it presents these identities in a neutral and sometimes positive light, in conjunction with asking students to reflect on other areas of their identity as well in order to build a positive self-image.
However, I think there is a lot of transphobia and homophobia that is surfacing due to concerns that students will be unduly influenced into considering themselves as part of the LGBTQ communities.
And although many parents seem to be concerned that students will be “brainwashed” into thinking that they are a different gender or sexual orientation than the one they identify with, this is not the case. In fact, I would argue that these topics are still difficult for many teachers and students to engage in.
That said, the reason these topics are being taught is to combat homophobia, transphobia, and bullying that students are dealing with in schools. Often they are taught homophobic and transphobic ideas at home and think it is okay to bully other kids at school. It is necessary for all students to learn about and respect people of various sexual orientations and gender identities to ensure that queer and trans students are not unduly harmed at school.
I also understand that some people think that having same-sex relationships or expressing a gender identity different to the one assigned at birth goes against their religious beliefs.
I would ask parents to consider that if they are part of a public school board, the school board is not required to teach religious beliefs. It is required to respect people of all religions and their practices when entering the building. Therefore students can wear religious clothing, or seek use of a prayer room at school. Further, people of all religious beliefs should be presented positively in school resources and texts, and not be negatively stereotyped.
In the same way, the school board is also required to respect the identities of all students and staff, including diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. To help students learn to respect one another it is important to use inclusive texts on a regular basis. And this is supported by school board policy.
Further, especially for students who identify as part of LGBTQ communities and come from families or religious communities that are not accepting of their identities, it is very important for them to be accepted at school and not be bullied by their peers. These children are at a much higher risk of developing anxiety, depression, or mental health issues — not because they are LGBTQ — but because they may feel outcast, unaccepted, or even unloved by the people that are closest to them. This is very hard on children’s emotional and mental well-being. Schools do their best to support these students in a positive manner through clubs, guidance counsellors, and mental health supports. I would hope that with education, parents can also affirm their children in a loving way.
I personally use texts that teach students about people of various racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. I also teach about people of various sexual orientations and gender identities.
I do this because the more we learn about one another, each other’s struggles, triumphs, and humanity, the more we understand one another. We can become more empathetic to one another. We can be more respectful of one another. And we can affirm and respect students who are part of the LGBTQ communities. And to do this, education is key.
It is important that as a society we respect all people regardless of race, religion, culture, ethnicity, abilities as well as gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation. We cannot respect people on some grounds and not others. All of these identity markers are protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code, and thus the Education Act and in individual school board policies.
5—Do you think social media plays a role in spreading misinformation about the LGBTQ community?
Yes, certainly, I believe social media plays a huge role in spreading misinformation about LGBTQ communities.
People seem to believe every outrageous video they see on the internet about ways in which children may identify. Often, people don’t take the time to realize that a lot of these videos are being made for clout – for views and likes.
Or, they may follow religious leaders online who pretend to act respectful towards LGBTQ people but then actively discuss how these identities are lifestyle choices and that being queer or trans is a sin that must be corrected.
I would hope, and pray, that religious communities realize that the “love the sinner, not the sin” rhetoric is still very harmful to LGBTQ people, and especially children.
Sometimes people start listening to very conservative hate groups who position themselves as “caring about the children” but actually cause great distress and harm to children who are LGBTQ. It also causes distress to LGBTQ adults, including teachers and staff at schools.
This sort of rhetoric tells children that they cannot grow up to be the humans that they are or love the people that they wish to be with. And it suggests to adults that they are not deserving of loving and intimate relationships with other humans, simply because they may have a different sexual orientation or gender identity. This is harmful to people’s psyches. It is cruel. And it leads to community abandonment.
I hope that religious communities learn to accept and love LGBTQ family members, friends, and children, so that they do not feel outcast from their own communities.
Although social media does spread a lot of misinformation, I do think that social media can also be a powerful tool for learning about LGBTQ communities. Following sex education organizations online – whose socials can often be found on their websites – can help people learn more about various identities. There are also support groups in the GTA for people of various backgrounds and religious identities.
I also understand that there is a lot of concern from adults around gender identity, transitioning, and even detransitioning. I would suggest that you take time to truly listen to people with lived experiences of various points of view and not get siloed in an echo chamber on social media or in religious institutions.
I hope that if you’re reading this, and you go to a gym like Sister Fit, where people of diverse religious communities, as well as diverse sexual orientations are welcomed and celebrated – that we, at least, can be a community that can find common ground and learn to respect one another’s identities.
Further, I hope that we can influence our own communities to respect LGBTQ communities.