Transgender policy sparks debate, differing opinions

Edmonton Catholic trustees listen to the various presentations during the process to establish transgender policy for the schools.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Edmonton Catholic trustees listen to the various presentations during the process to establish transgender policy for the schools.

October 26, 2015
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

After a tense and lengthy meeting, the Edmonton Catholic School Board approved the first reading of a stand-alone policy on sexual orientation and gender identity.

A consultation period will follow before the policy comes up for second reading probably in late November.

This, apparently, was not enough to appease Education Minister David Eggen, who has been concerned about the board's conduct and its ability to make decisions.

On Oct. 14, a day after the policy passed first reading by a six-to-one vote, Eggen appointed advisor Donald Cummings, of the consulting firm National Growth Partners, to work with the school board and produce recommendations to improve its overall efficiency.

"Over the past few weeks, it has become apparent that the board of Edmonton Catholic Schools must improve its practices," Eggen told reporters.

"To ensure this happens, I have appointed a firm with extensive experience in improving board governance to assist Edmonton Catholic with its current issues."

To be sure, several of the board's meetings that have focused on developing a sexual-orientation and gender-identity policy have devolved into discordant deliberation.

The board's Sept. 15 meeting, for instance, dissolved into a shouting match between trustees over a draft policy, with trustee Larry Kowalczyk telling the media that he considers being transgender a mental disorder.

After that meeting, Eggen threatened to intervene and dissolve the board if necessary.

At their last public meeting, trustees deliberated for at least three hours before approving first reading of their stand-alone policy.

Trustee Larry Kowalczyk was the only one to cast a 'no' vote on the policy, which underwent several friendly and not so friendly amendments.

At the meeting, Kowalczyk apologized for his earlier comments.

But before he got to his apology, he upset a few people in the room by saying that gender dysphoria has to be diagnosed by a psychiatrist and is listed as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association.

The debate over the policy started earlier this year after a seven-year-old transgender girl wanted to use the girl's washroom in her 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, her school agreed she could use the female facilities.

HUMAN RIGHTS COMPLAINT

When the girl's family filed a human rights complaint the Catholic board started to craft a broader policy that protects gay and transgender students.

The proposed policy, which is modeled after the Edmonton Public Schools' policy, says the board is committed to respecting the sexual orientation and gender identity of students by providing and maintaining a safe, inclusive, equitable, fair and welcoming learning and teaching environment.

It quotes the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, as saying that, "Every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, colour, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God's intent."

PUBLIC CONSULTATION

The policy will undergo public consultations by sector between Nov. 2 and 17. Members of parent school councils and trustees are among those who will be invited to attend the consultations.

The mother of the transgender student said the outcome of the lengthy meeting was not enough.

"Collectively this board time and time again has shown that this board cannot make a sound decision," she told the WCR.

"The policy 'yes' is good; the regulations we'll see. I think the best decision now is for the (education) minister to step in and develop a province-wide policy, which include regulations."

Catholic transgender woman Marni Panas, a parent of a child in the Catholic system, was pleased the board was able to accomplish something.

"I'm certainly glad that we finally getting somewhere but it has taken nine months to get this far," she commented after the meeting.

"Have we made progress? I guess but there's still a lot of intolerance that we have to work through."

Panas is concerned about the consultation process which will be by invitation only.

INVITATION?

"That's quite concerning. Who is going to be invited? What experts are going to be consulted?"

She expects to be involved in the consultation process because her spouse is member of a parent school council. "Maybe that will be enough to get us invited."

Lori Nagy, spokeswoman for Edmonton Catholic Schools, said there is "only a slim chance" that the policy will be passed at the Nov. 24 meeting as it has to go through both second and third reading.

At press time, newly elected board chair Marilyn Bergstra could not be reached for comment on the appointment of the advisor.

However, The Edmonton Journal quoted her as saying she thinks Cummings "will be a huge asset in terms of helping us define governance, because everyone sees governance a little different."

Bergstra also said the board has already met with Cummings briefly.