Almost 40 years ago, then-Chair of the Frontenac County Board of Education, Bruce Warmington, made some blatantly homophobic remarks about gay teachers. I was a school board trustee at the time and, at the next school board meeting, called for his resignation or, at least, for him to be censured for having made those remarks. I was unsuccessful.
What I had not anticipated when I stood up to call out the Chair for what he had said was the enormous community reaction that followed. We each had our supporters and our detractors but, it must be said, those who sided with the Board Chair were more aggressive in their responses.
I got used to battling my way through opposing picket lines at school board meetings as well as at meetings of any committees I sat on. I was routinely booed and hissed whenever I spoke and, for the most part, the police dismissed my reports of threats (which culminated in a bomb threat during the next municipal election), telling me this was only to be expected given my outspokenness on such a controversial issue.
Threatening and obscene phone calls and letters became commonplace. In fact, I received so many of these calls that my partner and I stopped allowing our kids to answer the phone or to be at home without at least one of us there with them.
Most of my loudest opponents were from the Christian right communities in Kingston and the rural areas surrounding the city. I was shocked by the vitriol and violence shown by these folks, who claimed to be speaking for God. I was also quite taken aback by their apparent fondness for obscenities – a few of the comments about what people claimed they wanted to do to me had me scratching my head and blushing at the same time.
(I am just thankful, looking back from 2023, that social media and email did not exist at the time, or I suspect I would have attracted even more negative attention.)
Is new again
As many of you know, demonstrations were held earlier this week across the country, nominally to oppose school curriculum about gender identity, but really about both so much more and so much less. One such demonstration took place in Kingston, and my daughter and I joined a few hundred people who gathered to show support for such school curriculum and for the right of students to have access to knowledge and to identify their gender as they wish, safe from opposition by their parents.
The signs and shouted slogans coming from those who think ignorance is the way to keep children safe were somewhat bewildering: “The government is mocking us,” seemed to have nothing to do with the issue ostensibly up for discussion. “Leave our kids alone,” twisted the original intent of lyrics to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” Signs saying “Groomers are gross,” “Child sexual abuse,” “Hands off our kids,” “Love not surgery” and the like, made even less sense. What was I to make of a placard declaring “Our children our choice” being held by a pre-adolescent aged child? Were we suddenly at a pro-choice rally?
And then there were the giant Canadian flags of convoy fame, often coupled with stickers saying “F*** Trudeau,” as well as a few “Every Child Matters” flags and t-shirts, appropriated from their intended use calling for attention to the deaths of thousands of Indigenous children in Canada’s residential schools system.
Although I didn’t see them in Kingston, in other cities, demonstrators were waving People’s Party of Canada signs and wearing anti-vax and mask T-shirts.
“. . . the chants of “Leave our kids alone” were nominally about the education curriculum regarding gender identity, but the turnout was heavy from the conspiracy-of-the-week crowd.”
No space for hate
What immediately catapulted me back to my experiences in the 1980s was the hatred emanating from many of the anti-education demonstrators. Anger, I get – plenty of us on the other side of the street were angry. But hatred is a different matter entirely.
One of those demonstrators, who was circling City Hall in her truck, driving as slowly as the police would allow, got within a few feet of me at one point, rolled down her window and screamed at me: “You hate your children.” I felt the hatred of this stranger – who knew nothing about me, my children or how I feel about them – as though it were a physical force hitting me in the heart.
And, yes, I also felt a little bit afraid and, maybe, just a wee bit of the fear that gay, lesbian, trans and queer folx in my community feel every single day.
The rantings of the “Keep your hands off our children” crowd are rooted in ignorance and confusion, but that doesn’t mean we can dismiss them. There is a fondness for conspiracy theories these days. Two provinces have already passed legislation that will make life even more dangerous for young people whose homes are not safe for them, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford has accused school boards in this province of “indoctrinating” students on gender-identity related issues.
There was lots to worry about at this week’s demonstrations, but there was also some reason to feel hopeful. In Kingston, as in many cities, the informed forces significantly outnumbered the ignorant forces. Our message called for safe, inclusive and supportive schools, so all children – regardless of what they might be dealing with outside school – could have one safe space where they could learn and be themselves.
To return to Edward Keenan:
“There should be nothing hard to understand and nothing all that controversial about that.”