Manitoba schools have come a long way when it comes to sexual health education.
But there’s concern deeply held conservative values in small towns across the province are standing in the way of that progress.
Michelle Heppner received her K-12 education in Altona, MB, a small town of 4,200 people near the U.S. border.
In Grade 5 at West Park School, it was time for Michelle and her classmates to sit uncomfortably in the darkened multi-purpose room and learn about sex. But it wasn’t a teacher or a professional speaker who taught her how her body was going to change; she was told by a stop-motion animated cartoon named Dr. D.
“To be honest, I thought it was weird that we were learning about sex at all in Grade 5,” said Heppner, who graduated in 2015. “Like, they handed out pads to all the girls and I had no idea what they even were.”
The endlessly chipper spokes-cartoon guided Altona’s pre-teens through their murky years of puberty and adolescence. The good doctor, sadly, was a victim of his 1989 trademark and when he described the feelings of new physical attraction, he told students, “The opposite sex might start to bring about a certain tingly feeling.”
Dr. D made no mention of that tingly feeling between students of the same sex, leaving students who weren’t straight or who were struggling with feelings of attraction to deal with them unaided.
This wouldn’t be the last time West Park School was less than progressive towards LGBTQ-inclusive education.
In 2012, Grade 5 teacher Peter Wohlgemut hung an “ally card” in his classroom. The card would be awarded to anyone attending an educational workshop at Winnipeg’s Rainbow Resource Centre on the LGBTQ movement and how the Centre is a resource to those who are in that community.
A group of parents petitioned the Borderland School Division to have the sign removed, claiming it was inappropriate for students of that age to be exposed to such topics.
Wohlgemut was allowed to keep the rainbow sign up only after he removed the text below the title including, “As an Ally, I support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, intersex, queer and questioning individuals, families and communities.”
Allan Jones, principal of West Park School, said they no longer use the Dr. D video. In fact, he’d never heard of it in his five years at the school, he said in a brief phone interview.
LGBTQ students moving on to high school in Altona who are hoping for a more inclusive education may be disappointed.
Reese Dayton is in Grade 9 at W.C. Miller Collegiate. She approached her health teacher to ask if they were going to be taught anything about same-sex relationships. The conversation was a short one, she said.
“He said he tries to pepper it in whenever he can, but that it’s not really part of the curriculum,” said Dayton, who identifies as an LGBTQ ally. “And that was really the whole conversation.”
Her teacher’s claims don’t line up with provincial curriculum. The province’s resources for Grades 9 and 10 health education contain a number of sections about non-straight sexuality and how to address it in the classroom. Heppner said her experience was similar, and what she learned depended a lot on who was teaching.
“I had one teacher who was like ‘this is this, that is that, now go play floor hockey’,” said Heppner. “And one who was super-involved, and made sure we knew where everything was on the diagram, very detailed. Almost too detailed I think.”
The provincial resource guide also has a section for parents including tips for addressing sexuality at all stages of life, reminding parents, “In the meantime, teens need—as we all do—the unconditional love and support of their parents.”
Dayton said she has a few friends who identify as members of the LGBTQ community, and many of them keep it a secret from their parents.
“Most of them just don’t want to stir the pot,” said Dayton. “This community is still very one-minded and doesn’t want to listen to the other side.”
For people like Dayton’s friends, there are few places where they can go to feel comfortable. One of these places is a secret Facebook group, an online gay-straight alliance for Altona and the surrounding area called Reaching Rainbows.
Reaching Rainbows has more than 100 online members and acts as a resource for the LGBTQ community around Altona. They hold monthly meetings to support and encourage one another and to see how they can affect positive change in the area. Something Dayton said is badly needed.
“We’ve never been taught anything about non-straight sexuality in school,” said Dayton. “I think everyone has a right to be educated on how to keep themselves safe, no matter if they’re gay or straight or whatever.”
LGBTQ education across Canada
Nearly two-thirds of Canadian teachers have never participated in LGBTQ-inclusive events at their school, according to a report from the Manitoba Teachers Society released on Jan. 15, 2016.
The Every Teacher Project report details the findings of a survey in the 2012/13 school year of more than 3,400 teachers. It tries to measure the state of LGBTQ-inclusive education across the country.
The report found 67 per cent of teachers were aware of verbal harassment of LGBTQ students in the last 12 months. Further, only 30 per cent said they believed their school has responded effectively to that kind of harassment.
Many of the report’s recommendations point to bringing LGBTQ-specific content into legislation and professional development for teachers as a way to make schools a safer environment for those students.
Vycki Atallah spent the last 13 years conducting sexual health workshops and seminars at schools around Manitoba with Teen Talk. She said overall, educators in Manitoba seem to want to push for better education on LGBTQ issues.
She said if there’s one thing she would like to see change, it’s to move away from the over-sensitivity many have applied to sexual health.
“When we keep telling kids and teens these are sensitive issues, they keep treating them as sensitive issues,” Atallah said. “Sexuality is important, but it’s something every single person deals with. It’s not that sensitive.”