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Questionable Sex Ed: What’s being taught in Manitoba’s schools

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http://outwords.ca/2014/issue-december-january-2014-15/questionable-sex-ed/

Promoting abstinence in sex education is what Candace Maxymowich, a Winnipeg public school board trustee candidate, did during her campaign, before she lost by a wide margin in October’s election. But her discussion on infusing the value of Christian-style abstinence into education begs the question: what are kids learning in sex ed in Winnipeg’s schools, and are they learning anything about same-sex and trans issues?

Among all of Winnipeg’s school divisions—some more progressive when it comes to sex ed than others—curriculum is mandated by the province. The physical education and health curriculum are the sections that apply to sex ed. The province’s website details a framework on how schools are to deal with “potentially sensitive content,” of which sex ed is a part.

Requiring a planning process that includes parental involvement, school divisions make independent decisions about sex ed, including content, how it is taught, how it’s graded and what resources are used to teach it. Not teaching it at all is an option, as the framework gives school divisions the power to decide how much depth and breadth to give the topic. There is also an opt-out for parents who’d like their children to learn the subject by another means if they disagree with what the school’s doing.

Winnipeg’s schools are many, and range from Dakota Collegiate, which is hosting an upcoming national gay-straight alliance conference in May, to others that have faced controversies over Bill 18 and over transgender students.

When it comes to sex education, what is being taught varies widely as well.

“It’s division-to-division on what kind of language they use,” says Roselle Paulsen, program director at Winnipeg’s Sexuality Education Resource Centre (SERC). She was consulted on the health curriculum when it was created and published in 2000. “There are different approaches to how people interpret the student learning outcomes. So if you see a word like ‘diversity,’ or those kinds of things, people are going to interpret them differently.”

Paulsen points to a couple of examples in the curriculum. The first, a learning outcome for Grade 7, tells teachers to “identify effects of social influences on sexuality and gender roles.” Topics like violence against women, media ads, gender equity and culture are generally covered under this topic, Paulsen says. But “Somebody who wants to take more latitude could say that when we talk about gender roles we could delve much more deeply into things like gender identity and social morays.”

It’s up to the interpretation of the school divisions. Another example is in grade five where the curriculum talks about celebrating all kinds of families—again open to interpretation. By Grade 9, sexual orientation is named explicitly. Since it’s included, Paulsen says there should be no reason for schools not to talk about same-sex issues within the context of sex ed, although some don’t. “The frustration with this sort of document, is on the one hand, sexuality education within the health curriculum is mandated. On the other hand, the department says, but each division in the province can determine, based on their own community needs, the depth and breadth of what they provide. That’s the problem.”

Vycki Atallah has also seen a wide variation between what is taught in sex ed. As co-ordinator of Klinic Community Health Centre’s Teen Talk program, she’s invited into schools to give sex ed talks when schools want more. “It can really look a lot different in different schools and communities. For some schools and communities, we’re really welcome, and come in, and some classes get multiple workshops from us; and other schools and school divisions simply don’t book us; don’t extend an invitation for us to come into their school.”

Teen Talk approaches sex ed in line with the provincial curriculum, but from an anti-oppressive standpoint, which includes education about healthy relationships, and the range of genders and sexuality. Their workshops make it clear that all types of couples are valued on an equal level and that body parts can belong to people of any gender, says Atallah.

She says Seven Oaks School Division and Winnipeg One are among the most progressive on these fronts she’s worked with.

Anastasia Chipelski, who works with service providers who talk to teens about sex in her capacity as health educator at Nine Circles Community Health Centre, says she doesn’t think the majority of teens are learning their sex education in schools anyway. The teens her clients are in contact with are way ahead of any adults who are teaching them about sex. “Who knows where the teens are learning it from?” she says. “They’re not learning it in schools.” One guess she has is they’re getting information from well-informed peers.

Perhaps one piece of the puzzle is that the curriculum schools are teaching needs updating, says Paulsen. “Everybody agrees that it [does],” she says. “Things have changed a lot.”

“We have a spectrum of how people identify and their attractions, and all of those kinds of things.
If we’re going to be inclusive and comprehensive and provide a safe space for all students, then it is time to be realistic and pragmatic, and let’s not pretend that this isn’t an issue.”

Published in OutWords Magazine, Dec 2014


–Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance writer living and working in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice.

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Violence: Domestic abuse in the queer community

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http://www.outwords.ca/content/violence-domestic-abuse-queer-community

An issue beginning to come to light, domestic violence in queer relationships, is misunderstood by many. With rates comparable to violence in straight relationships, yet mired in a homophobic culture, queer people of all stripes who are living with abuse find themselves with fewer resources to draw upon, and fewer people on their side.

Services available for cisgender women are typically well-known, though not always welcoming to queer women. And services for men and trans people are less well-known and sometimes just don’t exist.  The issues facing the queer community revolve around police misunderstanding and minimizing same-sex relationship violence, making it difficult for queer people to get help.

Providing the only shelter of its kind in Canada, Winnipeg’s Men’s Resource Centre caters to all men regardless of orientation or gender history. According to Steve Sutherland, therapist and administrator at the centre, it can house men as they leave an abusive relationship and help them get back on their feet.

Dan, who will be identified by his first name only, was a client of the centre earlier this year. After being closeted in an abusive relationship for a number of years, married to a wife he was financially controlled by due to his immigrant status and who he felt he had to marry, Dan made his escape. “I would not have been able to do it without the Men’s Resource Centre.” The centre signed Dan up for unemployment insurance. It also helped him find low-income housing and spruce up his resumé.

“I didn’t have a place to go because of how isolated I had been,” he said. “I didn’t really know anyone well enough that I could ask them to crash on their couch. The biggest help was [that] they provided shelter.” While waiting for his first cheque to arrive, the centre provided meals. And Dan found emotional support. “They made it very easy,” he said. “Even as I was dealing emotionally with what I was going through and wasn’t able to think straight.”

Though resources available for women are more common, they aren’t available to all women. The situation for trans women seeking shelter in Winnipeg could be described as dire. Bradley Tyler-West, LGBT* program facilitator at Winnipeg’s Sexuality Education Resource Centre (SERC), said, “I have heard of individual experiences of trans women who have gone into shelter and some have had a good experience there getting access to support and services, and some did not – and I think that’s really based on their ability to pass or be stealth.” He’s heard the problems have come from residents at shelters rather than staff. And the trans women he knows of who have gotten help have been in mixed-gender relationships, with violence coming at the hands of male partners. He noted that falls into the heteronormative pattern assumed of domestic violence.

Sutherland refers trans women to Sage House. “They’re very LGBT friendly,” he said. “But that would be the only shelter I know in Winnipeg that would be providing services to that segment of the population.”

Sage House could not be reached for confirmation.

There are resources available for women in lesbian relationships. Yet if shelter is needed, sometimes a lack of sensitivity can limit access. Glenda Dean, executive director of Winnipeg’s Alpha House, said she sees a “real gap” in lesbian and bisexual women utilizing shelters. Although she said she doesn’t know why that gap exists, she said perhaps shelters have not reached out enough to the community.

According to a workshop for service providers presented by Saskatoon’s The Avenue Community Centre for Gender & Sexual Diversity Inc., lesbians often experience a lack of understanding about the seriousness of abuse when violent incidents are reported to therapists, police or doctors. Because of homophobia, queer relationships are sometimes seen to be inherently unstable or unhealthy.

When abuse happens, police will sometimes be called to domestic violence scenes. Both Tyler-West and Sutherland have heard in their work with men about police incidents where violence was minimized or male victims of abuse were even mocked. Myths such as that abuse doesn’t happen to men, or for men in relationships with women that it can’t happen because the man is bigger or women aren’t aggressive, lead police to sometimes misunderstand abusive situations, said Sutherland. He said discrimination can be especially bad in First Nations communities.

But he added that police are making steps, and so is the Province of Manitoba. A GLBTQ* domestic violence working group was launched in November 2012 and began distributing posters and brochures addressing the issue of queer domestic violence last month. Part of the group’s mandate is to provide GLBTQ*-sensitivity training to staff at service organizations. According to Beth Ulrich, executive director of Manitoba’s Status of Women, who the group is hosted by, shelters are working on some of their issues.

“That’s a commitment where I think some shelters are probably more ahead of others perhaps. I think that there’s a willingness and an awareness now that ‘OK, we need to make sure we’re being respectful’,” she said.

The Rainbow Resource Centre is another place victims of abuse can receive counselling and support. Located at 170 Scott St., the centre has pamphlets for those who are wondering if their relationship might be abusive and has counsellors trained in helping fill out protection orders. Tyler-West said, “We are hearing more conversations… so that is encouraging—a small light at the end of the very dark tunnel. It’s nowhere near where it needs to be, but it is definitely better than it was, say, four or five years ago.”


– Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance journalist from Vancouver, B.C. He’s an LGBTI contributing editor with rabble.ca, the former host of a queer-issues radio show called Gaydio, and loves to write about social and environmental justice.

Published in Outwords, December 2013, Volume 206

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