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Unisex school bathrooms sparks Vancouver debate about gender identity, parental rights Add to ...

A plan for unisex school bathrooms and more gender sensitivity in Vancouver classrooms has sparked such incendiary debate about privacy, parental rights and cultural norms that it led to the ejection of two longtime school trustees from their party.

The trustees, Sophia Woo and Ken Denike, were kicked out of the Non-Partisan Association on Friday after holding a news conference at a Chinese restaurant in a bid to delay the policy, which is expected to pass a school board vote on Monday. The pair suggested real estate agents have complained that foreign families won’t want to buy property in the city, reducing the enrolment of international students in public schools and draining away much-needed foreign funding. Mr. Denike refused to name the realtors or provide specifics.

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“The decision to expel Denike and Woo was necessary given that the two have chosen to follow their own course in various matters without consulting with the other members of caucus,” said the party in a news release. “The caucus has concluded that Denike and Woo do not share the same level of sensivity and understanding of the LGBTQ community.”

NPA Councillor Elizabeth Ball said her caucus had been uncomfortable with the pair’s positions and statements in the past.

Mr. Denike and Ms. Woo said they have received calls from dozens of concerned parents who want more time to discuss the changes.

Jane Wang, an engineering professor at the University of British Columbia, said at the news conference she has just put her two kids on the waiting list for a private school because she is concerned her young daughter’s privacy will be invaded if bathrooms become gender neutral.

“That’s actually one of the major concerns among many parents,” Ms. Wang said. “This policy is applicable from kindergarten to Grade 12,” she added. “If this policy was for kids 15 years old, I would have no objection.… But we are talking about my six-year-old daughter, my eight-year-old son.”

Ms. Wang’s comments drew applause from the several dozen Chinese parents gathered at the media conference.

The proposed changes to the school board’s sexual orientation and gender identities policy have drawn controversy from many quarters, including the Christian and Asian communities. However, some members of those communities support the policy that would allow students to be addressed by the gender pronoun of their choice, discourage sex segregation, and allow for gender-neutral bathrooms.

Gabriel Yiu, an activist in the Chinese community, said he thinks the idea that trangender policies may drive away Chinese property buyers is “nonsense.” But Mr. Yiu said there is some “fear mongering” among some conservative Chinese Christians in British Columbia.

“They were discriminated against in the past, and now some of the Chinese are discriminating against other minorities,” said Mr. Yiu, who has previously run for the NDP.

Both the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver and the British Columbia Real Estate Association say they have not heard any concerns from the real estate industry regarding the proposed policy.

“Frankly, I’d be surprised if the trustees were getting calls in any significant numbers,” Damian Stathonikos, a spokesman for the British Columbia Real Estate Association, said in an e-mail.

Dan Scarrow, vice-president of corporate strategy at Macdonald Realty Ltd., recently returned to Vancouver from a fact-finding mission to Shanghai, where he sought Chinese investors for the B.C. real estate market.

“While I can understand that there may be strong views on this topic, the impact on real estate prices shouldn’t play a role in determining whether someone supports or opposes this policy,” Mr. Scarrow said in an e-mail.

Vancouver School Board chairwoman Patti Bacchus said there has been extensive consultation on the proposed policy and she sees no reason to delay further.

“I’m shocked and disappointed that elected school trustees would make those kinds of comments and equate supporting LGBT students and keeping them safe and supported in schools would somehow have an impact on property values,” she said.

Some parents have expressed concerns that language around protecting the privacy of students who choose to identify as the opposite gender would prevent teachers from telling parents that their kids were in trouble – for instance, being bullied for expressing their gender identity. But Ms. Bacchus said teachers and school counsellors would continue to encourage students to involve their parents in discussions, as they always have.

With reports from Iain Marlow and Frances Bula

Follow on Twitter: @alexposadzki

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