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The Edmonton Catholic School Board moved closer Tuesday to officially respecting the sexual orientation and gender identity of its students by passing first reading of a policy on the matterNancy Louie/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Edmonton Catholic School Board moved closer Tuesday to officially respecting the sexual orientation and gender identity of its students by passing first reading of a policy on the matter.

Although there were several amendments made to the policy, Marilyn Bergstra, the board's new chairwoman, called it "a great start."

The reading passed by a vote of 6-1; second reading will take place in late November after a public consultation period earlier in the month.

The issue came to the fore earlier this year when a seven-year-old transgender girl wanted to use the girl's washroom in her Catholic 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, the school in Edmonton had agreed she could use the female facilities but the girl wanted official assurances.

The family filed a human rights complaint and Edmonton Catholic Schools tried several times since then to craft a broader policy — dealing with more than just washrooms — that protects gay and transgender students while falling in line with the church.

The school board requires schools to have all-gender washrooms. But the girl's mother, who has asked not to be named to protect her child's identity, said the decision on which washroom her daughter uses is ultimately up to the principal.

The board's last meeting in September was fiery. One trustee cried and shouted over accusations she was homophobic. Another trustee, Larry Kowalczyk, told media that he considers being transgender a mental disorder.

He apologized Tuesday for that assertion, but still voted against the policy.

Marni Panas, a transgender woman, was one of the speakers at Tuesday's meeting and took aim at Kowalczyk's earlier remarks.

"I am not broken," she told the gathering. "I am not sick. I am transgender. Being transgender is not a mental health problem."

"It's a matter of welcoming, and about including and helping a person to feel that they are truly made in the image of God," said trustee Patricia Grell.

The little girl's mother, who attended Tuesday's meeting, said the result was "more than what we expected, for sure."

But she said she still hopes Education Minister David Eggen gets involved.

"I think it's time for the minister to step in and just do a provincewide policy for both systems — public and Catholic — and that way, children don't have to go through this."

Eggen has said he prefers to let democratically elected school officials build their own policies. He hopes Edmonton Catholic will set an example.

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