Aidan Johnson is a city councillor in Hamilton.
“A single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments.”
Those are the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who popularized the phrase “social laboratory” in relation to New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann (1932).
Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford added currency to this language this week. Mr. Ford – the leading candidate to become Ontario premier in the June election – explicitly evoked “social laboratories” in bashing the province’s current, gay-positive sex-ed curriculum. “Unfortunately,” Mr. Ford said, “under [Liberal Premier] Kathleen Wynne, our schools have been turned into social laboratories and our kids into test subjects for whatever special interests and so-called experts that have captured Kathleen Wynne’s ear.” His criticism has national implications for what sex ed should be, and for the conversation on homophobia in public policy.
The new sex ed differs from the old in a few ways. Basically, the current curriculum mentions anal sex and provides information about harm-prevention in online sexual activity. It seeks to be more affirming of LGBTQ students.
When I heard Mr. Ford’s words, I thought back to high school. In 1993, I was a Grade 9 student at Westdale Secondary School in Hamilton. I was mostly in the closet. But I had used the word “feminist” to describe myself in English class. Several kids thus concluded (correctly) that I was gay. In sex ed, they threw sharpened pencils at my head. This happened at different points in the class, particularly when the topic was AIDS. The bullies threw their pencils dart-style, lead-first. They hissed “faggot” as the missiles flew. Most hit their mark.
The teacher talked about how to avoid HIV in penile-vaginal sex, without mention of gay sex. That was okay for the straight students. But it was irrelevant to me. Worse, the teacher’s silence on homosexuality felt like tacit collusion with the darts. Especially in discussing AIDS, I wish the teacher had said something positive about gay people. It would have rebutted the violence. But the curriculum wasn’t there.
Doug Ford’s attack on the sex-ed curriculum is more homophobic than heterosexist. Heterosexism is simply the view that straights are superior to gays. Homophobia, by contrast, is the set of hostile enforcement mechanisms that bigots use to shame gays into staying closeted. Mr. Ford’s argument is heterosexist in that it suggests that equality is like the dark product of a mad scientist’s experiment. But, more centrally, it is homophobic. Scrapping the new sex ed would deprive queer youth of keys to flourishing. It would reinforce the closet’s lock.
Mr. Ford’s statement raises the question: What’s so bad about labs? Pedagogy is always experimental in part. We are still learning about learning. Yes, non-consensual medical experimentation is bad. Mr. Ford thus calls youth receiving the sex-ed curriculum “test subjects.” Yet to compare kids in sex ed to lab rats is dehumanizing. For straight kids, this is (merely) harmful. For LGBTQ kids, the dehumanization is also homophobic. There is a bigoted double standard in slamming the sex-ed curriculum as a maze for mice – as if the old way wasn’t such, too. Ironically, the dehumanization comes from the comparison itself, rather than from the curriculum.
When Justice Brandeis praised “social experiment,” he pointed to the “courageous” good of some jurisdictions innovating while others stick to tradition. Countries learn that way. By Justice Brandeis’s standard, Ontario is doing a good thing. It offers lessons that state or imply that gay sex is equal in value to straight sex, and that teen abstinence can be better than both. Other provinces and territories will deliver gay-positive content in different ways. Later, we can begin to compare results.
But even this defence of labs plays into Mr. Ford’s game. The relevant science is settled. The Canadian Psychiatric Association stopped classifying homosexuality as an illness in 1982. Since then, psychiatric research has shown that destigmatizing gay sex can help queer people avoid depression and anxiety. Pediatrics has played a particular role, demonstrating that LGBTQ youth need affirmation in order to avoid self-harm and suicide. Social scientists point to the reasons why queer youth of colour are more at risk. Such scholars consulted on the current sex-ed curriculum, along with (other) parents. Writing them off as “so-called experts” risks homophobia and worse.
In the novel Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the monster says: “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.” Doug Ford’s talk of dark experiments seeks to put these words into the mouth of the sex-ed curriculum. But the talk shows the curriculum to be fragile.