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Education Minister Bill Hogan unveils changes to Policy 713, which outlines minimum requirements for a safe environment for LGBTQ students in schools, at a news conference in Fredericton, N.B., on June 8.Hina Alam/The Canadian Press

Christopher Brittain is dean of divinity and Margaret E. Fleck Chair in Anglican Studies at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College.

As someone who was brought up and educated in New Brunswick, and as a friend to parents struggling to raise children who have self-identified as non-binary, I have been struck by the complexity and the emotional rhetoric surrounding the LGBTQ school policy controversy currently raging in my home province. The dispute over updates to New Brunswick’s Policy 713 has all the ingredients of what is often described in recent times as a polemical culture war, where both sides are firmly entrenched in their righteous and certain views. It could be framed as a standoff between the power of the liberal state and the authority of the family, or as a conflict between progressive and traditional values.

But the debate over allowing LGBTQ children to have a safe space in their schools – a concept that is far from unique to the province of New Brunswick – goes off course when such a policy is described as an attack on parents’ rights.

Although Canadian law is rather clear on what the obligations of parents are (as evident in child custody law), the point at which the rights of parents end in relation to the rights of their children is sometimes rather vague. What is clear, however, is that parents do not have absolute control over their offspring. Indeed, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is generally understood as implying that parental rights do not eliminate a child’s right to self-determination.

To be sure, parents have the authority to make many decisions on behalf of their children, and to try to nurture in them the values and way of life that the parents consider healthy and life-giving. Ultimately, however, as distinct human beings, children are not considered the “property” of their parents. This has generally been accepted to mean that, in some specific and limited circumstances (e.g., abuse, failure to send to school, failure to protect from life-threatening illness), the state can step in to defend the rights of a child, even if it is against parental preference.

This being the case, the question is: should schools be permitted to allow students to freely express their gender identity, and to do so without informing the child’s preference to their parents?

My thoughts on that matter are influenced by my childhood in New Brunswick. In the mid-1970s and 1980s, I regularly encountered classmates in school who were regarded as “different.” In elementary school, I don’t recall having labels to name this “difference,” although a few insults and slurs come to mind that were employed by bullies who gave such children a hard time. By high school, more specific labels were on hand, but even then, many in the school remained uncertain about how to relate to these members of the school community. However, what was certain to me, even as a young child was how obviously difficult it was to be “different,” and how unfair that seemed.

In later adolescence, some fellow classmates came out as gay to me, and shared that one of their biggest fears was telling their parents. In hindsight, when some of these individuals finally did tell their parents, they found them more supportive than expected; sadly, more frequently, their fears proved well-founded, and some were rejected, or worse, kicked out and shunned.

These all-too-common dynamics suggest to me that it is entirely reasonable to defend a school system’s attempt to support every student in its midst so that they feel safe and able to express themselves without fear. If anything, I wish the schools I had attended had been more intentional about supporting my classmates who were recognized as being somehow “different.”

For schools to offer their students the freedom to refer to their gender in a way they are comfortable with is not an “attack on the rights of parents,” as some have framed it. Instead, such a policy is merely an attempt to treat each child in their purview with the care and respect they deserve, so that they may thrive as a distinct human being. To do anything less, would be to reduce students to nothing but the property of their parents.

I fully respect and sympathize with the challenges of parenthood, and understand concerns about the divisive discourse. Indeed, I recall two friends expressing some of their frustration when they said, “No one has a more binary attitude to life than a non-binary 12-year-old.” So, yes, let’s support and respect the authority of parents. But not at the expense of the basic well-being and dignity of LGBTQ children.

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