Adam W.J. Davies and Wayne Martino comment on Ontario’s Health & Physical Education Curriculum
It is often said that your childhood experiences frame who you become as an adult. As educators and researchers, we could not agree more with this statement. In our view, elementary, middle, and high school experiences are formative in shaping adult identities as young people learn about their bodies, health, and well-being.
Often gender and sexual minority youth struggle to find themselves represented within the heteronormative and cisgendered school walls. Thankfully, this is changing as educators in Ontario are being provided with curricular and legislative frameworks that endorse an educational program committed to providing information about bodies, sexual health, safe sex practices, and sexual and gender diversity. But much controversy has surrounded the new Ontario sex education curriculum, which has been described as radical in its approach to addressing gender and sexual diversity.
The recent release of the updated Health & Physical Education curriculum in Ontario, and its explicit inclusion of topics related to gender identity, gender expression, diverse sexualities, masturbation, and preventing sexually transmitted infections needs to be understood as anything but radical. Rather, it represents a necessary commitment to providing students with information about sexual health, safety, gender diversity, and well-being. The new sex education curriculum offers a glimmer of hope, if only for a second, that some queer, gender independent, and trans youth might experience a different childhood than previous generations. Indeed, the new curriculum delivers a baseline to begin to critique notions of heteronormativity and cisgender privilege in the educational system.
Upon the unveiling of the new Health & Physical Education curriculum by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne in early 2015, public outcry from various constituents immediately erupted in response to the specific content of the curriculum. For example, Catholic and Protestant Christian groups claimed that topics such as masturbation and homosexuality were contrary to their teaching.
At a school in Thorncliffe Park in Toronto more than half of the students were withdrawn from school at the beginning of the year due to parental concerns over the content of the new sex education curriculum. It was reported that Muslim parents were concerned that “the curriculum introduces certain topics too early” and that it supported a view of homosexuality as “a normal way of life”, something they claimed ran counter to Islamic teachings.
Media coverage of the reactions of certain faith communities has certainly raised serious questions about tensions that continue to plague the new curriculum. However, the emphasis on controversy has tended to exaggerate the opposition between religious freedoms and sexual minority rights. Such media-fuelled debates risk essentializing and homogenizing certain faith communities and silencing progressive voices within these communities. Notably, while there are voices from religious groups that oppose the new sex education curriculum, there are Muslim groups within Ontario mobilizing to provide support for reforms to sex education, including Rabea Murtaza and the Muslims for Ontario’s Health and Physical Education Curriculum.
Interestingly, our society seems very insistent on viewing people and discourses in binary terms. This is ultimately counterproductive with regard to the representation of minority and faith communities. One is either a man or a woman. One either supports sex education or is against it on the basis of religious beliefs. Fluid and interwoven identities and conversations are unintelligible in those media discourses that want us to take a clear “position”, and that shut out non-binary perspectives.
The new Ontario sex education curriculum creates a very necessary space for disrupting heteronormative and cisgendered notions of sexuality, particularly children’s sexuality, while bringing queer identities, sexualities, gender creativity, and transgender bodies and lives into mainstream schooling. It offers much needed pedagogical space for ensuring that youth are educated about sexuality and gender in ways that benefit their emotional, psychological, and physical well-being in terms of gaining information about safe sex practices, sexual health, and well-being. As such, this curriculum is about promoting accountability to one another and affirming acceptance of human existence in all of its diversity, fluidity, and malleability.
Adam W.J. Davies is a recent graduate of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. @adamwjdavies
Wayne Martino is a Professor of Equity and Social Justice Education at the University of Western Ontario.