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Letter: Rainbow School Board should live up to its name

Board’s decision to cancel an educational drag show sponsored by the federal government is an attack against the 2SLGBTQ+ community, says co-chair of Sudbury Pride
The Rainbow District School Board office.

The Rainbow District School Board and Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School’s decision to cancel the planned stop of the Courage Across Canada Tour, an event featuring some of Canada’s most well-known drag artists, is just one more piece in an attack against the 2SLGBTQ+ community that has been happening for longer than any of us can remember.

Violence against the queer and trans community exists as a continuum. Picture a thick line ― green at one end, red at the other. The middle slowly blends from green to yellow to orange and red. If you were to ask 10 people where yellow ends and orange begins, you would get 10 different answers.

The red end represents acts of violence that are direct and obvious, like those of Toronto serial killer Bruce McArthur or last year’s shooting in a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs. I’m sure that anyone would agree that this violence is awful and inexcusable. 

Blending into orange is less noticeable forms of violence, such as queer and trans refugees being denied entry into Poland as they flee the war in Ukraine (Poland has declared themselves an “LGBT-Free zone”).

The other end of the continuum includes acts of violence that are more subtle and more difficult to identify (if you aren’t on the receiving end). In yellow, blending into green, we have forms of discrimination that are tolerated and even encouraged. Think of the 310 anti-trans bills currently working their way through state houses in the U.S., for instance. 

Some of the bills deny trans girls the ability to participate in even the least competitive sports, and even mandate genital inspections for young girls. 

These actions, when laid out side by side, form a continuum ― cancelling an educational event with drag artists looks nothing like a mass shooting, but they are connected by transphobia.

I went to high school in Sudbury in the 1990s. There were no Gay Straight Alliances ― only one student in my school of more than 600 kids was even out. The word “gay” was considered to be an insult. 

There were no queer or trans people on TV ― at least, none that were relatable. When Ellen DeGeneres came out on her sitcom, I watched her show get cancelled. 

There was no way my school was even thinking of hosting drag shows celebrating different expressions of gender. I did not feel welcome in the educational system. Despite having good grades, I dropped out in Grade 11, and experienced homelessness and serious mental health issues before returning to school as an adult, getting my high school diploma, and eventually a PhD.

For decades, research has shown that trans youth have higher rates of depression, suicidal thoughts, and substance use than other teens. However, recent studies indicate that when trans youth are supported at home and in school, these rates drop down to the same as with their peers. Being trans is not a mental health issue ― transphobia is.

The school board justifies its decision by saying that it’s about following protocol, but the fact that it was first described as being cancelled for political reasons tells me that the Rainbow School Board sees drag as inherently different than other kinds of performances. 

The cancelled show is happening at schools across the country and is a celebration of identities  — it is not at all sexual in nature. The content was developed to be delivered in schools, is age-appropriate, and educational in nature and is sponsored by the Government of Canada. There is absolutely no reason to cancel the show other than transphobia.

If I had seen drag performers talking about gender and acceptance, it could have made all the difference for me growing up. Even if you strip them of all resources and support, queer youth will continue to be queer. It’s who they are. 

Please show queer and trans students that they matter. Please don’t uphold the continuum of violence by silencing queer voices and hiding gender diversity to placate the bigotry of others. Letting 2SLGBTQ+ people speak about their experiences is not “too political” and should not be controversial.

Silencing queer voices is violence. Visibility and acceptance save lives.

Laur O’Gorman, PhD

Co-Chair of Fierte Sudbury Pride