Parents, staff demand TDSB drop drag queen storytime opt-out. The board is standing firm.
Several sources told the Star that the opt-out was linked to and justified under the province’s sex-ed curriculum, which allows students in Grades 1 to 8 to take part in alternative activities.
Gila Munster at a recent Drag Queen Storytime event at the North York Central Library. Terese Pierre
Parents and staff are demanding that the Toronto District School Board stop allowing students to opt out of drag queen storytime events.
Toronto Pflag and the board’s 2SLGBTQ+ Community Advisory Committee have been advocating unsuccessfully for weeks since the issue over attendance and consent arose at a Pride celebration at Bruce Public School in early June. They say the opt-out violates the Ontario Human Rights Code and are calling for an apology for the harm caused by the decision. The board, they add, has not been particularly responsive.
But the board’s directive remains the same, for now, according to the TDSB, which said the accommodation was offered based on guidance from the Ontario Ministry of Education. Ministry spokesperson Grace Lee said “this decision was made by TDSB.”
While the ministry would not confirm how it advised the TDSB on this matter, Lee said, “we expect school boards to respect parental decisions when it comes to their children.”
Several sources told the Star that the opt-out was linked to and justified under the province’s sex-ed curriculum, which allows students in grades 1 to 8 to take part in alternative activities.
The board has vowed “to determine a path forward” by consulting with human rights specialists, staff and the community, although there is no specific timeline to do so.
That’s not good enough, say advocates, who say the issue can’t wait until fall.
“This policy is outrageous,” Toronto Pflag president Michael Ain wrote to TDSB director of education Colleen Russell-Rawlins in the wake of a storytime event at Bruce Public School, in Leslieville, where permission forms triggered a public backlash that ended with the board dropping the requirement but offering an opt-out to students.
The directive came at a time when school boards found themselves at the centre of tensions over how to mark Pride month, including debates on whether to raise the rainbow flag. Drag queen storytime, in which drag queens share books and songs with 2SLGBTQIA+ themes, became a particular flashpoint for protesters in Canada and the U.S.
“(The storytime opt-out policy) panders to the dangerous and wrong-headed belief that a drag queen reading a story hurts children,” Ain wrote in his June 15 letter. “It is dangerous as it ‘others’ 2SLGBTQ+ people, including the storyteller, and almost certainly some of the students and staff.”
Since then, the 2SLGBTQ+ Community Advisory Committee (CAC), which had already wrapped up its meetings for the academic year, has reconvened twice to discuss the issue.
“A communication providing parents the ability to opt out of drag queen storytime activities at school, while based on guidance from the Ministry of Education, rightfully raised concerns about emboldening environments and acts of hate,” said TDSB trustee Debbie King, who is the CAC co-chair.
At the emergency meetings, staff and community members, as well as administrators, voiced their concerns to some of the TDSB’s senior team, including the director, and were told, according to attendees, that a letter of apology and retraction would be forthcoming, but neither came.
In a statement provided to the Star, the board said “we have heard from the community and staff members that this approach was deeply hurtful and not respectful of the human rights of 2SLGBTQ+ communities. Their concerns are being taken very seriously … We should have spent more time in consultation with the community and our students and staff prior to providing this guidance and for that we apologize.”
Board spokesperson Ryan Bird said this statement has been shared with the community, although Toronto Pflag said they received nothing but an acknowledgment of receipt of their initial letter with a promise from the director to be in touch the next week.
“We thought this was going to be dealt with before the school year was over, we really did,” said Anne Creighton, spokesperson for Toronto Pflag, a volunteer-run charitable organization that does 2SLGBTQIA+ advocacy work and attended the CAC meetings.
Advocates have taken exception to the board apology being connected to the process as opposed to addressing the impact of the directive on the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.
“Apologies are most impactful when delivered swiftly where harm is inflicted. Folks are weary of platitudes devoid of action,” said King.
Rico Rodriguez, a gay teacher who has worked at the board for 32 years and has been involved in supporting and developing 2SLGBTQIA+ policies, workshops and events since the 1990s, said the opt-out sets back the TDSB’s efforts.
“All the work that I have done myself personally and that others did before me has been destroyed, just by that statement that you can opt out, and that’s not right.”
Drag queen storytime is about representation, not sex, said Rodriguez, who also performs as drag queen Chabuca La Grande. “Storytime has nothing to do with sex-ed.”
Drag queen storytime activities have been held in a few TDSB elementary schools and there have been performances for students in grades 7 to 12, according to Bird.
At Bruce Public School in June, a TDSB-vetted guest, drag queen Gila Münster, read three books to students: “Miss Rita, Mystery Reader,” “’Twas the Night Before Pride” and “Auntie Uncle: Drag Queen Hero”, which are about reading and self-acceptance, 2SLGBTQIA+ history, and saving a dog and the Pride parade, respectively.
“There’s nothing about this that elevates it to sex and health,” said Creighton. “If this was anybody else reading exactly the same storybook to exactly the same kids, they would not be treated the same way.”
Drag is a joyful and celebratory form of gender expression, said one TDSB staffer who attended all the CAC meetings but was fearful of using her name due to reprisals in the workplace. “Often, folks conflate gender expression with other protected grounds in the Ontario Human Rights Code like sexual orientation, but they are different. There is nothing sexual about drag. Demonstrating in a fun way that gender expression is a fundamental human right forms vital human rights education. And human rights education is not something you can opt out of — ever.”
Board spokesperson Bird said fewer than 20 Bruce students opted out of participating.
On June 30, director Russell-Rawlins posted a message on the TDSB website acknowledging the end of Pride month and the events that took place in Toronto schools. She wrote, the “TDSB has a duty to create spaces which reflect the lived experiences, histories and perspectives of 2SLGBTQ+ communities. This work is particularly important at this time given the increasing levels of homophobia, transphobia and biphobia that we are seeing in our communities and schools. Harassment, discrimination and hate have no place in TDSB.”
She also noted that senior administration will “continue the important learning that is necessary for us to be able to lead more effectively in relation to 2SLGBTQ+ students, staff, families and communities.”
CAC co-chair King said that while the director’s post “was not an explicit public apology,” she believes it “points to next steps and willingness to do better.”