OPINION: In reviewing Policy 713, Higgs needs to ‘think of the children’

I have to start by saying I am a reporter first and foremost. I ask questions, listen to a person’s story, and share that story to educate and inform a wide audience. I report the news; I am not to become it.

However, New Brunswick’s debate around Policy 713 breaks me, and I don’t think I can stay silent.

I knew I was gay when I entered Grade 9, but growing up in a conservative, Christian home meant staying in the closet to survive. School was different. There I felt safe to be myself, knowing my teachers, friends, and others cared about me, and supported me whenever I had a hard time at home. While I felt comfortable at school, having in place a piece of legislation like Policy 713 would have eased my mind as a “half-in, half-out” queer-identifying high schooler.

Policy 713, which sets the minimum requirements for making schools safe and inclusive for 2SLGBTQIA+ students, is undergoing a review by the provincial government after the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development received multiple complaints about the policy from people across the province.

One aspect of the policy, which has caused major uproar, is a requirement for teachers to respect students who ask to be addressed with a different name or set of pronouns than the ones assigned at birth, meaning they are not to disclose that information to parents.

Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters in a media scrum that parents have a “right” to know how their child identifies their gender or sexuality at school, and not giving them that “right” supposedly tells parents they “have no role in raising their kids.”

What the premier doesn’t understand is that this isn’t about parents not having a role in raising their kids; it’s about child safety. Had I been outed to my parents in high school, I very well could have been subjected to severe punishment, religious studies, and possibly even the harmful practice of conversion therapy. Higgs knows this would be the reality for thousands of school-aged children in New Brunswick, but he still prioritizes the rights of parents over kids, because it’s the adults who vote him into office.

He says the province respects the rights of youth and believes in schools being a comfortable and safe space for them, but changes to Policy 713 that require teachers to out their queer-identifying students would only harm them and make school another place where they feel the need to walk on eggshells.

Higgs should consider himself lucky that as a straight, white man, he’s never had to worry about the societal stigma because of who he loves or how he presents himself. People like me, on the other hand, still endure dirty looks or stares while walking down the street just for holding our partner’s hand.

Whether you’re a child, a teenager, an adult or a senior, you should be guaranteed the right to disclose what you want about yourself and to whom, and it’s not the job of our province’s educators to essentially tattletale on our younger generation by sharing personal information that parents or legal guardians might not react well to.

It’s time for the Premier to realize that it’s no longer 1965 and that ignoring — or worse, erasing — the rights and presence of queer-identifying children should not be a discussion.

If the premier needs statistics, here’s one for him. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10 to 24, according to the Trevor Project. LGBTQ youth are at significantly increased risk. Only one-third of queer youth experience parental acceptance; an additional one-third experience parental rejection. These queer youth are eight times more likely to report attempting suicide and six times more likely to report high levels of depression.

If Higgs wants to make our schools a safe space, I can only hope he and Education Minister Bill Hogan use statistics like this to influence their decisions.

This commentary was first published by Aaron Sousa on Substack.

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