Too early to define sexuality?

Toronto District School Board’s census survey ‘neither logical or necessary’

David Bowden, ArtSci ’07
David Bowden, ArtSci ’07

In November, the Toronto District School Board distributed a census survey to all 270,000 students
in the school board. All students were asked to answer questions about their ethnicity and language
of origin. Students in Grades 9 through 12 were also asked to answer questions about their sexual orientation. Students were asked whether they define themselves as straight, gay/lesbian, transgender, bisexual, queer, or two-spirited—an aboriginal term used to describe people who demonstrate both male and female characteristics.

According to the school board, the survey was a means of realizing and attempting to solve the problems facing students from diverse backgrounds. Specifically, the board hoped to address the disproportionate number of students from certain ethnic backgrounds who do not graduate.

Toronto is home to the largest and most ethnically diverse school board in Canada. Certainly no one would fault the board for embracing this diversity and striving to make students from a wide variety of backgrounds feel more comfortable in the classroom. If this can best be done by determining which ethnic backgrounds are present in the school, then the census survey serves as a logical and necessary step.

However, asking high school students to define and declare their sexual orientation seems neither logical nor necessary. Although ethnicity and language are verifiable pieces of information, the school board has no way of knowing whether or not students’ responses about their sexuality will be accurate.

One Toronto student interviewed by the CBC said many students would likely choose not to reveal themselves as homosexual or bisexual on the survey, fearing that the information may not be kept
confidential. Additionally, students may simply choose to keep such personal information private from school administrators. Further, the sexuality of students who answer the survey is subject to change.

Students who declare themselves heterosexual in Grade 9 may consider themselves otherwise
oriented in Grade 12. Adolescence can be a confusing time for students as they mature emotionally,
intellectually and sexually. Asking an adolescent to declare their sexual orientation seems illogical because the information can’t be verified by the school board and is perhaps not even clear to the student.

Assuming momentarily that the school board has an accurate means of gathering this information, the
board has not given much indication as to how it will be used.

According to Lloyd McKell, the school board’s executive officer, acquiring information on students’
sexual orientation is part of the Board’s larger effort to address the problems facing each student.

The information gathered from the surveys will be compared to other data about the students,
including their grades. However, McKell gave no indication as to how (or even if) the school board
will use the data. If the surveys reveal a large percentage of homosexual students, will the board begin tailoring its curriculum to its students’ orientations? What if the percentageof homosexual and bisexual students is low? Will the board focus on a hetero-centric curriculum at the risk of marginalizing the minority? Surely the curriculum cannot be altered according to sexual orientation. But then, why compare students’ sexual orientation to their grades? Imagine the outcry if Queen’s
was to implement a similar policy. I suspect many students would adamantly object to a policy that asks students to reveal their sexual orientation to the administration. I further suspect that if Queen’s ere to give only a vague and ultimately unsatisfactory explanation for requesting this information,
many would refuse to answer the survey altogether. Many university students, if not most, are young adults who have become comfortable with themselves and their sexuality. High school students, on the
other hand, are teenagers, struggling with the insecurities of puberty while trying to develop a post-pubescent identity. To ask such students to define their sexuality for the school board is not only an invasion of privacy, but potentially damaging to their sense of self.

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