Barry Neufeld is a school board trustee in Chilliwack, just east of Abbotsford where I live. He has recently gained notoriety for his stated opposition to the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) guidelines issued by British Columbia’s Ministry of Education. These guidelines are not part of the school curriculum but are intended to guide schools in how they handle issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. As a result of Neufeld’s stated position, there have been calls for his resignation from British Columbia’s Minister of Education, the Chilliwack School Board, and others. The non-teaching employees of the Chilliwack School Board have filed a human rights case against Mr. Neufeld and the school board, arguing that his “homophobic” and “transphobic” comments have deprived them of their right to a safe workplace.
I have never met Barry Neufeld, and I don’t know him personally. I don’t know whether he and I would agree on every issue. However, I would like to comment on several issues involved in the current controversy.
- Name Calling
Social theorists have rightly opposed applying pejorative and derogatory labels to such groups as racial minorities and homosexuals, pointing out that such labels dehumanize people. However, social theorists on the left wing of the social spectrum, who have often been most vocal against the use of such terms, have sometimes been guilty of using pejorative labels of their own. Almost without thinking, they dismiss those who disagree with them by applying labels such as “bigot,” “Islamophobic,” “homophobic,” “transphobic,” and “anti-choice.” For instance, BC Education Minister Rob Fleming called Mr. Neufeld “bigoted” and “hateful.” Such labels are used to dismiss people like Mr. Neufeld so that those who disagree with him do not have to deal with the issues that Mr. Neufeld raises. They are used to shut down discussion. Mr. Fleming has absolutely no evidence that Mr. Neufeld hates anyone other than that he expressed misgivings about a government policy. Disagreeing with something does not necessarily imply hatred. Disagreeing with the doctrines of Islam does not mean that one hates or fears Muslims. Disagreeing with homosexual practice does not mean that one hates or fears homosexuals. Otherwise, anyone who is not a Christian could justly be labelled Christophobic.
- Child Abuse
Mr. Neufeld has said the government’s SOGI guidelines amount to child abuse. This issue needs some consideration. One aspect of this policy is “gender identity.” One provision in the guidelines states that a student should be treated as whatever gender he or she identifies with. So, if a boy thinks he is a girl, he should be treated as a girl and be allowed to dress as a girl and use the girls’ washroom and changing room. This is problematic for both elementary and secondary schools, but for somewhat different reasons. I think the “child abuse” argument relates especially to elementary schools. Pre-puberty, a student doesn’t have a sexual orientation. Moreover, young students are in the process of trying to understand many things, and gender is one of them. Confusion is part of that development process. To increase that confusion is not helpful. I agree with Mr. Neufeld that to encourage an elementary student to choose a sexual identity or make any other binding adult decision is child abuse. I have a grandson who thinks he is Spiderman, but I don’t encourage him to jump off buildings. I have another grandson who says he wants to be a firefighter. This is completely unrealistic as he is not likely to have the physical strength or aptitudes for this occupation. Of course, I haven’t actively discouraged his idea, but I haven’t enrolled him in firefighting school either. I know that he is likely to change his mind many times before he becomes an adult.
And what about the effect on other students? Think about the girls who now have to share a washroom and changing room with a boy who thinks he is a girl. What kind of confusion and discomfort will this cause them? Or does their right to feel safe and comfortable in school not matter?
When someone such as Mr. Neufeld raises questions about policies such as SOGI, those questions should at least be discussed and answered rather than simply dismissing him as “hateful.” Maybe discussing the issue will convince Mr. Neufeld he is wrong, or maybe the discussion will lead to changes and improvements in the policy or how it is implemented. But shutting down the discussion and shunning people like Mr. Neufeld does not solve anything. It suggests that the SOGI guidelines are so flawed that they cannot stand up to criticism and debate.
- Track Record
Defining Mr. Neufeld as “hateful” means that any other qualities he has can be ignored. It dehumanizes him. But a little research reveals some interesting things. Mr. Neufeld has been a school trustee for 24 years. Among other qualifications, he has a BA in adolescent psychology from Simon Fraser University, a certificate in conflict resolution from the Justice Institute of British Columbia, a certificate in life skills from the University of the Fraser Valley, and an MA in chaplaincy from Associated Canadian Theological Schools. He is apparently a member of an Eastern Orthodox Church, where he occasionally preaches to an Arabic congregation. On the school board, he says his most fulfilling work was being part of the First Nations Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee looking for ways to increase the success of Aboriginal students. He has also served as an interfaith prison chaplain and in a Christian ministry to inmates in correctional institutions. He is also heavily involved in a ministry that helps people recover from divorce. This is hardly the picture of someone who is hateful, bigoted, or overly judgemental.