‘No dissent is allowed’: School board bars teacher from raising concerns over transgender books
‘I am not a transphobic person. It’s crazy that just because you ask a question, the first thing people do is call you that’
Tom Blackwell, NATIONAL POST,
Jan 21, 2022 •
Carolyn Burjoski, bottom row left, was ejected from this Waterloo Region District School Board virtual meeting for expressing concerns over content in some board-approved school library books. Photo by Screen grab
An Ontario school board is facing charges of censorship this week after shutting down a teacher’s presentation to the group, saying her comments about books on transgender issues violated the province’s human rights code.
Carolyn Burjoski was discussing publications she said are available in the libraries of Kindergarten to grade six schools. She had begun to argue the books made it seem too simple and “cool” to medically transition to another gender when her presentation was cut short by the Waterloo Region District School Board’s chair.
Scott Piatkowski ruled she could not continue and the board eventually voted 5-4 to back up his decision. The fallout has continued since.
Though controversial and opposed by most transgender advocates, concerns have been voiced before — including by leading figures in the movement itself — that gender-dysphoric young people are sometimes pushed too aggressively into medical transition.
Piatkowski later told a local CTV station , however, that Burjoski’s comments were actually transphobic and “questioned the right to exist” of trans people. Meanwhile, the organization took down its recording of the meeting — a regular, public session of elected officials — and had YouTube remove another copy of the video for alleged copyright infringement.
And then the teacher was given what she calls a “stay-at-home order” and told not to communicate with colleagues or students, though she’s still being paid and is slated to retire soon. On Thursday, she says her union rep informed her the board had appointed an outside investigator to examine her actions.
We do need to have a conversation about the intersection of biology and gender
In her first interview on the affair, Burjoski said she was “flabbergasted” by what happened at the meeting and Piatkowski’s remarks afterward.
“I am not a transphobic person. It’s crazy that just because you ask a question, the first thing people do is call you that,” she said. “We do need to have a conversation about the intersection of biology and gender. We’re not having those conversations in our culture because, look what happened to me.”
She said the order to stay away from school was likely meant to make an example of her: “The message is clear: no dissent is allowed.”
Piatkowski declined to comment Thursday, saying he was already the target of organized online harassment and didn’t want to feed it further. He referred to two previous interviews with local media outlets.
The human rights code bars discrimination based on gender identity and other grounds in the areas of housing, employment and providing services.
Asked to explain how Burjoski’s comments violated the code, the chair told 570 News radio station that he would not repeat or respond to her remarks and “give them oxygen.”
But he said he stood by his decision, and that chairs of other boards in the province have told him they would have done the same thing.
“This person was speaking about transgender people in a way that was disrespectful, that would cause them to be attacked and I really needed to ensure it did not continue,” Piatkowski said. “I’m quite confident it was the right decision.”
He said Thursday he knew nothing about the board’s actions against Burjoski or removal of the video of the meeting.
Board spokesperson Eusis Dougan-McKenzie said Friday the video was not officially posted because of concerns about a possible human-rights code violation. In a statement, WDRSB said “we would like to express our deep regret for any harm caused to the transgender community” by Burjoski’s comments.
Two groups representing the LGBTQ community in Waterloo could not be reached for comment. Trans activists, however, often argue that statements questioning medical transition in any way can fuel transgender harassment, discrimination and violence.
“I’m not sorry that someone who opened the door to transphobic comments was stopped from keeping that door open,” Laura Mae Lindo, the NDP MPP for Kitchener Centre, commented on Twitter. “That’s not over-reach. Protect the most vulnerable. Uphold human rights. If you can’t do that, sit down.”
One Waterloo trustee who came to Burjoski’s defence on Monday, though, blasted the board’s decision and said he’s never seen a delegation silenced in that way before.
“It’s censoring presentations that the chair doesn’t agree with,” said long-time board member Mike Ramsay, who has served as chair three times himself. “As decision makers, we have to make informed decisions.… If we’re going to just take one point of view and say that’s sufficient, that’s wrong on so many fronts.”
Burjoski said she has worked for more than 20 years as a teacher of English as a second language, specializing in children who have immigrated from various countries affected by war and political unrest.
She appeared as a one-person public “delegation” in a session discussing the board’s controversial decision to conduct a system-wide removal of books it considered “harmful.”
Her comments focused on resources recommended by the board for a transgender awareness day. Trouble started when she turned to a book called The Other Boy by M.G. Hennessey and a scene that depicts a meeting between Shane, a transgender boy (born a girl), and a doctor. He voices excitement about starting on testosterone and when the physician says it would mean he likely wouldn’t be able to have children, he says, “It’s cool.”
If we’re going to just take one point of view and say that’s sufficient, that’s wrong
As Burjoski remarked that such books make it seem overly straightforward to take cross-sex hormones, Piatkowski interjected to warn she may be violating the code.
The teacher then went on to say the book was misleading “because it does not take into account how Shane might feel later in life about being infertile. This book makes very serious medical interventions seem like an easy cure for emotional and psychological distress.”
At that point, Piatkowski told her he was “ending the presentation.”
The widely used “affirmation” approach to children who identify as transgender has raised some concerns in several countries, and not just among obvious critics. Two leading psychologists in the transgender medical community, one of them a trans woman, complained in a recent article about sloppy and dangerous assessment of young people presenting as trans, with overly hasty resort to hormones.
Pam Buffone, whose parents group Canadian Gender Report highlights similar issues, said Burjoski raised legitimate questions about the appropriateness of school materials, as places like Finland restrict the use of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones.
“If there’s a reason to hide this discussion from public scrutiny, then there’s really something wrong,” she said.