It was religion that taught Baljinder Narang that she could not exclude queer people. And in turn, she found her own voice by advocating for queer people.
"As a Sikh, we pray every day and people who believe in the faith pray every day for the wellness of the whole community," the Ugandan-born Burnaby Board of Education chair told the Georgia Straight by phone. "So that means everyone. So if I'm praying every night for everyone's well-being, then everyone includes everyone….If they're people, they're people."
And that, she said, includes LGBT people.
But it was the board's fight for antihomophobia policy 5.45 in 2011 that put her beliefs to the test.
"When I came on board and I said, 'This is clearly an issue that people want addressed, so why don't we do it?', that was very much the thinking around the table: 'Let's do it.' When the whole thing started falling apart, we kinda thought…'Why are we doing this?' " she said, chuckling. "And we thought 'Okay, we're doing this because it's the right thing to do. So if we go down in history as all losing our seats, then at least we'll make history!' "
Although she can laugh about it now, the experience was a difficult, albeit transformative, one.
One of her biggest challenges was wrapping her head around the views from the opposition, which primarily came from a group called Parents' Voice.
"I couldn't understand it….I am a woman of colour, I'm dealing with being female, I'm dealing with colour, I'm dealing with [being a] minority, and I am expecting to be treated like a full-fledged Canadian," she said. "So why should you not have that same privilege? I was looking it very much as a human rights issue. [If] I want my privileges then why am I denying you yours? It makes no sense. If I want to be respected for who I am, then what right do I have to say to you that you're not worthy of respect?"
Why the controversy arose in that particular school district completely confounded her.
"I cannot for the life of me understand: why Burnaby?…That's the question I haven't figured out yet. What was the need for so much activity around a policy that other districts have just passed without any problem? So that puzzles me."
As a result of the experience, she said she became empowered and learned to speak out.
"I think it's made me a lot stronger. I would not have had this conversation…a few years ago because I would've been terrified of saying anything….but I think that I'm [now] comfortable in saying what I said. And if people take offense, then you know what? It's okay….It made me feel that yes, it's okay to be a voice and be heard if you're advocating for the right reasons…and you don't have to please everyone."
Although she said she feels there is a "huge denial happening" in the South Asian community about queer issues, she said she didn't receive any protests from the community either.
"In the last election, I was actually very impressed with the South Asian community because no one lobbied me on…my stand….If they had concerns, they didn't send them my way. But they also ignored me."
In spite of all the "drama", she said she recognizes the good that eventually did come out of the intense controversy in passing the policy.
"How do we as straight people force ourselves to think about concerns those who are not straight may have?...I think for me, it would be important to have that motivation to try and talk about these issues. So from that point of view, I guess I'm really glad 5.45 happened for us in Burnaby because it really made the community think. It forced them to think about the issue that we hadn’t thought about. From that point of view, Burnaby actually did a great job in terms of bringing the issues right to the forefront and saying 'Okay, what are we going to do? Are we going to stick together and respect each other or are we going to tear each other apart?' And you know, we did stick together. That was great."
Ultimately, she feels that straight people have a responsibility towards helping out queer people.
"I think we owe it to our future generations, our communities, to actually reach out and connect with the LGBTQ community….Why is it taking us to long to get around to accepting [them]? So people like us have a duty to advocate for people who need our support."