Burnaby Board of Education trustee Gary Wong didn't grow up gay. But he knows what it's like being the target of discrimination in elementary and high school.
"To this day, I still recall the little nursery rhyme that was prevalent at that time," he told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. "It started off with 'Chinky, Chinky Chinaman'."
Although the second-generation Chinese Canadian has no personal connections to any queer communities, he is now the cochair of the education board's LGBTQ Committee.
His painful experiences with racism led him to empathize with queer students facing parallel experiences of bullying and stigmatization.
"I could certainly see a connection there with some of the things that I've heard with going to all the different high schools and listening to the students and some of the concerns that they've raised as far as the discrimination that they were facing," he said.
He said he only became interested in these issues when the board initiated an attempt in 2011 to pass an antihomophobia policy.
Opposition from concerned parents rose up in the form of an ad-hoc group called Parents' Voice, which protested the policy initiative and even formed its own civic party (but failed to win any seats).
"I was actually quite taken aback," Wong said of the criticism and resistance. "I thought that there was a lot of miscommunication as far as some of the people who were suggesting certain things that really wasn't reality, like we were going to teach children sexual practices of homosexuals or we were going to have children cross-dress to see what it feels like…."
Wong, who chaired the committee for policy 5.45, added there were misunderstandings about the policy granting special rights to one particular group. He pointed out they also have a racism and multiculturalism policy; if concern was being raised against LGBT people receiving special rights from the antihomophobia policy, Wong argued the same criticism should have been leveled against the multicultural policy.
He clarified what the board's true intent is.
"What we are trying to do is to remove the discrimination that these students face in schools and that they have every right to be in school in a safe, caring environment and not be subjected to comments, being looked down upon, and changing peoples' attitudes and raising awareness."
The adoption of the antihomophobia policy in June 2011 has resulted in numerous programs and measures being taken. He noted that there were only two Burnaby schools with gay-straight alliances when the policy first started (one of them was struggling with limited membership); he proudly stated that all Burnaby schools have them now. The You Can Play Burnaby forum (initiated by Burnaby Teachers' Association officer-at-large Frank Bonvino, who is also straight) in March addressed homophobia in sports.
On what straight people can do, Wong said he thinks that straight people have an important role to play as advocates.
"I think it's to challenge wherever they see that happening, where they see people making inappropriate comments, to challenge those individuals and make sure that they're aware that that's not okay."