Vancouver's Chinese Christian community is at the forefront of a campaign against a policy on transgender students in public schools in the city, long regarded as a bastion of progressive values.
The proposed policy being debated by the Vancouver School Board advises teachers to protect transgender students' rights to decide who gets to know about their status, to use whichever bathroom they choose and to dress as they feel appropriate. Schools are also advised to reduce sex-segregated activities, such as some sports.
But Cheryl Chang, an advocate against the proposals, said they represented an attempt to usurp parental rights, and there had been inadequate efforts to explain the plan.
"We did not send our children to public schools to be indoctrinated with the teachers' ideology … Parents are primary caregivers and they need to be involved in decisions about what their children are being told and how they are acting out," said Chang. "For a school to say, 'no, we are going to take these kids and tell them what's right and wrong and if [the students] want to do something we'll go along with it and not tell your parents', then that is completely inappropriate."
Chang, a lawyer married to a prominent Chinese-Canadian doctor, spoke at a May 14 board meeting where some parents waved placards denouncing the policy. Cantonese-speaking opponents of the plan urged Chang to speak on their behalf.
"I think this goes to Chinese family values," said Chang on Monday. "Many [opponents of the plan] are Christian, but many are not, and so this is about family values, and the ability of parents to parent their children and not have that disturbed by the school system. The only reason more Caucasian parents haven't been involved is because they haven't even heard about it. The word has gotten out in the Chinese community faster because those were people at the forefront."
She said the issue was a secular one, and "the other side is trying to say that this is a religious issue, it's a homophobic issue in order to shut down rational and reasonable debate".
However, Chang has acted as chancellor and legal counsel for the Anglican Network in Canada. Another prominent opponent of the plans is Charter Lau, who formerly co-chaired the Christian Social Concern Fellowship.
Chang wrote a widely distributed open letter to the board urging it to conduct more consultation, and then reject the plan. The plan was originally intended to go to a vote this week, but opponents succeeded in pushing that back. A second public meeting is scheduled for today, with the board expected to vote in June.
Dr Justin Tse, who has studied the political activities of Chinese Christians in Vancouver, said: "This is not really a debate about homophobia. It's a debate about parental rights … and this has been the long-standing theme in these debates in Vancouver."
Tse, an expert in religious and ethnic studies and a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Washington, said: "Chinese Christians have this vision for a rational orderly society. A particular reading of the Bible may inform this, a particular reading of the Chinese classics may inform this. But at the heart of it, it's about a rational orderly society, where parents are the primary educators for their children. What they are seeing instead with this kind of stuff [the board's proposals] is that this is irrational and disorderly. That's why there is such a strong pushback."
In January, Truth Monthly, a leading Chinese Christian newspaper, published an editorial lambasting the Vancouver School Board and Patti Bacchus who chairs the board, over the transgender issue. It listed supposedly cautionary tales about transgender people, including Nathan Verhelst, who was euthanised in Belgium last year after botched sex-change surgery.
Tse said political activities of Chinese Christians in Vancouver were not a "church effort" but involved churchgoers in a secular way, "through Chinese Christian e-mail chains, informal conversation and assorted Chinese Christian media".