A trans man who worked as a substitute teacher in Edmonton, Alberta was fired by a Catholic school upon telling them about his plans to transition:
Jan Buterman is praised in a letter of dismissal for his teaching abilities, but told his gender change from woman to man is not aligned with the teachings of the Catholic church or its values.
The letter says the teacher would confuse students and their parents.
“I am horrified that this would happen to anybody,” said Buterman, 39, who taught social studies, German and French to students in Grades 7 to 12 in the well-to-do bedroom community of St. Albert north of Edmonton.
“I don’t think that someone’s medical condition is really fodder for your employer. It should not be any of their business. I respect people’s beliefs, I do. That doesn’t mean they get to ignore the laws we have around equality.”
Officials with the Greater St. Albert Catholic School Board were not available for comment.
The letter suggests that board officials consulted with Catholic church leaders before telling Buterman that he was being removed from the list of substitute teachers on Oct. 9, 2008. Buterman filed the complaint Thursday before the time limit on filing ran out.
“The reason for removing you from the substitute teacher list follows a conversation we shared in which you indicated that you had been diagnosed with a gender identity medical condition and that you were undergoing physical gender changes from the female gender to the male gender,” wrote Steve Bayus, deputy superintendent of schools.
“In discussions with the Archbishop of the Edmonton Diocese, the teaching of the Catholic church is that persons cannot change their gender. One’s gender is considered what God created it to be.”
I have to say that the “it will confuse children” excuse for discrimination has to be one of the most obnoxious. And it’s not only because of the illogical nature of the statement (because “[Y]ou know what else confuses kids? Everything.”), but also because what “it will confuse children” really means is “it will force me to explain something to my kids that I really should explain to them, and probably should have explained already, but due to my prejudice and/or generally uptight nature really do not want to. Please stop decreasing my chances that I will get away with not talking about this thing that makes me uncomfortable until they are legal adults.” It happens with bodily anatomy, it happens with sexual activity, it happens with rape and other forms of abuse, it happens with sexual orientation, and as trans people become more and more visible, it also happens with gender identity. Even when those children who are the subject of “concern” are aged somewhere between 12-18. The fact is, if your children will be confused, you haven’t been doing something right, and it’s time to start.
The further reality is that unless Buterman chose to bring up his transition directly, it would be none of the students’ business — marginalized people do not exist to be teaching moments for everyone else. And if he did decide to bring it up directly, for whatever reason, it would actually be incredibly valuable for students to learn that not everyone is cisgender and/or cissexual, as it’s a lesson they’re not likely to get elsewhere, at least for some time. Indeed, it would likely greatly help rather than “confuse” those students who are trans themselves, and the assumption that all the students are cis is just another aspect of cis privilege and transphobia.
As for the discrimination itself, trans people losing work as a result of prejudice over their gender identities is an age-old tale, and those who work with children, for the reasons I described up above and more, are at particular risk. (According to a woman in this article who relates her own experiences, Alberta also specifically has a history of firing teachers on the basis of gender identity.) In the U.S., it’s entirely legal in most places to discriminate on the basis of gender identity. In Canada, where this case is taking place, the human rights law includes transgender rights — the only problem being that exceptions can be made for religious organizations in some circumstances.
I, for one, am incredibly sick of the “religious exceptions” excuse. If the Catholic Church wants to determine who can and cannot be a priest in their religion in a prejudiced manner, I don’t like it, but it’s their business. If they want to determine who they will and will not perform strictly religious services for within their houses of worship, also their business. (The same of course also goes for any other religious organization.)
When, however, they are providing a public service — such as education, or medical treatment, which is another common issue — the religious beliefs excuse for discrimination just doesn’t fly with me. The teachings this school provides are not merely religious in nature, but include math, English, science, history and all of the other things that students are required to learn in order to get a diploma. And if you want to provide a public service, then you should have to abide by the public rules — and this is particularly so when, as is the case here, you’re receiving government funding. That’s right, the school isn’t only providing a public service — they’re doing it with public funds, and indeed are providing it in a way that is open to the general public, as students of all faiths are welcome to attend.
The actions of the Greater St. Albert Catholic School Board are absolutely appalling on their very face, and I see absolutely no way in which they have a remotely valid defense. The only thing that could make it even more appalling is if the Alberta Human Rights Commission were to somehow side with them.
In closing, I think it’s very important to highlight Jan Buterman’s own comments on his case, which are as follows:
Buterman, whose background is Lutheran, said he was shocked.
“It brings back horror, fear,” he said in an interview, noting that if, as the letter states, “persons” cannot change gender, then the school board must think he’s not a person. “It felt like my existence was being questioned.”
Buterman said his is a diagnosed medical condition–equivalent to someone having cancer, for instance –upon which employment should not depend. A transsexual is a person who has the physical characteristics of one sex but the psychological characteristics of the other.
“This hasn’t been germane to my work, other than that we have the habit of calling people Mr. and Mrs. in the school system,” Buterman said. “I’m not there as a substitute to discuss this, just as I’m not there to discuss my breast cancer. You’re there as a person who is a qualified teacher.
“I’ve never known teacher qualifications to be based on what may or may not be attached to your body at any given point.”
Buterman agrees the Catholic school district has a right to its beliefs about transsexual people.
“That doesn’t mean they get to ignore human rights and the same labour practices I would expect of any publicly funded employer,” he said.