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Murray – My Story

    

My name is Murray Corren. I am 78 years old and I live in Vancouver, British Columbia. This is my story. 

“Where were YOU when I needed you!?” I was standing next to a young gay man who shouted those painful, angry words. It was 1994 at the Pride Parade in San Francisco where my beloved late husband and I had come to visit our best friend of many years.

As an elementary teacher, I had become active in the Gay and Lesbian Educators of British Columbia (GALE – BC), a support group for queer educators in the province. Standing on the sidewalk watching the parade go by, and realizing at whom his pain was being directed, I saw the Bay Area Gay and Lesbian Teachers approaching us.

Obviously, that young man had encountered no openly queer teachers during his time at school and had perhaps experienced a less than safe and supportive time as a student in the school system.

His words shook me to the core and long after we returned home to Vancouver, his anguished cry kept ringing in my mind. I realized I was faced with an existential choice I could not ignore: was I prepared to continue on, invisibly, as a gay man in my teaching career, pretending there was little or nothing I could do to acknowledge the fact there were young queer students sitting in my classroom? Or, was I morally bound to do anything I could within my power to make schools in my city, province and country safe, welcoming, inclusive and affirming for those vulnerable kids?

By then, my husband Peter and I had legally changed our last name to Corren (formerly, his was Cook and mine Warren) and we were successful in getting the province’s adoption law changed allowing same sex couples to adopt children jointly as fully legal parents.

But as a teacher in the public school system, I had not openly and publicly come out as gay. Then, an idea occurred to me. I decided I would bring a request to my school board to establish an ad hoc committee to examine whether queer students in the district were being acknowledged, feeling safe and, as I expected, facing multiple challenges as learners navigating the system.

I invited the Chairwoman and the Superintendent of the Board, the President of my local teachers union, two queer high school students who were willing to attend, and a reporter from the local newspaper to a meeting, encouraging those officials to respond positively to my request. Receiving a less than encouraging reaction from the Board officials, I informed them I would request permission to make a presentation at the Board’s next public meeting to put my proposal to them formally.

The reporter, who I suspected was supportive, asked me to sit for an interview, prior to the meeting at my school. At the agreed time, she came with a photographer to my classroom after school. When her article appeared, it was on the front page, replete with a large format colour picture of me in my classroom and announced that a second grade male teacher was openly out and officially requesting the Board to hear his proposal.

Before long, city, provincial and national media were calling me to agree to interviews in radio, print and television. I knew by then, there was no turning back and I’m sure the situation was raising lots of concern, not only at the School Board, but amongst staff and parents at my school and in the wider community. I believe I was the first openly gay elementary school teacher in my community and province, and likely in Canada, who was attempting to bring the situation of queer students to the attention of the public.

My husband and I had made a connection with a local organizer who held weekly drop in safe space sessions for queer kids in the community and we had attended a number of times to let them know there were adults, including this teacher, who were there as positive supports. When they learned about my upcoming request to the Board, the kids enthusiastically volunteered to attend in support. Also, some members of GALE-BC, wanted to attend to make supportive presentations on my behalf.

By the evening of the meeting, there was such wide publicity about the event, the regular meeting room was filled to capacity and people were standing outside on the stairs eager to hear the presentations and the Board’s response. The media was there in force and the tension and excitement was palpable. I and my fellow GALE member made our presentations and waited for the Board’s decision. Needless to say, after conferring during a break, the Board, in an attempt to lower the temperature, announced it would give its decision two weeks later at its next scheduled meeting.

As the days ticked by leading up to the next Board meeting, contingents of supporters and opponents began to coalesce and media attention increased substantially. The Board, realizing this was going to be an intense and contentious meeting, decided not to hold it at the Board offices, but, instead opted to move it to the gymnasium of an elementary school across the street.

By this time, queer kids and their allies had organized themselves and were determined to be at the meeting in support of my proposal. However, members from catholic and evangelical churches had also gathered forces and came to express their vehement opposition. By the time the meeting was called to order, there was standing room only in the gym.

Part of the rationale I had put forward centred around a Board policy that schools had a responsibility to maintain a safe and orderly environment for everyone. I had maintained that policy wasn’t being adhered to and queer students were experiencing homophobic and transphobic harassment and bullying in all the district’s schools.

The Board had ordered the agenda in such a way that they announced a plan to assess whether the policy was being appropriately applied and, if not, what needed to be done to address the problem. They then turned to my proposal and declared an ad hoc committee as I was requesting was no longer necessary! Queer students erupted in shouts and anguished tears while homophobic opponents cheered the decision. A young lesbian couple who had gone to school in the district and had experienced bullying and harassment screamed at the Board that their decision would lead to queer kids being further bullied and put in danger.

Angry, but not bowed, I vowed not to give up striving to make schools everywhere safe, welcoming and inclusive for all queer students, teachers and families. Subsequently, Peter and I, through our activism and with the support of many allies, went on to work with the British Columbia Teachers Federation to create queer-affirming resources and supportive networks for teachers across the province.

We took a case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada challenging the Surrey School Board for banning three children’s books featuring same sex families, and we won! We also took out a BC Human Rights complaint against the Ministry of Education for failing to incorporate queer realities into the public school curriculum, and we won! And finally, we took on the Federal Government of Canada, along with five other couples, fighting for the right to legally marry, and we won!

I met Peter in London, England, on Sunday, July 11th, 1971, and, 33 years later, on Sunday, July 11th, 2005, we were married in our garden by Canada’s first openly gay Federal Court judge. As he pronounced us legally married husbands, someone amongst our guests suddenly broke out with the country’s national anthem, “O, Canada”, and everyone joyfully joined in.

Sadly, my loving Peter passed away five years later. We had been together through thick and thin for 38 wonderful years and I gratefully thank the stars above for each and every second we had.

And, as for that young gay man at the Pride Parade all those years ago in San Francisco, if I could meet him today, I would tell him I heard his cry and I did everything in my power to help make the world a better place for queer kids and families everywhere. I hope he would no longer feel betrayed and unsupported knowing there were teachers prepared to challenge the status quo and work to make the education world a place where kids like him would feel fully supported and cared for.

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