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VIEW: Portrait of Mary Polak as a young politician

About the time Mary Polak's newly resigned gay campaign manager, Todd Hauptman, was on the verge of becoming a teenager, Polak was a Surrey school trustee with higher political ambitions, speaking in a coffee shop with a reporter from Vancouver magazine about her views on banning books, restricting sex education and why young people who are gay should just keep it to themselves.

The year was 1997 and I was the reporter. I had asked then-Surrey school board chair Heather Stilwell to grant me an interview about the legal challenge she was leading to ban from early grades books acknowledging some children had gay parents. The arch-conservative Stilwell, whose anti-gay views were well known, brought along Polak. Over the next hour or so of conversation I couldn't see much if any daylight between them on the issues I raised.

Despite Surrey's higher teen pregnancy rates and the ever present threat of AIDS, Stilwell and Polak were proud to have given a parent committee veto power over teaching safe sex and to have banned Planned Parenthood from Surrey's classrooms. They were against gay-straight alliance support groups being allowed in schools, agreeing that "don't ask, don't tell" was the best course of action for any child coming to the realization he or she was gay, lesbian or transgendered.

Stilwell's predecessor as school board chair, John Pickering, had been particularly vicious in his diatribes against gays, rejecting outright that homosexuality "must be tolerated." But Polak was uncritical of Pickering, other than to say his problem was that "he is without guile. He says exactly what he thinks."

At the time, I also interviewed teachers in Surrey schools who said they feared parent backlash and no support from administrators if they taught safe sex practices.

The day in 1997 I conversed with Stilwell and Polak, I noted a recent Viewpoints Research poll that found more than three out of four Surrey adults agreed sex education was important in schools because parents can't be expected to teach their children everything they need to know. Stilwell branded the poll "close to being meaningless" as Polak nodded in agreement.

At the time, a number of Surrey students told me it was all too common to be singled out and bullied for being gay -- even if you weren't. Indeed, Polak's and Stilwell's own school board had just surveyed more than 14,000 Surrey students in Grades 8 to 12, discovering that 30 per cent of them identified homophobia as a serious safety issue in school. 

One newly graduated young man who asked for anonymity said going to school in Surrey meant, "It never occurred to me that being gay wasn't the most freakish thing in the world." Daniel, as I called him, said this had been an excruciating way to come of age, because he had been aware he was gay from the age of 11.

When Daniel told me that, Todd Hauptman would have been about 11 years old, emerging into the social climate that Heather Stilwell and her political protégé Mary Polak were helping to maintain and defend.

[Editor's note: Read a longer Tyee piece written in 2004 keying off the 1997 Vancouver magazine interview with Polak here.]

David Beers is editor of The Tyee.

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