The suicide rates of LGBTQ youth are four times higher than those of their peers. Two-thirds of queer and trans teens feel unsafe at school. We keep telling them to tough it out, that it gets better down the road. It’s time to stop making future-rated promises. The system is failing and if we’re going to save kids’ lives, things need to get better right now.
It’s half an hour before lunch on Remembrance Day at North York’s Emery Collegiate Institute. Six kids—three girls, three boys—are alone in the corridor. They trade jokes in the whisper-shout cadence of kids who don’t want to get busted by a teacher while they methodically tear down the notices posted on a bulletin board in the hall. The signs, handwritten on neon paper, read “PEACE,” “HARMONY,” “NO PUT-DOWNS,” “RESPECT EVERYONE” and “UNITY.”
A casual observer might’ve put a stop to the seeming act of vandalism in progress. But this mob isn’t on a destructive rampage; rather, they’re engaged in an expression of pride. When the board is clear, they fastidiously erase the pencil scribbles and smudges on the coloured background and tack up the positive messages one by one in a more orderly display. The bulletin board welcomes students to room 109, the classroom that’s been designated as Emery’s official safe space for LGBTQQ2S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, two-spirited) students—and anyone else who needs a place to go where bullying is absolutely not tolerated. The door of room 109 is plastered on both sides with more pieces of paper; these ones are anti-bullying pledges, signed by members of the student body. At last count, according to teacher Erin Del Col, they’d collected over 400 signed pledges. “And there are only about 1,100 students in the school,” she adds, “so that’s something!”
Del Col is one of three staff supervisors of Emery’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). She and colleague Jane Alexander founded the group over two years ago. Both women say they were determined to start a GSA after being shocked by the insidious homophobia that was the norm when they first arrived at the school.
“I grew up in the dance community and I’ve lived at Church and Wellesley, and before I started here four years ago, I kind of assumed overt racism and homophobia were behind us. You know, ‘We’re done! We’re so modern!’” says Alexander, grinning ruefully. “It was literature that opened my eyes—I encountered a wall of hate from students [directed toward] a gay character in a book.”
Alexander wanted to change student attitudes, she says, but the prospect of tackling a GSA on her own was overwhelming. It wasn’t till Del Col joined the staff a year later—bringing stories of a successful GSA at her previous school, in Scarborough—that Alexander found a willing and tenacious supervisory “partner in crime,” as she puts it. They were surprised to discover that there was a great deal of support from kids at the school, who were eager for a place to discuss gender-based violence and other issues relevant to the group. The day I visit, about a dozen students—including the six who gave the hallway bulletin board a makeover—show up for the GSA’s weekly meeting. Unsurprisingly, more girls than boys are in attendance. Given the anxiety around masculinity and machismo that exists in high school, even just coming out as a gay ally can be tantamount to putting a target on your back.
“Being different is cool. I like it. Be who you want to be and stay true to yourself.”—Cassandra Beals, 16
In June, Emery was one of three schools in Toronto to win the inaugural Toronto District School Board Director’s GSA award, an honour that comes with a $1,000 prize and recognizes a group’s efforts to support LGBTQ kids and their allies. Alexander, Del Col and the student members of the GSA were lauded for their successful efforts to shift a predominantly homophobic culture. Their work isn’t confined to the Emery campus. Alexander also shows me a massive binder—“We call it the Big Gay Book,” she laughs—that holds resources and information they’ve shared with other schools in the area that want to start their own GSAs.
Here’s the really interesting part: Emery is not a progressive, well-supported school in a privileged downtown enclave. It’s located in Humbermede, blocks away from Jane and Finch; the campus is perched high above Weston Road, in a blank, bleak section of the city cut off from downtown by the 401. According to 2006 City of Toronto census data, 50 per cent of the population over the age of 15 in the area is classified as low-income. Gay rights are not necessarily a priority issue in the neighbourhood. And yet, somehow, through the work of a few thoughtful, proactive teachers—and some focused community-engagement initiatives—this school has managed to create a thriving safe space for LGBTQ kids when so many other schools are failing. What do they know that the others haven’t figured out?
“I joined the GSA because of my mom. The one time I said ‘That’s so gay,’ she turned around and looked like she was about to claw my face off. She told me to never, ever use the word that way, and she taught me to love everyone. I don’t understand how anyone could hate people because of who they love. That’s like hating love.”—Britney Boateng, 17
Earlier this year, Egale Canada (a Canadian advocacy group that fights for LGBTQ equality) published a report called Every Class in Every School: The First National Climate Survey on Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia in Canadian Schools. Among other things, the report stated that almost two-thirds of students who identify as LGBTQ feel “unsafe” at school. More than half have experienced verbal harassment as a result of their sexual orientation; a fifth have experienced physical harassment or assault. Transgender kids—who often struggle to visibly “pass” even more than gay or lesbian kids—have it even worse: three-quarters of trans youth report having been verbally attacked; 37 per cent report having been physically assaulted. Over 70 per cent of all students claim casual homophobic slurs are a daily occurrence at school.
It’s not news that queer kids are suffering. Even for the most normative, conforming, totally self-assured kid, being a teenager can suck, and attending high school can be brutal. But for high-school students who fall somewhere along the LGBTQ spectrum, life can be downright unbearable. Last month, Jamie Hubley, a gay 15-year-old in Ottawa, took his own life; after enduring constant, relentless bullying, he’d reached his breaking point. In mid-September, 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, a Lady Gaga fan and frequent target of homophobic attacks at school and online, killed himself outside his home in Williamsville, New York. In the fall of 2010, girlfriends Jeanine Blanchette, 21, and Chantal Dube, 17, two young Orangeville women, committed suicide together.
“In Canada, we don’t keep statistics on LGBTQ youth suicides,” explains Egale’s executive director Helen Kennedy. “We’re the first group in the country to do the kind of studies we did on LGBTQ youth school climates. But based on statistics in the States, we [estimate] queer youth are four times more likely to commit suicide than their straight counterparts.”
“I was bullied all through middle school. I know about the emotional pain of bullying. And I know how much it helps when one of my friends takes the time to talk to me.”—Nawin Mutti, 17
There have been a number of efforts to respond to the plight of queer teens. In September 2010, in the wake of an earlier devastating series of gay youth suicides, syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, launched the It Gets Better project. Initially, the campaign was intended to get (relatively) happy gay adults to produce video messages for struggling queer teenagers as evidence—“Look at me!”—that their lives could, and would, improve. As It Gets Better gathered steam, the net expanded to include allies, celebrities, sports teams, academic institutions and corporations. Barack Obama, Lady Gaga, A.J. McLean of the Backstreet Boys, original America’s Next Top Model Adrianne Curry and General Motors are among those who’ve created It Gets Better clips.
Full disclosure: I should note that I made an It Gets Better video with my partner. We talked about how we met (at a “Respect in the Workplace” workshop), teen angst and our gay dogs. At the time, I felt caught up in the abstract anguish of so many sad, promising young kids losing hope, and I was desperate to help in some way—I just didn’t know how. The act of summing up a shiny happy narrative in a video was a fairly undemanding attempt to answer that question.
Since then, my feelings about It Gets Better have changed.
Part of the problem is that the campaign itself has dominated our cultural conversation around queer teens. Instead of working to grasp the soul-damaging reality of homophobia and transphobia, not just in our schools, but in the world, we’re pulled by our heartstrings toward the sentimental message of delayed gratification and hope espoused in celebrity videos: Viewers come away with a set of weepy warm fuzzies because gay actor B.D. Wong grew up to have the adorable sleeping baby he always wanted. Too often, these discussions seem to be happening between adults, for adults.
At the end of October, a now-infamous episode of The Rick Mercer Report aired on CBC. In it, Mercer, an out gay man, demanded that all LGBT public officials come out of the closet, claiming they had a moral obligation to do so. Rick’s rant sparked a series of discussions and debates—it was the catalyst for interviews on CBC radio, a televised panel on how to “protect” gay youth (which included a middle-aged, right-wing gay blogger, but no LGBTQ youth) and a questionable Globe and Mail editorial that seemed more concerned with protecting the privacy of certain closeted high-ranking Canadian politicos than the well-being of young queers. I have certain basic quibbles with Mercer’s message: For one, “coming out” can be a very fraught issue in the trans community, where passing can be a significant part of identity. For another, though Mercer is now out, he didn’t explain why he was publicly evasive on the subject of his sexuality for so many years. But more importantly, it was frustrating to see all discussions around the lives of queer youth dominated, yet again, by a topic that has, at best, an abstract connection to their day-to-day realities.
After talking to a number of queer teenagers, it’s clear that in some cases, a reminder that adult allies exist can be a boon for kids who are struggling. But at its core, the message of It Gets Better is deeply flawed. As messages of hope go, “just wait until a bit later” doesn’t exactly rate. “When I saw the video, I thought ‘When?’” says Nawin Mutti, 17, one of the members of the Emery GSA, echoing a sentiment expressed by many other people I interviewed, both teens and adults. “When is it going to get better? What about now?”
More to the point, how can we make it better right now?
Next page: how some schools are trying to make it better—and what still needs to happen