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.
That question might be answered by some of the people who are already getting positive results. “Just very simple things can spark this huge difference,” says Kayla Goguen. “In my own friend group, I had friends who’d say, ‘Oh, that’s so gay!’ When I stopped, they noticed, and when I told them why, they changed their attitudes. It’s a chain thing.”
An astonishingly self-possessed 17-year-old, Goguen is the student head of the Queer-Straight Alliance at Lawrence Park CI. The LPCI QSA—they opted for “queer” over “gay,” Goguen says, because it’s more all-encompassing—is one of the two other groups honoured with the TDSB’s Director’s GSA Award. (The third award went to the GSA at RH King Academy in Scarborough.) Demographically and environmentally, Lawrence Park is at the other end of the spectrum from Emery: Almost 75 per cent of the families in the neighbourhood have a household income of $100,000 or more. The campus abuts Lawrence Avenue, but the front entrance is on a tree-lined street with stately houses. The library’s packed with kids typing on laptops, or quietly doing Sudoku and crosswords.
Both Goguen and Matt Perry, one of two QSA staff advisers, are quick to note that, by and large, the LPCI environment is more accepting and positive than your average high school. Bullying is rarely ever overt, says Perry, who’s out at school. “I never hear ‘faggot’ being thrown around in the hallways, and believe me, I’m listening,” he laughs.
Lawrence Park is so supportive, in fact, that last year, when the QSA mounted its “Definitions” campaign—an initiative in which they put up posters emblazoned with queer terms and explanations of them—the only sign that was damaged was the “Straight” one. Perry says they’ve also organized a series of successful days of action, including an annual schoolwide day of silence and a pink-shirt day for LGBTQ students and allies. “It can be very effective,” he notes, “to make things visible.”
In part, the positive atmosphere has a lot to do with the teachers at LPCI. Not necessarily because they’re all inherently progressive and queer-positive, but because the school has made efforts to educate its staff on the subject. In the past year or so, two Lawrence Park students have transitioned from female to male. Perry, who is a guidance counsellor, worked closely with one of the trans kids and helped him set up a meeting with all his teachers to explain what he’d need from them (the use of male pronouns and his new name). The school also arranged for teachers to participate in a session with a psychologist who also happens to be a trans man. They got to ask a barrage of questions, and he helped coach them on how to combat transphobia.
These may sound like small gestures, but as Goguen notes, sometimes it’s the little things that help change a hostile climate.
Kayla Goguen, 17
In theory, every school in the city should already be working to integrate those little things into its day-to-day practices. The teachers I spoke to, regardless of where they fell on the Kinsey scale, were unanimous in feeling that the Toronto District School Board is tremendously progressive. They spoke at length about feeling great support from their union and commended the TDSB on the legislation it has introduced to help protect and empower LGBTQ students. In the fall of 2010, director of education Chris Spence announced the “Positive Spaces” campaign, which mandates that by 2012, every single school under its jurisdiction must create a physical place in the building that is designated a “safe space” for LGBTQ kids and must provide a trained, supportive staff member who can field students’ questions about sexuality. Last April, board chair Chris Bolton announced that he and other board trustees had formed their own GSA.
These things are huge steps forward. What’s missing, though, is follow-through. Without accountability, these policies are good intentions that carry little weight. Ken Jeffers works out of the TDSB’s Gender-Based Violence Prevention Office and is one of the point people for training teachers about bullying prevention. Right now, he says, “we don’t mandate that [new] teachers have equity training. It’s purely voluntary.” In other words, before being certified, there’s no obligation for a prospective teacher to take a course in understanding and recognizing discrimination and oppression of all types. Jeffers insists that equity should be a core aspect of teacher training. Without organized training, it’s up to independently motivated teachers, like Jane Alexander and Erin Del Col at Emery, or Matt Perry at LPCI, to turn these ideas into real results. Some kids will find support, many more won’t.
In an ideal world, says Eagle Canada’s Helen Kennedy, teachers would have “the ability not just to address issues as they come up, but to integrate LGBT culture into the curriculum.” A more holistic approach would not only emphasize that queerness is a healthy and normal part of our society, it would also address the concern Rick Mercer raised in his rant—where are all the out public figures?—by introducing students to gay role models throughout history, from Gertrude Stein to Harvey Milk. At the moment, says Matt Perry, we’re a long way from integrating that sort of LGBTQ presence into classroom learning.
On Feb. 1, 2010, the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Bill 157, “Keeping our Kids Safe at School,” took effect. In addition to demanding that all school administrators support any student who wants to start a GSA, the legislation made it mandatory for all teachers to report and respond to homophobic or gender-based bullying. Which sounds great, but it raises two problems. For one, says Jeffers, “[Many teachers] don’t have the tools to even identify what, say, homophobia looks like.” Second, there’s no compliance accountability.
“It’s like a barn that has a good framework but it’s hollow,” he says. “Sure, the ministry’s introduced some good measures, but [they’re] empty because there’s no follow-up. They leave that up to the boards at the moment.” If implementation failures are up for review, one need not look any further than the Toronto Catholic District School Board. For the past year, Leanne Iskander, a 16-year-old activist and student at Mississauga’s St. Joseph Catholic Secondary School, has been fighting the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board on its refusal to allow GSAs in its schools, despite the provincial policy.
“Gay people and straight people need to unite as one. We all have to stick together. You should be whoever you want to be.”—Fabian Coley, 17
At the beginning of November, Kennedy and Egale Canada announced that they’d requested a full coroner’s review on the issue of youth suicide. “We’ve known of a number of suicides of LGBTQ youth over the last few years, Jamie Hubley being the most recent one,” says Kennedy. “And there’s an outcry from people asking why. There haven’t been adequate formal responses up to this point. We mourn and move on, and that’s not good enough.”
Kennedy says so far, the Ontario coroner has been very receptive to Egale’s request. She had a meeting scheduled with him earlier this week. “We’re looking at a full review with the focus on direct input from youth, and public consultations about current policies.”
“Whatever comes out of this,” Kennedy continues, “I don’t want it sitting on a shelf somewhere. There has to be an action plan with follow up and deliverables. We want to involve the Ministries of Education, Child and Youth Services, Labour…whatever it takes.”
“I joined the GSA because we’re all the same. You shouldn’t treat people differently.”—Shanique Pierre, 17
Shortly after I arrive at Emery, a sweet-faced boy with the physical grace of a cat offers to give me a tour of the school. Jamal (his name and other identifying characteristics have been changed) is in grade 12. After he graduates, he wants to go into dance. He joined Emery’s GSA last year, at Del Col’s urging.
Jamal realized he was attracted to boys when he was very young. He says he’s been bullied for as long as he can remember—kids would pretend to befriend him “to get information,” he says, then reject and belittle him once he confirmed he was gay. Jamal is not out to his parents. “Oh, they don’t know,” he says. “Not at all. They’re really strict Christians. It’ll take 10 years at least before I can tell them.”
The school’s GSA, he says, “opened my eyes.” He feels safe and supported. And he has a crew of allies who, no matter what, have his back.
Interestingly, Jamal is somewhat unique in the group. Of the kids I meet at the Emery GSA—all of them wonderfully articulate and thoughtful—he’s the only one who tells me that he identifies as queer. The rest offered different reasons for joining the alliance. Some have gay friends; others believe you should never hate people because of who they choose to love. Several members are special needs kids who found a haven in the GSA’s anti-discrimination stance.
Bullying, not just homophobic bullying, is a wide-ranging problem, and as It Gets Better illustrates, there’s no simple solution for an issue that’s so deeply embedded in our culture. It’s impossible to summarize the nuanced needs of a highly complex educational ecosystem in one fell swoop, but at the very least, it’s evident that we need to shift the conversation toward the folks on the frontlines.
When I asked students what they thought would make things better right now, they had two major suggestions. First, teachers need to educate themselves about the issues at hand and adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward all instances of gender-based bullying. Secondly, students need to band together in solidarity, whether or not they identify as LGBTQQ2S or straight. To change the culture, we have to ensure that the arbiters of appropriate behaviour are on the ground, in the schoolyard, on Facebook, setting the tone even outside of designated safe spaces. Hate isn’t innate, it’s learned. ♦
Next page: A list of resources for LGBTQQ2S teens