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TORONTO—High school can be a hostile place. Bullying often runs rampant and unchecked, and for many young people verbal and physical harassment are an unbearable yet inescapable daily reality.
Growing up queer in a small town, I learned these things at a young age. Part of me always knew that I had romantic feelings for girls as well as boys, but because I had never seen a representation of same-gendered relationships I assumed that the idea was just another tragically unfeasible product of my imagination, like planting gumball trees from last year's Halloween candy or visiting Jupiter.
As my teenage years approached and the people around me began to experiment with their first romantic relationships, I found myself plagued by an increasing hoard of questions, though the answers were to be found nowhere—not at home, not among my peers, and certainly not at school.
Six years have passed since I left high school, but it seems the environment has changed little for younger generations. To this day, the first place many queer and trans youth experience homophobia and/or transphobia is in school.
“It's the little things, like always wanting to be the dad when you're playing house,” said a participant in Rainbow Youth, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirited, intersex, queer and questioning (LGBTTIQQ) group composed of students from public high schools in the Peterborough, Ontario area. “Other kids pick up on the fact that you're different, even at a very young age.”
“The only idea I had of what it meant to be a lesbian came from negative stereotypes at school and in the media,” another Rainbow Youth member explained. “So for the longest time, I was sure that there was no way I was queer.”
Though learning about reproductive sex and associated health risks is a component of public education in most Canadian schools, the matter of whether there is discussion of anything other than non-heterosexual intercourse is still left to the discretion of teachers.
“It's all well and good to tell teachers to talk about queer and trans sex,” says Layla Seif, a sex education advocate with The Well LGBTTIQQ community centre in Hamilton, Ontario. “But who's going to support those teachers when they face backlash from angry parents? They know what the reaction will be, and they won't touch this issue with a ten-foot pole.”
The social and human impacts of teaching gender binaries and privileging heterosexual relations in schools are severe. According to the Gay and Lesbian Educators of British Columbia, nearly 40 per cent of gay and lesbian youth report dramatically low self esteem. The 2003 Centre for Suicide Prevention Alert reported that Canadian youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or questioning their sexuality are 3.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.
Trans Pulse, a grassroots research organization in Ontario, has found nearly three-quarters of transgender, two-spirited and gender-queer people in the province have seriously considered suicide, and 43 per cent have made a suicide attempt; those under the age of 24 were almost three times as likely to have attempted suicide in the past year than those 25 and older.
Many teens leave home or are kicked out because of their sexuality, and a disproportionate percentage of street-involved youth in Canada are queer and transgender. Although many cities including Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria, Montreal and Winnipeg now have queer- and trans-inclusive sexual health clinics that are technically accessible to youth, expecting queer and trans students to take it upon themselves to venture outside of the school environment in order to learn about sex is not realistic, especially for youth who fear persecution if their sexuality is discovered by peers or family members.
Even when parents are supportive or tolerant of their child's sexual orientation or gender identity, it is still rare for them to seek out information on LGBTTIQQ sexual health, according to students who were interviewed. Neglected in the home and the classroom alike, LGBTTIQQ youngsters may be more likely to seek sexual education from “non-official” sources, such as the internet, pornography or other adult media—most of which is not designed to educate a youth audience, encourage safe sex and consent or foster healthy body image.
When it comes to the sex-ed curriculum, the omission of LGBTTIQQ issues poses a public health risk by leaving queer and transgender students in the dark about Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and other sexual health issues.
“We have disproportionate rates of Human Papilloma Virus [HPV] among women who have sex with women, precisely because there is zero information on what safe lesbian sex means,” says Seif, whose volunteer efforts to bring queer- and transgender-inclusive sex ed into Ontario classrooms have been received by students, parents and faculty with reactions ranging from vehement opposition to tearful thanks.
For LGBTTIQQ students, sexual education programs as we know them often serve as nothing more than reminders of their own social status: while they must sit through discussions of straight sex that may be irrelevant to their own lives, straight students are free from having to hear about queer sex, accepting that they share the school environment with queer students or confronting the privileges that they possess as heterosexuals.
Heterosexual faculty members who may be open to the idea of inclusive sex education are generally not qualified to teach LGBTTIQQ sexual health, and queer teachers face the very real prospect of losing their jobs for so much as privately disclosing their orientation, let alone openly discussing sexuality in the classroom.
As a case in point, last year Vancouver high school music instructor
Lisa Reimer was banned from returning to work after her female partner gave birth. Months later, student teacher Seth Stambaugh of Portland was banned from the Oregon School District, as well as from the graduate school he attended, for telling a fourth grader that he was gay.
Firing gay teachers sends a strong message to LGBTTIQQ faculty and students alike: there is no place for queer issues and identities in schools, not in curriculum nor in conversations in the staff room during lunch break.
Efforts to make schools more hospitable for LGBTTIQQ students have come in a variety of forms over the years, Gay Straight Alliances being the best known.
Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) are student-run organizations that provide sexual health education, advocacy work, lobbying power and a stigma-free environment for queer students. These grassroots groups provide care and support to the queer and transgender student body where it is needed most. GSAs began popping up across North America in the late 1990s, and have since spread to Mexico and the United Kingdom. Mygsa.ca, an online directory of Canadian GSAs, lists over 150 GSAs operating across the country in both urban and rural areas.
But under the jurisdiction of Catholic school boards, GSAs can be especially tenuous. Matt Moorehead, a former student at St. Mary's Catholic High School in Kitchener, Ontario, was asked not to re-register for class after trying to set up a “queer and supporters” group. “Going to a Catholic school every day we are told God loves us, as long as we don't date or love other people,” said Moorehead.
Members of Rainbow Youth have also reported being ignored or met with hostility by teachers and staff members when trying to set up or maintain queer and trans student services, including GSAs, in public and Catholic schools alike.
“The faculty has to change before the climate changes,” said one Rainbow Youth participant, asserting that teachers and board members also take part in the marginalization of LGBTTIQQ students. As those who hold the most official influence within the school environment, teachers and other staff may need to take an overtly pro-LGBTTIQQ stance in order to set an example before the student body will change significantly.
“There is a lot of policy management and development work to be done here,” says Seif. “We go to every school and give teachers access to a full panorama of sex-ed material. We aim to help them appreciate the nuance, the endless diversity of sexuality. The curriculum really has to get away from these narrow definitions of gay and straight, male and female; when we're talking about sex and body parts, it's not okay to use gendered language.”
Contact Inner City, an alternative public high school in downtown Toronto, is one of the few educational establishments in Canada that acknowledges the entire spectrum of sexual identities in their curriculum.
Contact has made it policy for teachers to use inclusive language when discussing anything pertaining to sexuality and gender identity. Many of the school's regular guest lecturers and workshop co-ordinators are part of the LGBTTIQQ community and other marginal groups. Contact is primarily open to students who have dropped out or had trouble at more traditional schools.
Since students who experience homophobic and transphobic harassment are much likelier to miss classes or drop out according to the 2005 Canadian National Student Climate Survey, the availability of a second chance in an environment free of stigma could mean the difference between academic success or failure for many LGBTTIQQ students.
“Some students may still be reluctant to ask questions in front of the whole class, but the important thing is that when they do, we have all the information,” explained one teacher at Contact, who requested anonymity. Another staff member, who teaches parenting skills to students who have children, initiates discussions in the classroom on how to use inclusive language when talking about sexuality and romantic relationships from the perspective of a parent.
Homophobia and transphobia, both in schools and in society at large, are deeply entrenched issues that will not vanish overnight. While there is no way of knowing yet how this will shape the lives of the next generation of queer and transgender students to pass through Canada's schools, both LGBTTIQQ-positive teachers and student activists alike are taking a positive stance in what is, for so many of Canada's youth, a life-or-death-situation.
Some names have been changed to protect interviewees. Kelly Pflug-Back writes poetry, science-fiction, horror and articles on social justice issues. She is one of over 20 defendants still awaiting trial for G20-related charges.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.