Making it Safe to be Queer at School

Get That Freak
Homophobia and Transphobia in High Schools

By Brian Burtch and Rebecca Haskell  

Pop quiz: Can you name three gay people you learned about in high school? What about books you studied with positive homosexual characters? Did sex education cover safe homosexual sex? Chances are, if you went to school in this province, the answer is no, and queer advocates say this lack of education doesn’t just result in an ignorant population, but puts homosexual, bisexual and transgendered people at risk.

There have been a number of high profile gay teen suicides this year as the result of bullying at school, and though it isn’tuncommon in Canada, it was the deaths of seven American teenage boys in recent months that spurred an online video campaign by sex columnist Dan Savage called the It Gets Better Project, where celebrities and everyday people post YouTube videos telling queer teens to hold on, life gets better after high school.

Unfortunately for some youth in Vancouver, life outside of high school isn’t better when you live in fear of violence, also known as gay bashing, simply for being who you are and loving who you do. In 2008, Metro Vancouver reported the highest number of sexuality-based hate crimes for a municipality in the country, double the crimes of the previous year, making Vancouver the unofficial gay bashing capital of Canada. There is debate over whether the number has increased because people feel safer reporting the incidents, but there is no doubt it isn’t safe to be gay in the city.

When Rebecca Haskell arrived in Vancouver in 2005 to do her masters in criminology at Simon Fraser University (SFU), she was shocked to find that a city with the reputation of being one of the most welcoming to lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgendered and queer (LBGTQ) people had a big problem with gay bashings.

Along with SFU criminology professor Brian Burtch, Haskell interviewed 16 queer youth in B.C. who graduated high school “I thought to myself, ‘There has to be a way we can prevent the abuse from happening in the first place,’ and high school seemed like a logical starting place,” Haskell told The Tyee.

Along with SFU criminology professor Brian Burtch, Haskell interviewed 16 queer youth in B.C. who graduated high school n the last five years. They found that while physical abuse as a result of homophobia does happen, it’s rare compared to the mental and verbal homophobic abuse that both straight and queer youth face daily in B.C.’s schools.

“There were no really positive discussions around queer people, and a lot of homophobic language being used, so they were enduring direct homophobic insults, as well as people saying things like, ‘that’s gay,’ or calling one another ‘fags’ in the hallway,” says Haskell.

“Those kinds of subtle forms of bullying were not challenged by teachers, and that created an unsafe environment. They didn’t really feel welcome, and they felt like they couldn’t really be themselves because they were afraid of what they might endure if they came out.”

Ciara Kelly knows what it’s like to grow up gay in a school system that ignores homophobia. She attended Catholic schools in the Lower Mainland from elementary all the way up to two years at a Catholic college, enduring homophobic harassment from Grade 9 on despite not coming out until the end of high school.

“There was this specific group of guys that would call me gay all the time, call me dyke,” Kelly told The Tyee. “I was already going through a really hard time because I was growing up in a community where gay people weren’t talked about, so I internally was having a really hard time, and I struggled kind of quietly with my own internal bullying of myself for a few years. So when it started with other people saying things and calling me names, I was upset a lot.”

Haskell and Burtch’s findings are backed up by two surveys of high school students conducted by EGALE Canada called the National Climate Survey on Homophobia in Canadian Schools. The most recent survey, scheduled for release in December, found two-thirds of LBGTQ youth feel unsafe in at least one area of their school; 51 per cent have been verbally harassed about their sexual orientation; and 21 per cent have been physically harassed or abused. The study involved 15 Canadian school boards, including the Vancouver School Board.

Safe and supportive schools

Haskell and Burtch used their findings as the basis for a new book, Get That Freak: Homophobia and Transphobia in High Schools, which includes recommendations for improving the situation in schools, including a positive representation of LBGTQ people and their history in the classroom, and ensuring schools are a safe and inclusive space for LBGTQ students everyday.

Research from the Vancouver School District has shown adult support in school goes a long way to helping LBGTQ youth feel safe and welcome. In 2008 the anonymous Social Responsibility Safe School Survey asked 19,551 secondary students (Grade 8 to Grade 12) to identify their sexuality and indicate whether they felt supported by adults in their school, as well as if they felt safe at school.

The survey found that students who identified as LBGTQ and had adult support overwhelmingly fared better than those without adult support, with 76 per cent of lesbian and gay youth with support feeling safe, compared to the 68 per cent of youth without support who felt unsafe.

It’s a finding some B.C. school districts have taken to heart, with 10 districts implementing their own supportive LBGTQ policies, and four other districts with policies in the works. The policies range from incorporating queer and gender issues into the K-12 curriculum, as well as into teacher training, to supporting gay-straight alliances within schools, and a zero tolerance policy for homophobic harassment and physical abuse.

But making these policies province-wide has been difficult. EGALE has been trying to work with education ministers across the country to implement these policies, with little progress.

“It’s slow,” Helen Kennedy, executive director of EGALE, told The Tyee. “It takes time to change the policies around this issue. I mean there are a lot of factors: there’s homophobia within the political system, there are religious issues to take into account, there’s parental issues to take into account, and these are all hurdles we have to overcome and we will overcome because we’re not going to stop until this issue is addressed properly.”

Social Justice 12 an important start

EGALE hasn’t entered into formal negotiations with the B.C. government yet, but the B.C. Teachers Federation (BCTF) has not only encouraged its local presidents to educate their districts about LBGTQ policies, but has also been actively lobbying the ministry of education to make them mandatory. However, they echo Kennedy’s claim that it’s been a challenge.

“In the 1990s, both queer youth and teacher activists pushed the province to upgrade its curriculum to make sure that [LBGTQ] people were reflected in the curriculum of B.C., and under the NDP government, the ministry dragged its heels on that,” says Glen Hansman, second vice president of the BCTF. An agreement was finally reached in 2006 only after a challenge had been filed with the B.C. Human Rights Code.

“But the province has always had to go kicking and screaming every step of the way through this, unfortunately. And that’s too bad.”

In an email to The Tyee, a spokesperson for the ministry of education said respect for diversity and the themes of equity, respect and social diversity are found throughout the B.C. curriculum, including Social Justice 12, an optional secondary course that discusses sexual orientation. The ministry also requires all school districts to adopt the government’s anti-bullying stance, and has developed classroom resources on bullying, sexism and homophobia.

But it isn’t enough for the BCTF or for EGALE.

“We need to start addressing curriculum. We have to look at education for pre-service teachers, before teachers actually end up in the classroom, that they have a really good understanding and knowledge of LBGT issues,” says Kennedy. “We need to have role models, we need to have curriculum that reflects same-sex families, parents, kids with same-sex parents. We need to have a whole overhaul, basically, of the education system.”

Kelly isn’t waiting for the ministry of education to jump on board, however. Not only has she her own It Gets Better video, but she’s started an online Facebook group and website called LEZ Help, offering support to other LBGTQ youth facing a hostile school environment, and to let them know that for her, it has definitely gotten better.

“A huge difference. I have great friends that like me for who I am, so definitely it’s got a lot better, especially from high school. Even some of the friends who alienated me in high school, we’re now friends again,” she says. “I think that also everybody’s matured a little bit more, so it definitely has gotten better.”

For more information on LBGTQ school resources for youth, parents, and educators, go to EGALE’s gay-straight alliance website.

–by Katie Hyslop, The Tyee, Nov. 5, 2010

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