Education

Class action

Fighting homophobia at school

VICTOR DWYER May 19 1997
Education

Class action

Fighting homophobia at school

VICTOR DWYER May 19 1997

Class action

Education

Fighting homophobia at school

VICTOR DWYER

When Christian Hernandez was 14 and a Grade 9 student at Notre Dame College High School in Niagara Falls, Ont., he screwed up his courage and told his best friend that he was gay. That was his first mistake. “He told me he couldn’t accept it,” recalls Hernandez. “And he began to spread it around.” Over the next two years, Hernandez was teased and harassed almost daily. One day, a group of boys waited for him after school. Their leader had a knife, and, says Hernandez, “He told me he didn’t accept faggots, that we brought AIDS into the world.” The boy then cut Hernandez on the neck, putting him in the hospital for a week. When Hernandez told his parents the reason for the attack, his father, who has since moved back to his native El Salvador, said he would “rather have a dead son than a queer son.” His mother became spooked by the cars that started driving by the family home, their occupants hurling mud, eggs and obscenities. She suggested that her son move out. After two months of living on the streets of Toronto, Hernandez heard about the Tri-

angle Program. Run by the Toronto board of education from a church basement in the city’s east end, it provides up to 25 gay and lesbian teenagers with a safe place to learn, and the life skills needed to return to the regular school system. “Being gay and being a teenager can be horrible,” says Hernandez, who spent a year and a half in the program before moving to a mainstream high school last January. ‘When I thought I couldn’t take it any more, when I was told I was a piece of garbage, Triangle helped me get back on track.”

According to many gay adults, there may never have been a better time to be gay. Last year, Parliament outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. Many employers now offer same-sex spousal benefits. Celebrities such as singer k.d. lang and TV’s Ellen DeGeneres are providing high-profile, proud role models. But gay teenagers are likely to offer a starkly different appraisal. Stepping out of the closet, they find themselves stumbling into classrooms where being gay can be a dangerous proposition. “I call it child abuse—the harassment, ridicule, name-calling and violence that gay students face on a daily basis,” says Matthew Martin, youth services co-ordinator of the Gay and Lesbian Community Centre in Vancouver. “Society may be making huge strides. But in schools today, gay kids continue to be the scum of the earth.”

Over the past decade, the fight against sexism and racism has moved to the top of the public school agenda. But as recent clashes have made clear, tackling homophobia is another matter entirely. At one end of the spectrum is Toronto’s Human Sexuality Program. It was developed in the wake of the 1985 fatal beating of Kenneth Zeller in Toronto’s High Park by five male high-school students, who had been heard to say hours before that they were going “to beat up a faggot.” The program organizes counselling sessions for gay students, as well as classroom presentations on gay-related issues in schools across the city. Its Triangle Program, meanwhile, offers gays who have been harassed at school an alternative place to study for up to 18 months, and a curriculum that emphasizes the contribution of gays and lesbians in various fields.

But in other parts of the country, more recent initiatives have been meeting with fierce resistance. In British Columbia, the debate has reached fever pitch. The catalyst: a decision in March by the B.C. Teachers’ Federation to develop resources aimed at helping teachers address homophobia. Incensed by that move, the Surrey school board voted in late April to ban a set of materials that has been available in high-school guidance offices since 1995, including a pamphlet called I Think I Might Be Gay or Lesbian, as well as three storybooks, aimed at primary students, that feature gay parents.

Days after that vote, the annual meeting of the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils narrowly passed two motions demanding that Education Minister Paul Ramsey outlaw any discussion of homosexuality in classrooms. “It’s a question of parental authority,” says Surrey school board chairman Robert Pickering. “If you are telling a captive audience of students what to think, you may be teaching them attitudes that are antithetical to what is taught at home.”

But Ramsey responded last week by putting the board on notice. “My goal is to ensure that our schools are inclusive, respectful and accepting of all our children,” Ramsey told Maclean’s, “and that includes all our students—gay and lesbian included.

We have to ensure a welcoming environment where students are able to learn, free from discrimination and harassment.”

Meanwhile, in February, the Calgary board of education approved an “Action Plan on Gay/Lesbian/

Bisexual Youth and Staff Safety.” It requires guidance counsellors to provide “comprehensive information to students” when discussing sexual orientation, and to “encourage students to discuss this issue with their parents.” Now, vowing to take on what it calls “the gay agenda,” a 250-member group called Parents Rights in Education is considering preparing a legal challenge to the plan. ‘There are more fat people than gay people in our schools,” says spokesman Tom Crites. “And there are all kinds of people who other kids don’t like, and who they beat up. So why all this special treatment for gay kids?”

According to many teachers, it is their duty to challenge such views.

And to back up their case, they point to a 1994 survey conducted by Vancouver’s McCreary Centre Society, a nonprofit agency that examines health issues among young people. It found that a disproportionate number of street youths in the city identified themselves as either gay or bisexual. ‘We are facing a huge dropout problem,” says Murray Warren, a teacher in Coquitlam, B.C., and a member of the Gay and Lesbian Educators of British Columbia. “The fallout is really quite immense.”

Even more disturbing, say others, are the findings of a study released last December by researchers in the faculty of social work at the University of Calgary. Surveying 750 young men aged 18 to 27, Christopher Bagley and Pierre Tremblay found that gays were 14 times more likely than heterosexuals to have made a serious attempt at suicide sometime in their lives. “This is the fallout of living for years with no guidance and no support,” says Tremblay. “It’s a problem every teacher knows about, but too often the attitude is, ‘We would like to help, but we don’t want to promote homosexuality.’ It is a total abdication.”

Finding ways to break the silence is what the B.C. Teachers’ Federation hopes to accomplish. “As a longtime teacher, I certainly know I need advice on how to make gay and lesbian students feel comfortable,” says federation president Alice McQuade. ‘Teachers will tell you that calling someone a fag is a normal thing they

Stepping out of the closet remains tough

hear in the hallways, that these ideas rule our schools. We are saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ It is time to start turning things around.” It was as part of a larger effort to turn the tide that Toronto launched the Triangle Program in 1995. Among its current class of students is 18-year-old Christine Max. After years of living “completely in the closet” in suburban Brampton, Max rented an apartment in Toronto last fall and started her final year of classes at a nearby high school. But only days after the school year began,

Max was “warned off,” as she puts it, after some students saw her holding hands with her girlfriend down the street from the school. “One girl came up to me and said people were getting upset,” recalls Max. “She said they were planning to teach me a lesson I wouldn’t forget.”

Frightened, Max dropped out of school for about six weeks before enrolling in the Triangle Program. Preparing to graduate next month, she says that meeting other gay students has given her a better handle on her own negative experiences. And the curriculum, she says, has provided her with a new appreciation of what it means to be a lesbian. A history unit on the Second World War, for instance, might examine the Nazi incarceration of homosexuals in the death camps; an English course included a field trip to a production of Angels in America by gay playwright Tony Kushner. “I’ve learned that gays have been there throughout history and had a positive influence in many fields,” says Max. “In mainstream schools, all you get is ‘Gays are wrong, they’re bad, they’re awful, and they’re sick.’ ”

The fight against those ideas is almost certain to remain an uphill battle in Canadian schools. From its I headquarters in Langley, B.C., the conservative Citizens Research Institute has begun to distribute 8,000 copies of what it calls a “Declaration of Family Rights” to parents across the country. To be signed and forwarded to school principals, the document demands that children not “be exposed to and/or involved in any activity or program which: discusses or portrays the lifestyle of gays, lesbians, bisexual and/or transgendered individuals as one which is normal, acceptable or must be tolerated.” And it forbids teachers from exposing children to “any adverse consequences, including questions, ridicule or hostility for views which arise out of our family’s cultural traditions, religious and/or moral beliefs.” Says Ramsey, “It’s a scary little document.

As parents, teachers and trustees plot their next move in a tense battle, students like Max and Hernandez are quietly mapping out their own plans for the future. Both hope to attend Pride Prom ’97 in June, the first gay and lesbian graduation dance to be officially sanctioned by a Canadian school board. Both are also hoping to continue their education at Toronto’s George Brown College. And while Hernandez credits the Triangle Program for helping him get this far, he says he looks forward to a time when the need for such a program will have disappeared entirely. “Wouldn’t it be great if we just had regular high schools where kids who aren’t gay get along with kids who are?” he asks. “You know, that would be my dream.”

SANDRA PARRAN