High School Confidential: Talking with LGBT students

[originally published in Autumnplay! Fall 2011]

A Catholic high school in the northern Alberta oil-sands hub of Fort McMurray seems like Canada’s least likely place to find a vocal advocate for gay rights but teacher and author Patricia Marie Budd has been supportive of her LGBT students for nearly two decades now. “The gay kids come to me and let me know that they’re gay because I think I’m one of the few who just accepts them for who they are,” she says, “I don’t try to change them.”

Patricia’s latest novel has the alarming title Hell Hounds of High School and is billed as “an honest and sometimes shocking look into the classroom to find solutions to our schools’ problems,” which she says includes systemic homophobia. She’s witnessed students endure “relentless abuse” at the hands of their peers and heard fellow teachers console students coming to them in tears, hoping for advice on how to change. “Well, of course they want to change when the level of prejudice is so great,” Patricia fumes, “More and more teenagers are increasingly less terrified to profess their sexuality but when they do, the backlash is intense.”

Sure, one could argue, that’s Alberta but elsewhere, even here in liberal Toronto, teachers have noted such incidents of anti-gay bullying continuing for years until the oft-resulting suicides reached a horrifying peak in the US last September, with five suicides in one month. Suddenly, major news organizations were discussing the issue, Ellen Degeneres was urging her large daytime TV audience to get involved and sex-advice columnist Dan Savage created the wildly successful “It Gets Better” campaign to speak directly to kids at risk.

As that campaign hits its first anniversary, teenagers are now speaking for themselves about their high school experiences, needs and goals. Some are still in classes, others are recently graduated; some are vocal activists, others are still not out to their parents; but all are stepping up to demand a more inclusive curriculum, more staff support and student discussion groups to combat intolerance. Students and teachers from within both school boards agree that, yes, it is getting better but creating true safe space for queer kids in our schools will continue to be a struggle.

16-year-old Leanne Iskander became an unofficial spokesperson for LGBT teens this year, thanks to her ongoing determination in trying to start a “gay/straight alliance” discussion group at St. Joseph’s College, chronicled by Xtra! reporter Andrea Houston. Leanne was honoured with a Youth of the Year Inspire Award and a spot as co-Grand Marshall in the Pride parade for her efforts. She faced some flak from homophobic students throughout, but says it was nothing she hadn’t endured already.

“I was outed in grade seven,” Leanne says. “I lost most of my friends because they thought that if they were seen hanging out with me, people would accuse them of being gay too. I got a lot of comments like, ‘Eww, she’s looking at me,’ in the hallways and change rooms.” High school, she says, was oddly easier, since the whispers moved online. “I got a few hateful anonymous comments,” she says, “They were pretty bad. One of them was, ‘I hope your parents find out and slaughter you.’”

While the kind of physical abuse Patricia Budd has witnessed of course still happens, it’s this kind of online bullying that’s mostly experienced by teens today. Oliver Mathias, a grade 11 student at St. Francis Xavier in Mississauga, says he too was attacked anonymously on Facebook and Formspring, though he also once had his locker vandalized. That said, however, Oliver insists his school is a “welcoming environment.” If anything, he says the problem might be some students’ attempts at support: “People make my sexuality a big deal. I had this one girl try to befriend me just because she wanted a gay best friend. Then there was this other student who would talk about my sexuality all the time. Like, every single moment we saw each other.”

“Kids are just scared of the unknown,” says Rob, an alias for a Catholic school student who says, “I’m not out to everyone, only a few close friends that I’ve told my sexuality to.” Keeping his secret, he says, “I had to deal with people talking behind my back a lot but due to the fact that I was fairly popular, no one really wanted to confront me about my sexuality.” Rob praises many of his teachers for being supportive but says they’re given no tools to educate the majority of students ignorant about not just queer issues, but sexuality in general. “Teachers were clearly not trained to talk about sex-ed in the first place.”

Leanne agrees, saying, “They spend more time teaching about the Catholic Church’s view on sex than they do actually teaching about sex.”

Sex education in the schools became a front-page topic in April, when religious conservatives rose up against a proposed new curriculum that introduced guidelines for discussing various sexual topics in slightly earlier grades. Though the Ministry of Education stressed that all information would be delivered in an age-appropriate manner, Christian and Muslim groups threatened to pull their kids out of school and even issue a constitutional challenge. Within days, Premier Dalton McGuinty scrapped the entire plan.

Adam Smith, a teacher at a junior public school, is among many who were left frustrated. “It was disappointing,” he says, “but an election is on its way and McGuinty is a politician.” Smith says in some areas, there was little choice but to fold. “Toronto has enclaves, people with similar belief systems all living in one neighbourhood. If you’re teaching at a predominantly Muslim school or a predominantly born-again school, you’re not going to read [gay penguin kids’ book] And Tango Makes Three.” Smith points out that part of Ontario’s education act states that all people need to be represented in the curriculum. To parents who take umbrage, he says, “Look, you may have an issue with it but little Tommy over there has two mommies and I’m not going to let his school year go by without him seeing something in a storybook or whatever that he can relate to and see himself in.”

19-year-old Ricky Rodrigues was a student at Bishop Marrocco/Thomas Merton Catholic Secondary School and, like most of the other students interviewed here, he says the verbal bullying he endured peaked at the end of elementary school, before he even entered high school. Smith is not surprised. “It all starts in elementary school, as far as I’m concerned,” he says, “At six years old, they already have ideas about all this. We have to teach them these values when they’re young because if they don’t have them then, whatever prejudices they have will carry through.”

As the Toronto District School Board is discovering, however, the opposition to Smith’s ideas is very strong. In August, trustee John Del Grande introduced a set of amendments to ensure that “the denominational aspect of Catholic schools” trumps any government policy. “For our school board,” Del Grande told The Globe & Mail, “the reason why we exist is to provide a Catholic-based education. With that, there’s certain morals and values and underpins that come with educating those students.”

Watching from Alberta, Patricia Budd is blunt about what those “underpins” are. She describes one particular staff meeting held to discuss the needs of LGBT students as “very positive but the central message (which I found offensive) was, ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin.’” The irony of this “warped mentality,” she says, “is that the majority of Christians all have sex before marriage,” but it’s only the queer students who are taught that “the way they live is wrong,” based on church doctrine that calls a homosexual person “intrinsically disordered.” Worse yet, she says, “It’s all very insidious because it’s not something that’s said directly or taught in a classroom.”

At his Catholic school, Ricky Rodrigues worked to create a GSA but found that same ‘insidious’ opposition. “At first, everyone (the principal, chaplain, and other teachers) were on board with the idea,” he says, “but when we began to do outreach, things quickly changed. We weren’t allowed to screen queer films for the student body…and when we wanted to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (May 17) with a day of workshops, we were thrown numerous obstacles.”

Would more openly gay teachers help? “I find it hard to believe that in a 20-year career, I have never worked with an openly gay teacher,” Patricia says. There’s a reason for that, says a Catholic high-school teacher in Toronto we’ll call Larry, who once went to the Ontario Human Rights Board to learn if Catholic schools could actually fire a teacher for being gay. “They didn’t have a straight answer,” he says, “because the Supreme Court has never ruled if religious rights can trump equality rights. I don’t think they have ever clarified this in the years since my visit. Therefore, gay teachers in the Catholic system live under a ‘chilling effect’ where rights are not defined well, so to stay safe, you must stay in the closet from administration and most of your colleagues.”

Larry investigated all this after he himself was the target of bullying. “When I was in my second year of teaching, a student called me a faggot and told me not to stand so close to him. I sent him to the VP but very little was done. I think one detention was given. I became very angry with the VP, believing this was far too light, but it was all excuses.”

If queer Catholic high school teachers can’t even protect themselves, how can they protect their students? “I don’t work for the Catholic board for a reason,” says Adam Smith, but he too notes that while students can actually be suspended for such name-calling in the Toronto public board, it’s rarely enforced to that degree.

“I find I hear ‘fag,’ ‘queer’ and ‘homo’ a lot and people don’t try to hide it,” says Oshawa public school student Nathan Rhodes-Truppe, who says it’s not just Catholic schools with all the issues. “As much as I’d like to think things have gotten better,” he says, “I don’t believe it’s as much as people would like to think. I have received support from friends but I find there are many people that participate in trying to bully me.” He did, however, have teachers who helped him to create a gay/straight alliance club at his school and praises them, if not the lessons. “I think the education system in general is very… heterosexually based,” he says, “I have not learned much, if anything, about any other sexualities, any genders, other than male or female or anything that falls under the blanket term of ‘trans.’”

Andrew Mok is a recent graduate of the private boys’ school Royal St. George’s College and even within his “very inclusive” school, homosexuality remains “a very touchy subject. It just goes to show that youth in our society are still very uneducated about sexuality in general.”

“It took me a number of years to come to terms with being bisexual,” says Lisa, a graduate of a public school in London, Ontario, “My biggest fear was that people would not believe me and would think I was confused, looking for attention, or assumed that I was slutty and dated a whole bunch of people.” The teachers were very accepting, Lisa says, but in her classes, “gender identity, same-sex relationships or safe lesbian sex were never addressed.”

What such omissions do is limit the discussions that can bring students together. While a closeted classmate of Leanne’s calling herself Tegan thrills at how “there is a unique bond among queer students, just on the knowledge that they are and have been facing the same struggles you have,” their fellow student Rob says, “I don’t feel like I relate to their struggles and issues all that much. I think sexuality isn’t even something worth talking about to anyone but who you’re sleeping with; it’s just so unimportant to me.”

“There is no right or wrong way to come out,” says Clare Nobbs, Program Coordinator for Community Programs at the Supporting Our Youth program run from the Sherbourne Health Centre. SOY hosts Alphabet Soup, a Tuesday evening drop-in group specifically for youth under 20, and Clare says, “We do get a lot of calls from guidance counsellors and administrators…Despite all the policies and the stuff in the press and celebrities on the TV, the high schools can still be a very dangerous place.” She insists that queer students and teachers have had to go it alone for too long: “I feel strongly that until straight teachers feel equally responsible for challenging homophobic and trans-phobic oppression, it will not be a safe place.”

While she applauds anyone creating a GSA, Clare is concerned that, “without policies and training to go with it, it’s kind of a setup…We’ve had kids coming down for Alphabet Soup who said they couldn’t go to their gay/straight alliance meetings because the teacher insisted on keeping the door open. He thought it made the space welcoming but it actually targeted the students.”

While activist and educator Tim McCaskell’s book Race To Equity details the Toronto District School Board’s Equity Department’s long efforts to combat racism, sexism and homophobia in its schools, Clare says recent years have seen the birth of exciting new resources and partnerships. She’s on the board of the Unity Conference, a one-day gathering in November of Toronto-and-surrounding-regions queer students and teachers. The first in 2005 had a few dozen students; last year’s event at the 519 Community Centre had over 300. “It’s about capacity building, information sharing and support,” Clare says, “We feel that it’s key in supporting high school kids and we’re thrilled to be a part of it.”

More recently, the TDSB now has a dedicated Gender-Based Violence Prevention Office, independent events like teacher Michael Erickson’s Converge queer creativity conference have popped up and, of course, the Triangle Program’s alternative school remains a lifeline for queer students most at risk until the day of a truly safe and equitable education system.

“There is change coming,” says Adam Smith, “but I understand that kids may not feel as supported because it happens slowly. When I was in high school 20 years ago, there was nothing quiet about the bullying, but in five years, I think, it will be better than it is now.”

Even now, says Leanne, “I’ve heard from most of my grade 11 friends that there are only one or two homophobic people in their grade. They definitely give me hope that things are getting better for us.”

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About Scott Dagostino

An arts & culture journalist who's the bastard love child of Van Morrison and Jessica Mitford
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2 Responses to High School Confidential: Talking with LGBT students

  1. Nathan says:

    5 words: You have no fucking idea.

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