Vancouver
6 min

A patchwork of bigotry

How safe will queer students be in BC this fall?

IT'S REALLY TROUBLING.' Gay teacher James Chamberlain is concerned because most school boards in BC have yet to address homophobia in their areas. The boards and the education ministry are 'shirking their responsibility' and failing queer students, he says. Credit: Robin Perelle

Earl Waugh is worried about his queer students. They’ll probably be relatively safe as long as they stay in the closet all year, he muses, but that’s a pretty high price to pay for protection. Not to mention an almost impossible task.



And if they do come out? “They’re harassed pretty horrifically sometimes,” he confides.



Waugh should know. He’s been a junior high school teacher in Cranbrook for the last 30 years and a member of BC’s Gay and Lesbian Educators group since 2003. A year and a half ago, he came out to his students.



Though Waugh says he hasn’t been harassed as a result of his own decision to come out, the same can’t be said for the queer students he meets. They get pushed and shoved in the halls, he says, and people often leave homophobic notes on their desks.



And then there’s the shunning and the isolation. “They just get frozen out,” Waugh says-even as they get checked extra hard in gym class. “And there doesn’t seem to be much interest among administrators or teachers to do much about it.” When students complain about being hit with excessive force in floor hockey, for example, the teachers just tell them they’re imagining things, he says.



“It’s an invisible issue that nobody talks about, that nobody sees as important,” he continues. “Officially, there’s no support plan-there’s an appalling level of ignorance.”



This is Cranbrook, Waugh points out. It’s a small community. It has one high school, two middle schools and a population of 22,000 people. All the kids know each other; they play on the same hockey teams and soccer fields. And gossip spreads quickly.



“Nobody is anonymous,” Waugh says. “If you get labelled, then the label goes everywhere with you.” And it’s hard to leave the homophobia behind.



“There’s a certain degree of hostility [here],” he continues. “They don’t see variety as being a normal thing.”



And that leaves Cranbrook’s queer and questioning students with very few people they can trust, he notes. “I’m worried that they don’t have access to information and, to a large extent, that they don’t know reliable people they can go to.”



That’s why Waugh would like to see his school district tackle homophobia head-on. The schools can set the tone, he says. They can educate people and support their queer students and refuse to tolerate homophobic harassment. If this were a question of racism-if a racial minority was being “kicked around and verbally assaulted” like the queer kids are-it would have been addressed by now, he suggests.



But when it comes to homophobia, “there’s a real lack of understanding” and a reluctance to deal with the issue. And that’s very disappointing, he says.



Bill Gook, assistant superintendent for the Southeast Kootenay school district that encompasses Cranbrook and its neighbours, says the school board has begun to talk about homophobia but is still far from drafting any policies on the matter. Any such policies would require “a great deal of input and consideration from all stakeholders,” Gook says, emphasizing the word “all.”



Gook says it’s too soon to say what steps his board might eventually take to address the question. Right now, he says, it has no measures in place that “specifically deal with that issue.”



When asked how safe he thinks his district’s queer students will be this year, Gook says no one has brought the issue to his attention. As for passing policies to protect his queer students, Gook repeats that the board is talking about it-but it could be controversial, he adds. “And I’m not sure trustees, in an election” year will be willing to go there.



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The Southeast Kootenay district is just one of many districts across BC with little or no measures to address homophobia in its schools.



Most districts are “reluctant” to deal with the issue directly, confirms Pat Clarke, who helped develop anti-homophobia workshops for the BC Teachers’ Federation six years ago, and has been monitoring the situation ever since. The school boards “just don’t want to go [there] because they’re afraid of the political fallout.”



About 1400 km northwest of the Southeast Kootenay district, the Coast Mountain district’s assistant superintendent pauses for a long moment when asked what steps he has taken to protect his gay students. “Nothing specific that I’m aware of,” Rob Greenwood eventually replies.



Greenwood’s district covers about 50 schools in Terrace, Kitimat and the surrounding area.



When asked if his district’s code of conduct specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, Greenwood pauses again. “I honestly couldn’t tell you,” he says.



When asked how safe he thinks queer students will be in his district this year, Greenwood says, “I’m not sure I want to answer that question.” He’d prefer to ask how safe all his students will be, he notes, rather than focussing on one specific group “for special interest or protection.



“Our schools, in our district, are seen as safe, orderly places,” he continues, where students are not exposed to dangers. Or if they are, he adds, “we certainly don’t know about it.”



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James Chamberlain is wary of any school board that claims homophobia is not an issue in its area. “It’s an issue for every board,” he says. “By saying it’s not an issue, they’re denying the reality of queer students in their district. And that’s just ludicrous.”



Like Waugh, Chamberlain is also concerned about BC’s queer students as they head back to school Sep 7. “The fact that so many school districts are not doing anything is really troubling,” the gay Kindergarten teacher says.



What’s especially troubling, he continues, is the fact that most of BC’s rural districts have yet to tackle the issue. “I’m deeply concerned for rural youth because outside the metro areas there’s very little support for these kids.”



While Vancouver and Victoria’s school boards both passed comprehensive anti-homophobia policies in February, the rest of the province is lagging behind; in most cases the school boards haven’t even left the gate.



And that leaves a patchwork of inconsistent protection-and “continued bigotry”-for queer students across BC, Chamberlain says.



School boards and the education ministry as a whole are “shirking their responsibility” to queer students, he continues. They should be leading the way and tackling this problem head-on, but they aren’t.



“The Ministry of Education has had repeated opportunities to address the problem,” he says, both under the current Liberal regime and the previous NDP leadership. Neither one has risen to the occasion.



With “the stroke of a pen” the ministry could order all its school districts to tackle the problem, he notes. Instead, the ministry “keeps washing its hands” of the issue and letting the local boards deal with it-or not.



In March, the ministry released its much-anticipated safe schools report. Chamberlain, like many queer education activists across the province, had hoped that it would finally address homophobia directly and order all school districts to, at the very least, prohibit homophobic harassment in their student codes of conduct. It didn’t.



The ministry “has to take a leadership role,” Chamberlain says, because a handful of queer-positive teachers can’t change their homophobic school cultures alone.



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Over in Prince George, Shawn Peters is cautiously optimistic. He and a committee of local queer activists have been working with the school board to address homophobia ever since his friend, 18-year-old Jamie Lazarre, killed himself two years ago.



Now, he says, their work is starting to bear fruit. In May, the school trustees passed a series of recommendations to raise awareness about homophobia in their district and develop some concrete lesson plans their teachers can use. The lesson plans will focus on homophobic language and its power to hurt people. But they won’t be mandatory.



“We provide the best resources we can,” says district administrator Bonnie Chappell. “If they’re a good resource, generally all our schools implement them.” It’s a more effective approach than directly mandating teachers to use certain tools, she says. “I mean, we’re really trying to change how some people think-and around a very sensitive topic.”



The board also plans to incorporate some anti-homophobia training sessions into an upcoming professional development day.



Peters’ committee showed the board that it really does have a problem with homophobia in this area, Chappell says. And the board is responding.



But it isn’t ready to explicitly prohibit homophobic discrimination in its student code of conduct. If the government tells us to, we will, Chappell says. But it’s not something the school district will do on its own? “No, not at this point.”



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“We see that time and time again,” Chamberlain responds. “‘If the government isn’t demonstrating any leadership, we won’t either.’ That’s basically what we’re seeing.”



And it’s not just Prince George, he adds, it’s most school districts across the province.



“The reality is that the system isn’t changing fast enough,” he says-and queer students are paying the price.



“I graduated from high school [in Abbotsford] 25 years ago,” he points out, “and I don’t think that district is any safer for queer students” now than it was then, either. (Despite repeated calls, the Abbotsford school district could not be reached for comment.)



The queer community can’t just leave this question up to the government and a handful of activists anymore, Chamberlain concludes. “The broader queer community needs to take this on. Until [it does], I think very little is going to change province-wide.”