2 min

A school of our own

Toronto, New York experiences impressive

SEPARATE SCHOOLS: Queer Vancouver school trustee Jane Bouey says she'll gauge the need for a local all-gay school. Toronto and New York already have their own programs. Credit: Robin Perelle

While BC schools try to come to terms with the violence and intimidation queer youth face in classrooms and school hallways, Toronto and New York have tackled the issue head on and created queer-friendly learning spaces.

It’s an opportunity many local queer activists think is worth a closer look.

This fall, New York’s new Harvey Milk School (HMS) welcomes its first 100 students. Named for the San Francisco gay politician and activist killed by a former city supervisor in 1978, the school has the endorsement of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

HMS is an expansion of a program that consisted of two small classrooms for gay students. By next year, the school is expected to expand to 170 students.

While the program will allow students to meet the city’s department of education requirements for graduation, it will have a focus on arts and technology.

“For most out gay students, school becomes a daily ritual of suffering,” writes Steve Weinstein of the New York Blade. “HMS isn’t just a refuge from the cold, cruel world: It’s the end of the line. It’s Milk or the street. Because they cannot-cannot-return to their old schools.

“We’re not talking here about epithets scribbled on the blackboard, a rough push in the hallway, humiliation in gym or even a fight after school,” he continues.

“We’re talking about real, palpable physical danger. We’re talking about severe trauma. In some few cases, we’re talking about permanent physical damage or even death.”

Similar reasons led to the establishment of Toronto’s Pink Triangle Program eight years ago. The program was the subject of the film Class Queers shown at Vancouver’s Out on Screen queer film and video festival last month.

Working with the district school board, the Pink Triangle Program accepts youths from Grade 8 to graduation. Located in Toronto’s Metropolitan Community Church, the space offers a safe, harassment-free and equity-based environment.

Staff work at developing and teaching a curriculum which celebrates gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender literature, history, people and issues.

Queer Vancouver School Board trustee Jane Bouey wants to get Class Queers into Vancouver schools. She sees it as a valuable tool for educating queer and straight students alike.

Pridespeak organizer Romi Chandra applauds Bouey’s desire to present the film to Vancouver youth.

“It’s a great idea,” he says. “It shows the rest of the population that youth are needing specific schools to keep them safe.” Chandra billeted several of the film’s stars while they were here for the festival screening.

Vancouver activists have traditionally focussed on trying to make every school safe for gay students. But the success of the Toronto and New York models-and the continuing dangers in most BC schools-has led some to consider the need for a queer-only school as well.

“I think Vancouver could really benefit from something like that,” Chandra says.

Educator Steve LeBel agrees.

“Maybe a separate school is not a bad idea,” says the member of Gay and Lesbian Educators of BC (GALE BC). “I think the Vancouver School Board would be very open to the idea but for the issue of money.”

Bouey says she wants to see if there’s a local demand for the New York or Toronto models. She says the district’s alternate programs-where a lot of queer youth wind up-need to be consulted about the level of urgency for such a program. But it’s the youth who need to be consulted most of all, she adds.

Though a separate, safe school may be part of the answer to providing queer youth with a homophobia-free learning environment, it’s not the whole answer, many activists caution. Bringing gay realities into predominantly straight classrooms is important, too, they say.