6 min

Back to school gaybashing

Long way to go before schools are safe

Credit: David Ellingsen

Although he’s been out of the Surrey school system for more than a year, Semiahmoo Secondary School grad Rory Schmidt fears for the safety of queer kids returning to school across BC this week.

“It’s pretty tough,” he says. “They really don’t have a lot of support. You just feel alone. It won’t stop until students are educated.”

That education isn’t going to come from Victoria anytime soon, charge critics of the recently completed safe schools task force headed by gay MLA Lorne Mayencourt.

“We need help. We need support,” Schmidt pleads.

He should know. Schmidt was teased, hassled and even crammed into his locker during high school. In fact, the only support he received was after wearing a T-shirt to school with the word Gay in Gap-style lettering; he got called to the counsellor’s office.

Schmidt feared he was going to be chastised. Instead, the counsellor congratulated him for standing up for who he was.

“I felt overwhelmed. She was giving me the support I needed but I felt she was the only one.”

Just days after the task force released its report, the Vancouver school board circulated a memo criticizing it. It said the report needs clarity and lacks the teeth to be effective.

And that’s just in a general sense. The report itself, fronted by the Vancouver-Burrard MLA, has been called wishy-washy by youth activists, school trustees and educators.

Granted, the report contains multiple references to homophobic violence or bullying throughout its discussion section. And the references are significant. But they don’t make it into the report’s final recommendations.

Those recommendations focus instead on encouraging schools to review and amend their individual bullying policies and to share their findings among themselves. They also recommend that schools be required to publicly report all bullying incidents.

Even though the report infers a connection between bullying based on sexual orientation and suicide and murder, it offers no standard anti-homophobic harassment guidelines in its recommendations. Homophobia does not even rate a mention.

Yet, according to Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), an average of 207 youths in Canada take their lives each year in despair over sexual orientation issues. That’s an average high school graduating class gone. Dead.

And students’ lives are what it’s all about for queer Vancouver school trustee Jane Bouey.

Though the Vancouver and Victoria school boards have taken the initiative to develop their own anti-homophobia programs, most rural and suburban boards in the rest of BC have yet to follow suit. And that’s a problem for Bouey.

“Students should expect a change,” she says of the return to school-an event that brings with it dread for each new generation of gay students. “If that change isn’t there, we should all be working with them to demand that that change does exist.”

She suggests Victoria override Mayencourt’s report and go directly to the recommendations made in submissions by gay groups and gay students. Many of those recommendations never made it into the report.

“Straight to the original sources,” she says. “I hope we don’t have to have more young people die in order for that to happen. It takes leadership at that level.”

Mayencourt defended his report’s contribution to school safety when he spoke to Xtra West in June. He emphasized the numerous references to homophobia in its discussion section.

When asked why none of the report’s recommendations contain clear guidelines for addressing homophobia, Mayencourt pointed to part two of the first recommendation, which says all bullying policies must be consistent with the BC Human Rights Code and the Charter of Rights.

Gay education activists were not impressed.

Bouey points, for example, to the (albeit vague) safety contacts program for schools. She says Victoria initially mandated that each school have a safe schools contact-but funding cuts have since forced school boards to abandon the issue. The Vancouver board asked the task force to push for the program’s reinstatement.

Nothing happened.

Gay educator Steve LeBel says nothing has improved as a result of Mayencourt’s report. Queer students are returning to the same intimidating atmosphere they left in June, says the member of Gay and Lesbian Educators of BC (GALE BC).

“If every school trustee got to see [the report] and read it, that might give them a little more heads up on what the problems are,” LeBel says, adding he’s been told comments about homophobia were among the most common comments the task force heard.

“They were made well aware of the problem,” he says. “It falls into [the provincial Liberals’] philosophy which is decentralization and ‘we won’t deal with anything.'”

And, LeBel says, with the religious right throughout North America zealously opposing same-sex marriage, there may be harder times ahead for queer youth as anti-queer comments are hurled around churches and community centres.

“I’m expecting a backlash for a lot of queer kids,” he says.

LeBel compares it to the situation Muslims and anyone wearing a turban found themselves in after Sep 11, 2001 in the United States. It’s not a pretty picture.

“A lot of kids who wouldn’t have given it much thought are going to be more antagonistic than ever,” he says. “I’m not going to be surprised if we see more homophobic incidents reported in the next little while.”

LeBel says a teenage girl called him Aug 9 after the downtown rally opposing same-sex marriage. Her parents are both devoutly religious and as a bisexual youth she feels lost and in pain.

“Christ, what a prison she’s in,” LeBel says.

He also questions what message the North Vancouver School Board thinks it’s sending queer youth about their safety by appealing the Azmi Jubran decision. Jubran filed a human rights complaint against his high school for failing to provide a homophobia-free learning environment in 1996. Although Jubran is straight, his schoolmates hurled homophobic slurs at him, and physically assaulted him for several years.

The BC human rights tribunal found in his favour and told the school it should have done a better job. But the school board asked for a judicial review and, earlier this year, the BC Supreme Court ruled that Jubran could not have been the target of homophobic harassment because he’s not gay.

“What the hell message is that?” LeBel asks. “The school board trustees are going to get away with not being responsible.”

Schmidt levels the same charge against the Surrey school board and its lengthy battle to keep gay-friendly books out of its classrooms. Hurt by the board’s stance, he wants trustees to consider the message it sends queer Surrey youths.

“The message I got is ‘we don’t want you,'” he says-despite the board’s recent approval of two new gay-friendly books for its Kindergarten classes.

The reduction in Vancouver police officers assigned as school liaisons this fall could also hurt gay kids, adds LeBel.

“The issue of school safety, the school climate gets diluted a little bit,” he says.

Romi Chandra, who organizes Pridespeak talks in Lower Mainland schools, says the lack of direction in Mayencourt’s report is further incentive for his teams to keep bringing their gay-friendly messages to the schools themselves.

“It really hasn’t given us any direction,” he says. “There’s no concrete or specific recommendations for us to take from the report.”

Chandra says queer youth and their advocates will have to continue to create programs from a grassroots level to fill the void left gaping by Victoria.

He’s looking forward to an October meeting of gay-straight alliances (GSAs) throughout Lower Mainland schools to examine the task force’s report.

Another queer youth advocacy group, Youthquest, has asked for a meeting with Education Minister Christy Clark to discuss the issue.

Bouey believes a new generation of activists is being created through the fight for anti-homophobic safety policies, GSAs and gay-friendly curriculum changes. Future politicians will have to answer to these youth.

“Where changes seem to really start happening is when the young people do it themselves,” she says.

Bouey wants to see queer students have easy access to full lists of resources available for them. She’s also moving to ensure that all Vancouver school harassment policies include queer and gender identity issues.

The BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils (BCCPAC) hasn’t been much help, so far, she says.

In its resolutions on safety, the group urged the task force to recommend province-wide harassment and bullying policies, recognition of verbal abuse in schools and aid for sexually exploited youth involved in prostitution.

Not once does a queer-related word appear in the parent group’s work. It is peripherally referred to in a request for policies consistent with the BC Human Rights Code (which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation).

Queer parents feel the group, which is supposed to represent them among others, has abdicated its responsibility for children’s safety. They’re about to get active, too.

Brita Fransvaag and her partner have a five-year-old son starting school this week. Fransvaag is involved in Family Pride-Queer Parents Group of Vancouver, and the couple intend to get on the parent advisory council immediately.

“All we can do is face it in an open forum,” she says, adding that both students and parents can benefit from that dialogue.

Fransvaag holds out little hope that school boards or the BCCPAC will deal with homophobia issues if left to their own priorities. That’s up to queer parents and parents of queer kids, she says.