School is back in session, and the University of Toronto is off to a sexy start. The Mark S Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, which offers academic programs at University College, formally kicked off the academic year on Sept 27 by celebrating the recipients of the 2011 Bonham Centre Award: co-creator of television’s Degrassi series, Linda Schuyler, and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk).
The prize is meant to recognize those who have made notable contributions to the development of sex education and sexual diversity in the public sphere. Past winners include filmmaker John Greyson, lawyer barbara findlay, the Canadian Union of Public Employees and sex educator Sue Johanson.
The ceremony at University College had the air of a reunion but the buzz and attire of a gala, featuring a mix of gay and lesbian figures from Toronto’s academic and arts networks plus a smattering of students. After some introduction, the centre’s founding sponsor cheerfully presented the first honouree.
“Linda’s series was the first TV show with an adolescent cast and an adolescent audience,” remarked Mark S Bonham. “And in a positive way, that shaped and educated this generation’s thinking and outlook on life.”
Following Bonham was Adamo Ruggiero, who played one of Degrassi‘s gay teen characters, Marco. Ruggiero spoke about Schuyler’s influence on his decision to come out and what he described as the inclusive vision she brought to the series, which recently earned acclaim for its portrayal of a trans teen.
“I remember growing up in a Catholic school and being bullied,” said Ruggiero. “I was struggling with my own sexual identity when Linda plucked me from the suburbs of Toronto and gave me this beautiful gift of Marco.”
“I’m passionate about young people; I’m passionate about the stories we tell,” said Schuyler. “I don’t need to be honoured, but it is a thrill to accept this.”
Bonham welcomed Black by saying, “Lance is truly a role model for the students in this room.”
In a spirited speech, Black recalled the self-loathing and suicidal thoughts he felt as a teenager and the way his outlook changed after hearing a recording of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978.
“I was only 14 years old when I first heard the voice of an out gay man, and he wasn’t leading with fear; he was leading with hope,” said Black, who won an Academy Award for Milk, a biopic of the US gay politician.
Black went on to call the audience to action.
“Use your very diverse skills to build bridges to new communities,” he urged. “Come out to people in the seniors’ communities, in racial minorities’ communities, in the workers’ communities. Find those common bonds, because, as Harvey Milk said, “once we find those bonds, we cannot be beaten at the ballot box.”
Black, who is also a prominent gay rights activist, expanded on effective electoral pressures after the reception.
“You have to be a squeaky wheel,” he said. “It’s sending a signal saying, ‘You can no longer count on our vote.’ Make a scene. [Do] that hard work to reach out to unexpected allies.”
Black also responded to the issue of gay-straight alliances in Ontario Catholic schools, which was mentioned in the comments of several of the speakers, including Ruggiero, who attended a Catholic elementary school in Mississauga.
“If you’re going to receive funds in public money, you can’t say that a member of that public is somehow less than any other member,” Black said. “If you’re doing that, then you should lose your public funding.”
Black’s J Edgar, a biopic of closeted FBI director J Edgar Hoover, is scheduled for general release on Wednesday, Nov 9. Check your local listings for showtimes and places.