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Bringing queer cinema to the classroom

Out in Schools program could be widely used by Sept 2007

Out In Schools (OIS), a program that presents queer-themed movies to BC’s high school students, could become a part of BC’s regular high school studies by September, 2007.

“We see the program ultimately being incorporated into the British Columbia curriculum,” says OIS coordinator Ross Johnstone. “The Vancouver School Board (VSB) is the first step, then definitely BC,” he says.

He points to the steadily growing demand for his program, since its inception two years ago, as one indicator of the importance of his work. “This year our goal was [to present to] 20 schools with 1,000 students. We did about 32 schools with 3,000 students, so we way overshot our target, which was great. It really snowballed and took on a life of its own,” he says.

And, Johnstone notes, he has received requests for OIS to visit schools as far away as Newfoundland.

Ultimately he is hoping to create a package and training program that can be used anywhere across Canada.
This past school year, OIS was invited to sit on the VSB’s Pride Advisory Committee. “That’s been a real help in learning the background in implementing a curriculum component,” says Johnstone. He credits the VSB, along with school boards in Victoria and the Gulf Islands, with leading the way in implementing queer curriculum. This year, OIS also visited schools in Burnaby, Coquitlam and Surrey.

To start with, Johnstone plans on packaging the OIS program to fit with the VSB’s existing Planning 10 course. “Planning 10 includes teaching youth how to budget their money and life skills, but one of the main components is what’s called ‘healthy relationships.’ We really see talking about queer issues, homophobia and discrimination based on sexual orientation, as key in terms of the ‘healthy relationships’ component,” explains Johnstone.

So far, he notes he has heard from teachers and counsellors who find Planning 10 vague. “They love to have us visit because they really see OIS fitting into that course. And this is something they have taken on themselves. We haven’t had to hint. They actually called us,” says Johnstone.

“I’m pretty confident we can make [fitting into the curriculum] work and get ministry [of education] approval. Especially with the Corren settlement, and Lorne Mayencourt’s Safe Schools Act. All these things show that there’s a need for this,” he says.

Johnstone spoke with Xtra West during Vancouver’s World Urban Festival, Jun 21-25. It was part of the UN World Urban Forum, where Out On Screen-the creators of OIS and presenters of the Vancouver Queer Film Festival-was the sole queer presenter.

At noon on Jun 23, a dozen young men and women, seated cross-legged in OIS’s festival tent, got a taste of OIS. Johnstone screened 100% Woman, a feature-length documentary on downhill mountain bike champion Michelle Dumaresq, the first post-operative transsexual to make a Canadian national athletic team. The film chronicles her rise as an athlete and the controversy over her making the team. Her biggest critics are her fellow athletes, some of whom were her friends before she became a threat on the mountain trails.

Christina Chan spoke with Johnstone before sitting-in on the screening. She says the OIS program could change a lot of minds in a safe environment. “I really agree that we do need school programs in high schools because, even though we imagine younger generations to be more open minded, high school is such a horrible time. Even for myself, I didn’t really get into trouble but the atmosphere didn’t really make me feel safe,” says Chan. Now an out university student, she admits going to a private all-girls school was tough.

“I wish I was able to deal with those issues when I was younger rather than having to shut myself off from people for such a long time. Finally I said, ‘I can’t do this. It’s do or die,’ and that’s a horrible option to have to contemplate,” says Chan.

Johnstone says the World Urban Festival was an ideal place to introduce OIS to people. Indeed, it was festival officials who invited Out On Screen to take part. “The theme of the festival this year is sustainable cities and what that means to various organizations. With the work we do, we really see that as livable, safe communities and that’s something that basically OIS promotes,” says Johnstone.

Chan agrees the festival is a good fit for Out On Screen. “In urban spaces, you get more people crammed into a smaller area. There will be more conflict. It’s funny because people almost think of Vancouver as a gay city. I’ve heard comments like that. At the same time, there are places where you won’t feel safe if you’re being honest about that sort of thing,” she says.

“Something like two thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2010. In the Western world we’re already seeing more than that… If you’ve got cities that aren’t safe, cities where hate crimes are happening, where people are discriminating against each other at an extreme level, whether it’s murder or whatever it might be, these are not livable communities. We’ve got to respect our neighbours,” says Johnstone.

“For some reason, the queer community is not quite there yet, so we really see that as how we fit into the Urban Forum theme this year. Safe schools equal safe communities,” Johnstone concludes.