Last summer, as part of a French immersion program, 17-year-old Marco Chan spent two months in Quebec. His colleagues in the program, who were in their mid-to-late 20s, were from all walks of life and hailed from diverse communities across the country.
Chan says that trip was an eye-opening experience for him.
“Part of it was that no one seemed to care very much about keeping up appearances,” he says. “No one seemed to care about you’re straight, you’re gay, whatever.”
One night, while chatting with one of his roommates on that trip, Chan told her he was gay.
“She sort of said, ‘Oh, okay. I was going to hook you up with some girls, but now I’ll hook you up with some guys,'” Chan recounts. “That was refreshing. I came back and I thought, well why can’t it be like that here?”
Where many would ask that question rhetorically, then leave it to moulder under a shroud of self-pity, Chan decided he was in a good position to make a change. He started a gay-straight alliance (GSA) at his high school, Port Moody Secondary School.
Chan says it wasn’t very difficult for him to get the group started. As it happens, he’s the president of his student council this year. Part of that job is to manage student clubs.
“I had to register with myself and get permission from myself,” he says slyly.
Chan has about 16 people in his GSA, and most of them identify as straight.
For him, the big challenge is getting people together and keeping the club stable.
“We’re engaging a group that is not normally involved,” he says. “It’s served as a drop-in, which is not a bad thing, but it’s hard to get things done. We’re trying to get out the message that no, we’re not a joke, and we’re here to make changes.”
As far as backlash from students or parents, Chan says so far it hasn’t been too difficult.
“You hear shouts in the hallway,” he says. “It’s high school. ‘That’s so gay,’ ‘ew, your shoes are so gay,’ ‘what a fag!’-there are little things like that that don’t make you feel extremely welcome.
“I find that a lot of the time,” he continues, “it’s people from ethnic backgrounds who tend to say, ‘whoa, what’s this, something new?’ I was speaking with a Grade 9 student because I was working with the Grade 9 mentoring program. She walked by and she said, ‘Hi, what is this?’ I showed her a poster that read: gay-straight alliance. She looked at me with this look of horror and just sort of strolled off. I said, ‘ooh ouch.'”
Undeterred, Chan says he and his GSA friends regularly poster the school with anti-homophobia messages, and that they’re planning to take advantage of Out On Screen’s Out In Schools program, in which students get special screenings of queer-positive films.
Chan also decided his GSA should participate somehow in January’s federal election. They sent a questionnaire they got from Egale Canada on queer issues to all of the local candidates in New Westminster-Coquitlam, and Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam.
“In the end, we ended up getting 10 responses out of 13, which is really good,” he enthuses. “Even candidates who didn’t give answers in our favour were really positive in the sense that they appreciated that we were getting engaged in the political process.”
The new GSA may really be paying off for at least one student. Chan tells Xtra West about one young person’s first tentative steps out of the closet:
“He’s very stereotypically Chinese-Canadian,” says Chan. “Generally that’s not a culture that’s very, I guess, gay-friendly. He’s in one of the younger grades. Generally, I find that people in the younger grades don’t have the same confidence and don’t have the same personal connections that would enable them to participate really fully, but he’s been showing up regularly and that’s something new.”
Chan doesn’t seem like someone who gets angry or dragged down, but you sense his outrage through his ever-present smile when he talks about why his GSA is important.
“It’s ridiculous that anyone should have to feel differently in school just because they’re in a different age bracket,” he says with a smile. “It’s horrible that anyone would have to think about hiding themselves, or would have to think about having to lead a double life.”