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Canada’s first and only classroom for queer students marks 15 years

Toronto's Triangle Program ensures at-risk queer youth get every chance to succeed

In 1995, the deep cuts to education of the “Spare us Harris” years loomed. But luckily, just before the axe fell, social worker Tony Gambini and Toronto School Board trustee John Campey spearheaded a project to address the failure of the mainstream educational system to keep queer high school students safe and engaged. They worked with school administrators and the school board to establish an alternative program for at-risk LGBTQ youth. Triangle Program became and remains Canada’s first and only classroom specifically for LGBTQ students.

Triangle is characterized by its queer and out teachers, its safe classroom space away from Toronto District School Board (TDSB) property, and queer students who were pushed out of mainstream schools and who may otherwise have turned to the streets rather than finish high school.

Those who agreed to teach at Triangle effectively outed themselves in a homophobic system. Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCCT) pastor Brent Hawkes agreed to house the program in the church basement, rent-free and without demand for any religious instruction. And Oasis Alternative Secondary School welcomed Triangle’s administrative functions under its umbrella.

In the beginning, Triangle was a last-chance stopgap for up to 18 queer students in grades 9 and 10. Successful students reintegrated into diploma-granting schools from grade 11 to finish their education and, finally, earn their diplomas. Still, for many, returning to mainstream schools was unimaginable.

The first Triangle students were in their late teens and early 20s. There were days when only three or four showed up. Triangle has changed significantly over the years. While still a program for at-risk queer youth, a number of trans-identified youth have recently participated. Grades 11 and 12 are now offered and student enrollment has grown to 45. Students enter the program at an earlier age, attendance is consistently high and the teacher complement has doubled. In 2006, Triangle transformed from a stopgap to a destination. Ten students graduated from the most recent class, some of them receiving scholarships to help them pursue higher education or their dream jobs.

The teachers deserve much of the credit for these changes. They are role models, janitors, guidance counsellors, cooks and fundraisers. Much more than teachers, they work ridiculously long hours to help students heal, find accommodation, food and a love of learning. Triangle has at its core a queer focus that affirms queer identities. Students learn about queer icons in literature and history. In science they debate the “gay gene.” In math, “moms or dads,” rather than “mom and dad,” go to the store. It’s simple, inclusive and affirming. With the help of LGBTQ guest speakers and artist educators, the students have produced impressive creative queer works, some of which recently debuted at the Queer West Video Festival.

As an off-board site, many of the costs must be covered independently by Triangle and MCCT. The big-ticket items are the nutrition program and technology. Fundraising is labour intensive, and at Triangle it stretches teachers beyond their capacity. The School Community Council and Friends of Community Schools have been helpful, and the queer community has responded generously.

But operating expenses are permanent and fundraising campaigns are temporary. In 2007, Triangle was a beneficiary of the Pride and Remembrance Run. And that year teachers had a good base from which to work, enabling them to concentrate their energies on the classroom.

This year brings new course offerings to broaden students’ educational experience. In addition, the basement classroom space has been renovated with generous support from MCCT; students will return in September to three separate bright classrooms. The returning teachers — Jeffrey White, Anthony Grandy and Susan Magerman — are fretting about how they will find the money to supply these new rooms with the furniture and technology needed to ensure the cutting-edge instruction our youth deserve. 

Triangle has a lot to celebrate on its 15th anniversary. But moving forward takes the continued commitment and support of teachers, the MCCT, the TDSB and the queer community. By penetrating the homophobic spaces of schools in the GTA, Triangle provides at-risk queer youth with the tools and confidence to claim their identities and their right to a good education free from homophobic violence.

Doreen Fumia is an associate professor at Ryerson University and Johannah May Black is a doctoral student at York University. Both serve on the Triangle School Community Council.