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4 min

Challenging ‘that’s so gay’

Victoria school board tackles homophobic slur

The Greater Victoria School District’s

“That’s So Gay” campaign launch this May was just the beginning, promises school trustee Charley Beresford.

“It’s not a short-term campaign. It will be going on for some time,” she says. Next month, the district’s queer advisory committee will send packages out to school principals reminding them about the campaign and offering suggestions on how to make their schools friendlier for queer and questioning students come September.

For Beresford, the campaign was a natural next step after her district introduced its groundbreaking anti-homophobia policy in 2004. “I felt like we were not getting far enough fast enough when it came to that phrase.”

She says addressing the use of “that’s so gay” is a good starting point for discussing other areas of homophobia with students and teachers.

Lower Mainland teacher James Chamberlain agrees.

He, too, used a classroom discussion of the phrase as a starting point with his Grade 3 students in Surrey during lessons on homophobia, racism and sexism. “They got it and started to challenge other kids in the schoolyard,” says Chamberlain, a member of Gay and Lesbian Educators of BC.

When his students reported back that older kids were using the phrase, “it snowballed into me talking to other teachers. I spoke with the Grade 7 classes about being a gay man and my own experience in school. It was a first for my school and I’ve been there for five years,” notes Chamberlain.

Using the term “that’s so gay” perpetuates discrimination and impacts the emotional safety of students–and that affects the entire school system, says Beresford.

“It’s a really ‘othering’ statement,” she continues. “It’s a way of saying ‘those are other people, not us.'”

Recently reported statistics showing lesbian teens are nearly five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers really drove this point home for Beresford, who recently won Xtra West’s Straight Ally of the Year award for her work with schools.

“Kids get really tired of having to explain why it’s a bad phrase,” Beresford says, adding it’s time adults stepped up to the plate and set an example.

“Adults are responsible for the tone of the school and the culture of the school,” agrees Chamberlain. “When we say it’s not acceptable, then take the time to educate kids why it’s not acceptable, then we’ll see change.”

He too says suicide statistics, drop-out rates and substance abuse speaks volumes about the phrase’s effect on many queer youth.

“It impacts negatively on their sense of self-esteem, sense of belonging and sense of community, and the ability to learn to their full potential,” says Chamberlain.

The Victoria school board launched its “That’s So Gay” campaign May 17 to coincide with the National Day Against Homophobia. Representatives from the district’s queer advisory committee, including Beresford, an associate superintendent and practicum student, visited the district’s more than 50 schools.

Each school was sent a package in advance, advising them of the campaign, with posters, a pamphlet prepared by the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and ideas for action.

The BCTF materials, including its slogan “That’s so gay is not okay,” were a terrific fit for this campaign, says Beresford. BCTF tips include advice for teachers ranging from sharing books with positive images of queer families at the elementary level, to highlighting the contributions of queer people in each subject area at the high school level.

The campaign encourages administrators to invite presentations by organizations like PFLAG and Out in Schools (Out on Screen’s initiative to bring queer films to high schools). It also suggests librarians add queer-positive books to their collections.

Chamberlain is pleased Beresford visited schools individually and notes similar campaigns are taking place in the Lower Mainland. The Vancouver School Board sent similar packages to its schools, and Burnaby North Secondary held a full week of events in May, including a day of silence where 200-300 students refused to speak for one day in a show of support for queer youth who feel silenced every day. Chamberlain was particularly encouraged to be invited to host an anti-homophobia workshop with a group of teachers in Chilliwack, not known to be the most socially progressive area.

In Victoria, participation in the campaign launch varied from school to school. One school rolled out the rainbow carpet with a Rainbow Day; others posted materials in their display cases. Beresford was invited to speak with staff at one school and at a school assembly at another.

The campaign is already meeting its goal of raising awareness, says Beresford.

At one elementary school, she recalls speaking with a principal about the district’s anti-homophobia policy. “She said: ‘We don’t have to worry about that here.’ But then I mentioned the phrase ‘that’s so gay.’ And she said, ‘Kids say that all the time here.’ And it made her realize it is a problem.”

Beresford hopes other initiatives, such as Vancouver-Burrard MLA Lorne Mayencourt’s Safe Schools bill, will also build steam this fall. The bill attacks homophobia in schools the right way by requiring school districts to develop their own policies, says Beresford.

“It’s important for each district to develop its own policy as it’s an important part of the process,” she explains. “More people buy into it and understand it when they are developing something.”

That said, she also believes it’s crucial the BC government take the lead in this area and direct the province’s school districts to address homophobia.

Without government direction, only three school districts in BC to date–Victoria, Vancouver and most recently Southeast Kootenay–have developed their own anti-homophobia policies. Vernon and Quesnel also mention sexual orientation in their general non-discrimination policies.

“Nobody can argue with the right of everyone to be respected and safe,” says Beresford. “Now it’s time to celebrate diversity.”