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Conference lets queer youth speak out

A rare chance for Durham students, says organizer

This month’s Say What conference will be one of the rare chances for queer youth in Durham region to speak up, says an organizer.

“It’s definitely one of the few opportunities there are for queer youth to stand up and talk in this kind of venue, talk about their needs and their experiences,” says Amy Nagel, a health promoter at the Ajax Youth Centre. “It’s also a chance for their experiences to be celebrated. That doesn’t happen very often.”

The second annual Say What conference will take place Wed, May 14 at Durham College. It will include workshops with titles like Healthy Relationships, Trans 101 and Supporting LGBTQ Students in Our Schools.

“We’ll be exploring sexual and gender identity among youth in our region,” says Nagel. “It’ll be a mixture of youth and professionals looking at homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism.”

The keynote presentation will be by a class of students from the Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School who have created a series of eight dramatic performances based on stories and poetry about queer youth.

Tracey Hughes, the teacher of the Grade 9 drama class, says she was asked by Nagel if her class could put a creative performance together.

“We’ve only been working on it for two weeks,” she says.

Hughes, who has helped to start several gay-straight alliances in Peterborough schools and is part of a team creating an antihomophobia curriculum for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, says the school has always been at the centre of queer youth issues in the area.

“Students come from all over the area,” she says. “They come from downtown, as much as Peterborough has a downtown. We have students who are dealing with homelessness, poverty, coming out. It’s far more urban than any other school in the area.

“The school has always been a bastion of progressive thinking. We have a very supportive ad-ministration who’s all over us to do this kind of work.”

Hughes says the 26 students in her class jumped at the chance to put the performance pieces together. She says a visitor to the class recently asked the students why they were doing the pieces.

“One of my students asked, ‘Why wouldn’t we do this?'” says Hughes. “I thought, ‘This is why I teach.’ I got all teary and, of course, they all laughed at me.”

Hughes says putting the pieces together has helped the students learn how to tackle homophobia.

“Drama helps students find out about themselves,” she says. “They get what’s going on, they feel comfortable talking about the issues now that they have the language and the skills to stand up.”

Hughes says she would love to take the students on the road to other schools but, with the school year coming to an end, doesn’t know if there will be a similar program next year.

“In a perfect world I would be able to take them and tour them across the country,” she says, “but that ain’t going to happen.”