Students and educators who attended the Vancouver School Board’s first leadership conference for queer youth and their allies on Wednesday said the event emboldened them to challenge homophobia and transphobia in schools.
The event, co-sponsored by five organizations — Day of Pink, Jer’s Vision, Out in Schools, Qmunity Gab Youth and the Vancouver School Board — was designed to promote diversity, address discrimination against queer youth and create safer schools.
Organizers said the conference was the first of its kind in the province. Ten districts and four independent schools sent more than 200 students and teachers, a better turnout than expected, said Steve Mulligan, the Vancouver School Board’s anti-homophobia and diversity consultant.
The six-hour conference at St Mary’s Elementary School included an aboriginal welcome, a one-man play about homophobia and racism called nggrfg and a comedienne’s routine about women’s issues.
Attendees had their choice of one of seven workshops: advocating for change; ethnicity, religion and sexuality; BC’s queer history; challenging anti-queer bias; starting a gay-straight alliance; and games, dialogue and interactive theatre to challenge bias.
Students said the conference helped them feel less alone and prompted them to expand their gay-straight alliances and to promote Day of Pink, in which students wear pink shirts to school to demonstrate opposition to bullying, discrimination and homophobia.
|“I’m going to stop people from ignoring us and I’m going to shove it in their faces and throw it in the air until we have pride flags on every street corner.
“I’ve never seen so many queer people all in the same area, all out there showing their colours. I’m going to try to work on our GSA because there aren’t a lot of members. And our events like Pink T-shirt day and Day of Silence aren’t very well publicized. So I’m going to work on that.”
— Maddie Scheidl, Grade 8, Britannia Elementary Community School
|“I want to be that kind of person who stands up for someone else who’s being discriminated against.”
— Reuben Walker, Grade 10, Templeton Secondary School, Vancouver
|“All of the speakers were very, very confident in themselves… they weren’t afraid to say what they feel. They showed everyone that it’s okay to be themselves. And that’s the most important thing: to be true to yourself…. I’m definitely inspired to find other people in lower grades to carry on the GSA without me next year. I’m inspired just to be true to myself. If there were more people like everyone here in the world, then it would definitely be a better place.”
— Victoria Zhang, Grade 12, Magee Secondary School, Vancouver
| “We learned about how to stand up for gay people… and how not to be rude to other people. Gay people are like us. They’re just special in a different way. It will change me. It will make me look at gay people in a different way, like saying that they’re not bad at all; they’re just different. I have gay friends. They don’t mind me being straight.
“But I should really bring back this experience to the school and let everyone know that gay people are just different. They’re not mean and all that.”
— Mark Stanisavljevic, Grade 8, Templeton Secondary School, Vancouver
|“I learned that a lot of people — over 200 people — care about gay and lesbian rights and issues. It’s really enlightening. We got to act out a scene from a typical situation where someone got picked on because of their orientation, and we got to step in. Some people chose great options from going to the teacher to just walking out with his lover. And it was really inspiring to see so many people take on and stop homophobia at school.”
— Anissa Coelho, Grade 12, John Oliver School, Vancouver
|“I am bisexual, and it’s good to know that I’m not alone…. As far as I know there are two bisexuals at my school, and I know there are a few gay guys as well. But other than that I really don’t know of anyone. It [the conference] also helped me give ideas to help other people come out and not feel like they’ll be discriminated against.”
— Aisha Topham, Grade 9, Prince of Wales Secondary School
“I think with [the Nggrfg] performance I got how — gender identity, sexual identity, racial identity — there is so much overlap, and it can be really confusing for a little kid as it was for him when he’s being called one thing because of the colour of his skin but he’s also been called something because of how he was a little bit more effeminate perhaps. So it wasn’t just about the fact that he was this ‘nigger’ slave, but it was also about the fact that he had this pink-tasselled skip rope. And that’s what the bully sort of honed in on. It wasn’t necessarily that he was black, but he was also different in this other way.”
— Tanya Boteju, English Teacher, York House School, Vancouver
|“I’ve learned that… you don’t have to be anyone’s idea of what your gender is supposed to be.”
— Amara Charters, Grade 12, Templeton Secondary School, on what she learned about trans people at the Dare To Stand Out Conference
Text and photos by Richard J Dalton Jr.