More than 200 students and teachers from across Greater Vancouver and the Fraser Valley attended the Vancouver School Board’s (VSB) second leadership conference for queer youth and their allies at Eric Hamber Secondary School in Vancouver.
“There are 11 conferences in seven cities across the country, and what we’re doing is working with youth across Canada to network with them, educate them about LGBTQ issues, engage them in dialogue, and create a safer and inclusive community in schools,” says Jer’s Vision executive director Jeremy Dias. “We’ve had the highest number of different schools registered this year and the highest number of students we’ve ever had at a [Vancouver area] conference this year, so it’s pretty exciting.”
“We hosted the conference last year and it was a wonderful experience,” says Tamanawis Secondary student Michaela Milne. “We are extremely lucky to have a much larger GSA this year, and it’s going to be a great experience for everyone to learn different things, to make some connections and friends. We have a lot of people who are recently out, so I think it’ll be a good experience for everyone.”
Tamanawis student Mitchal (who wanted only his first name to be used) is pleased with the progress of the school’s gay-straight alliance (GSA).
“We’ve been doing Pride speaks at our school for the last week or so,” he says. “It’s really interesting because we really get to take charge and explain to the kids who are closed-minded about what homosexuality is and get the point across that homophobia is not a good thing.”
In Burnaby, GSAs added their voice to the contentious debate surrounding the anti-homophobia policy that was eventually passed by the district’s school board in June.
“We started the GSA like a month before this all started,” notes Burnaby Mountain student Ashlih Kassam, who helped to establish it. “We said to everyone, ‘Here’s a project for us.’ It was fun to protest; it was the first time that we really got out of our shells, and it was interesting to find out what people think about LGBT people. It was a battle, but it definitely brought people closer together.”
Langley Secondary has had a GSA off and on for 10 years, according to teacher sponsor Jane Gill.
“Gay students have always felt safe in my classroom, and I was always unofficially known as a school fag hag,” Gill says with a smile. “I guess it’s partly because I can be a sassy, bitchy English teacher, and I don’t tolerate oppressive language in the classroom.”
There are very few out students at Langley Secondary, Langley student Cassidy Northway observes. “There was one kid who was out last year, but he had to be pulled out of classes because of the bullying,” she says.
Another Langley Secondary student, Samantha Scott, says a recent survey at the school revealed that approximately half of the students had a positive view of queer issues.
“A lot of the other 50 percent fell into the neutral category, especially the younger grades, so we are trying to target the younger grades to get them educated, as some of them don’t understand the words they use,” she notes, adding that some students still use the word “gay” as a pejorative.
Leonie Plunkett, a teacher at West Vancouver’s Rockridge Secondary, says teacher support for a GSA was so great that she had to turn away would-be teacher sponsors. “It was a long time coming; we were just waiting for the kids to initiate it,” she says. “The GSA is very prominent in the school. Every classroom has a rainbow sticker on the door, and one of our students made an LGBT-themed art project that was shown on the school’s announcement screens.”
The conference consisted of a full day of programming, including 18 workshops. The morning session featured a talk by Vancouver performer, storyteller and author Ivan Coyote, who told the audience, the next generation, that she loves them on principle and feels fiercely, almost irrationally, protective of them.
“I want everything to be so much different for you than it was for us. I want you to be able to be unapologetically out and safe in your schools. I want you to feel nothing but memories of joy and triumph, should you happen to return to a high school for any reason 30-some years from now,” Coyote said. “I know, I’m a dreamer, but why not? Why not imagine building a safe, respectful environment for all kids to be educated in right now? Why not?”
Coyote also reminded adults of the responsibility they have to queer youth, telling them that if things are to get better, we have to make it better.
“I am sick of moving people to tears with stories of casualties from the warfare we let our children wage on each other,” Coyote said. “I’m sick of young dead boys becoming icons of public compassion. I”m sick of Rick Mercer rants we share on Facebook with each other, meanwhile we continue to allow our principals and school administrators to cater to the conservative and the religious right, and pretend our kids don’t all pay the price for their apathy and cowardice.”