Gay author Alex Sanchez is no stranger to controversy. When his invitation to speak to students in Charlotte County, New Brunswick was abruptly cancelled, Sanchez told Xtra.ca that he was disappointed but not really surprised.
“Since gay and lesbian issues remain controversial and I write about gay teens, controversy comes with the territory,” he says. “When situations like this one occur, I mostly feel sad for the kids in the schools. Every day I get emails from teens all over the US and Canada telling me about the harassment and bullying they experience and how their schools don’t stand up for them. I fear that the message being sent to students by cancelling an openly gay speaker is: it’s not okay to be gay.”
The Oct 21 high school reading, which had been planned months in advance, was cancelled just days before the event because of pressure put on principals by a few parents, even though student attendance was voluntary, not required.
Sanchez is the well-known author of several books aimed at building self-confidence for gay youth. The holder of a master’s degree in guidance and counselling, Sanchez also knows firsthand the difficult process of coming out as a gay teen. As he explains on his web site, he hated his high school years and turned to writing as a way of dealing with his own coming out issues. The result was Rainbow Boys, the first of a trilogy of Rainbow books, which went on to be named to the American Library Association’s Best Book for Young Adults in 2002.
The idea of bringing Sanchez to speak to New Brunswick students originated with the Charlotte County Rainbow Support Group, led by openly gay Rev Bob Johnson. He told Xtra.ca that the event was financially backed by a number of groups, including School District 10, Port City Rainbow Pride, and Mahogany Manor B & B in Saint John. Johnson’s Wesley United Church in Saint Andrew’s became the alternate venue for the reading, and those in attendance, although far fewer than the 1,500 students Sanchez had hoped to reach, were enthusiastic. According to Sanchez, the venue was filled and he received a standing ovation.
Johnson agrees and was pleased to see “a good cross-section of the whole county present, including many young people from three of the high schools.” The second reading, given at the Mary Boland Theatre in the New Brunswick museum in Saint John, proceeded without protest.
The Charlotte County Rainbow Support Group remains committed to helping queer students in their area. “We have made it very clear to the district education superintendent and school principals that members of the group are available to be helpful and supportive of students and school programming as and when we can,” says Johnson. He also comments on the positive feedback he has received. “People of all ages and stages of life feel it was a very good thing to have happened.”
In spite of Johnson’s optimism, it is clear that incidents such as this are a blow to Canada’s international reputation for openness and acceptance, and an indication of how much work still remains to be done, especially for queer youth.
For Sanchez, this was his first time reading in Canada. Xtra.ca asked him whether the experience had soured his opinion of the country. “I still love Canadians, but it’s made me realize that fear and homophobia exist in Canada, just as in the US and other countries.”