The vibe. People. Connection. Diversity. Information. Networks. Those are just some of the responses students gave when asked to say one thing they liked about the Dare to Stand Out anti-discrimination conference, held at Gladstone Secondary School Jan 21.
Asked what they’d never forget, one participant said conference keynote speaker Ann Travers.
Travers, a sociology professor at Simon Fraser University, told the gathering of more than 200 students that in her time in high school the silence around gay and lesbian issues, much less the experience of gender variance, was “deafening and forbidding.”
While there is now more space to express queerness, Travers said, we are still surrounded by a culture that “takes for granted oppressive relationships on so many levels that are crippling.”
Travers introduced the concept of “the heterosexual matrix,” arguing that it makes limiting assumptions about the differences between men and women and justifies gender inequality. It also promotes the idea that there are only two sexes, that heterosexuality is normal and that monogamy is the ideal.
“Anything that deviates from the above is queer,” she said. “The heterosexual matrix shapes our culture profoundly, and, whether we like it or not, our culture shapes us, however we might try to shake it off.”
Travers said that most homophobic bullying is not necessarily aimed at gays or lesbians, but at those who defy gender norms — “men and boys who are not sufficiently butch and masculine; women and girls who are butch and masculine.”
Bullying operates as a form of social control, she said. “In your high school, on the streets, people are reinforcing and resisting systems of social control. Many invisible LGBT people are bullied and denigrated by the spectre of homophobic bullying and harassment, and so-called normal people who participate in or witness these acts are reminded forcefully of the importance of conforming to general expectations about what boys and men are supposed to be like, and what girls and women are supposed to be like.”
Travers played an excerpt from a speech given last fall by transgender director Lana Wachowski, of The Matrix trilogy fame. Wachowski spoke about the challenges of negotiating private and public identity at a Human Rights Campaign gala at which she received a visibility award.
“I knew I was going to come out, but I knew when I finally did come out I didn’t want it to be about my coming out,” Wachowski said. “I am completely horrified by the ‘talk show,’ the interrogation and confession format, the weeping, the tears of the host, whose sympathy underscores the inherent tragedy of my life as a transgender person. And this moment fulfilling the cathartic arc of rejection to acceptance without ever interrogating the pathology of a society that refuses to acknowledge the spectrum of gender in the exact same blind way they have refused to see a spectrum of race or sexuality.”
Britannia Secondary student Cory Oskam, who presented at a workshop on supporting gender-non-conforming and transgender youth in schools, recalled going to all his classes to let fellow students know he was transitioning.
He had nothing but praise for the way Britannia’s administration supported him in that process.
“The vice-principal went into my classes, and they just simply said, ‘Look, this is what’s happening, and if you have a problem or questions, please ask,’” Oskam said. “You really need that support staff.”
Oskam sees the conference as a place to build friendships. “It’s great to get everyone together because some people just feel so alone, and this conference shows that you’re not alone.”
David Thompson Secondary student Matthew Cortez says it was great to meet other people who share his goal of stopping homophobia and transphobia. Cortez is part of the group Challenging Homophobia at Thompson (CHAT), which presented a workshop called Building Bridges, Breaking Boundaries, that highlighted in part the status of gay marriage and gay rights around the world.
Jeremy Dias, founder of Jer’s Vision, which spearheads Dare to Stand Out, says the Vancouver conference has grown significantly over the last four years, with students taking a leadership role in its execution, whereas in the beginning, it was teacher- and board-led.
“Now you see a whole school hosting it and students deciding what the content will be,” Dias says.
He says students have requested more queer history presentations to give them a greater sense of “who we are as a community and a people and a culture and a tradition.”
“There’s a huge educational component to this event, and I think the other thing is students love to get to meet other queer students,” he adds. “That’s something adults, who have developed networks and greater mobility, take for granted. As a youth who is queer-identified, you don’t always have the means or the ability or the support to meet other queer youth.”
Grade 12 Burnaby student Travon Hart agrees. “I know in BC’s interior, a lot of those youth don’t have any place like Qmunity they can go to and talk to about these issues. They have to do it all online, and some of them don’t have any idea what to even do,” says Hart, who runs the Burnaby District Gay-Straight Alliance.
In such a context, Dare to Stand Out provides a positive forum where youth can have conversations about the challenges they face, he adds.
Antonella Garcia, a teacher at Burnaby’s Alpha Secondary School, says the conference is “absolutely essential.” She admits that, though she now considers herself an ally, she once harboured false views.
“Our perceptions growing up heterosexual, we might think that ‘Sure, there are gay people, but they don’t come out of the closet until after they leave high school because perhaps in high school they probably didn’t even know they were gay — how could they possibly know they’re gay?’
“Well, of course, we have gay youth,” she says now.
Garcia, who’s taught in the district for 20 years and is a teacher-sponsor of her school’s fledgling gay-straight alliance, says it’s important that kids “not hide behind some stereotypical view of who they should be.”
She says many students are still wary of joining GSAs out of fear that they’ll be perceived as gay.
“That’s a sad reality. I think people often forget there’s an S in GSA. You don’t have to be gay to speak out against homophobia.”