10 min

How the Canadian education system is failing queer youth

From BC to Newfoundland, homophobia is alive and well in Canadian classrooms

Credit: images © & DNY59

When Susan Rose brought her anti-homophobia workshop to Newfoundland’s northern peninsula last May, she was greeted by a guidance counsellor who told her the area had no gay and lesbian students.

It didn’t take her long to figure out why. Homophobic slurs peppered the hallways and classrooms and one student put his finger down his throat when Rose asked if the slurs were generally uttered in anger.
“Wow, if I were gay or lesbian here, I certainly wouldn’t come out,” Rose said, with a glance at the guidance counsellor. 
“I guess I was really ignorant, wasn’t I?” the counsellor said to Rose afterwards.
Rose encountered another nervous guidance counsellor on Newfoundland’s west coast. This one was pacing back and forth in the school library, worried that he wasn’t going to be able to deal with the fallout of Rose’s Making Queerness Visible workshop.
“He said, ‘Not that I don’t want your presentation here. It’s here and we’ll deal with it, but I’m just so nervous about tonight.’
“He said, ‘You’re opening up a door. You’re talking about homosexuals. You know as well as I do, I’m going to have dozens of kids going home tonight saying they’re queer,’” Rose remembers, saying she “just stood there,” her blood “boiling.”
“I thought, ‘Imagine being a kid in his school — this is the guidance counsellor — feeling that because they’re going to see an hour workshop on homophobia that he’s going to have kids come out to their parents tonight?’”
In one of the most poignant moments on her speaking tour, Rose met a Corner Brook student who attended all five sessions of the workshop presented at her school. 
“She said, ‘I’ve been here and I thought I was alone and I’m not,’” Rose says the student told her later.
“I got really emotional when she said that.”
In all, Rose presented 15 workshops in four communities in five days.
“It was unbelievable, because what I gathered from that is that homophobia is alive and well.”
Newfoundland is hardly exceptional. Though the level of homophobia varies from one school district and province to another, it is alive and well across Canada.
Ontario elementary school teacher Ellen Chambers Picard says schools and school boards are fearful of a backlash if they address queer issues in the classroom.
Though some workshops and resources are available, she says teachers are often reluctant to use them. 
Queer issues are “definitely not part” of the mandatory curriculum in Alberta either, says André Grace, director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta.
Grace says the senior high school course Career and Life Management could be a forum for discussing different types of families and sexualities, but he says such topics are always discussed through a straight-is-normal lens, if they’re addressed at all.
Yet there are teachers who bite the bullet and incorporate queer issues into their classes, Grace notes.
“I talk to teachers who in an English Literature course might include poets or other writers who are gay and will talk about their biographies in class, or who will talk about the whole issue of safer sex in a career and life management class in that broader context that includes sexual minorities,” he says.
“But those teachers are risk takers,” he points out. “And sometimes when a school principal finds out what they’re doing, they’re told to stop doing it.”
It’s a scenario that Rose is familiar with in Newfoundland.
When she tried to introduce the novel Something About Eve into a Grade 8 language arts class, she was reprimanded.
“I was told under no circumstances would that be permitted, and how dare I even attempt something like that without approval from administration or the department of education. So I backed off,” she says. 
Still, she says, introducing queer realities to the classroom is critical.
“We need to start representing [lesbian, gay, bi and trans] people from primary right up,” she says.
“When we talk about cultures, we need to bring in our culture.
“When we’re talking about the many famous people that have accomplished a lot, we need to say that they’re gay or lesbian or bi or transgender,” she continues.
“We need to have books, we need to be represented in the curriculum.
“Let’s face it, education is the vehicle for change in the society, and if we don’t reach the kids that are coming from extremely homophobic homes, if we don’t reach them in the school system, what are we going to have as adults? Extremely homophobic adults,” she says.
“So we need to start educating, and I think then we’ll finally start seeing a change in society.”
Quebec made history when the government introduced a comprehensive, province-wide campaign against homophobia Dec 11.
According to the justice ministry’s website, La Politique québécoise de lutte contre l’homophobie is part of a “broader strategy leading to the full and complete recognition of sexual minorities, institutional and community support for sexual minorities, and improved knowledge about sexual diversity.”
It’s a policy that has been in the works for about five years, says Mona Greenbaum, executive director of the Coalition des familles homoparentales.
Greenbaum hopes the new policy leads to the development of queer-inclusive curriculum. 
Until now, it’s community groups like the Coalition and the Groupe de recherche et d’intervention sociale (GRIS), which offers queer-sensitivity training to high school youth, that have been at the forefront of gay-friendly education, she says. 
GRIS brings its sessions to about 800 high schools a year, Greenbaum notes, but only by request.
“What happens is that it’s often the schools that are doing a bit better already that are the ones that elect to have us come in,” she points out. “Whereas the ones that are the worst won’t ask for us in the first place and won’t do anything on their own either.”
In BC, many teachers are still reluctant to discuss gay issues in the classroom, despite the availability of workshops, resources and at least nominal government support for queer-inclusive curriculum.
The support stems from a human rights complaint filed in 1999 by gay activists Murray and the late Peter Corren.
The Correns accused BC’s education ministry of discriminating against queers by omitting their existence from the curriculum.
Their complaint, and the agreement the couple reached with the government in 2006 to settle it, led to the introduction of a new elective course, Social Justice 12, and the promise that regular curriculum reviews will now be conducted with an eye to the possibility of incorporating queer content.
The impact of that settlement will be felt for years to come, predicts Vancouver school trustee Jane Bouey.
Still, many school districts are reluctant to offer Social Justice 12, and the government stopped short of making it mandatory.
Nor did it intervene when the Abbotsford School Board withdrew the course in September 2008, despite student interest and enrolment. The school board eventually capitulated (after students protested) and offered the course with the proviso that students obtain parental consent to be able to take it. 
“It would have been great to see someone from the ministry weigh in,” says Ross Johnstone, a director at Out in Schools.
Now in its sixth year, Out in Schools, a project of Out on Screen that runs Vancouver’s Queer Film Festival, brings queer films to BC’s high schools to facilitate discussions about sexuality issues that are insufficiently addressed in the curriculum. 
So far, the program has reached 12,000 students across BC.
Echoing Greenbaum’s observation in Quebec, Johnstone says it’s community initiatives like Out in Schools that step in where many teachers fear to tread.
A year after settling with the Correns and after years of pressure from the gay community, BC’s education ministry finally moved to make schools safer for students as well, ordering its school districts to adopt codes of conduct compatible with the province’s Human Rights Code.
Among other things, the Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The school codes were meant to as well. Yet there’s no enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance, says education activist Glen Hansman, who filed a freedom of information request in 2008 to determine how many districts were actually complying with the order.
Fewer than 10 districts, he discovered. Out of 60.
“That’s ridiculous,” Hansman says. “It’s an order, not a request. If the Minister of Education isn’t going to take steps to ensure that it is being implemented in every school, in every school district, then it is meaningless.”
On Nov 25, gay MLA Spencer Herbert grilled BC’s advanced education minister Moira Stilwell about the districts’ compliance with the order.
Stilwell told the BC legislature that the superintendent of achievement had met with each district’s superintendent, and there was “no evidence” that districts weren’t working to comply with the order. 
“That does not mean they have complied,” Herbert fired back. 
Meanwhile, Ontario school boards have been ordered to develop their own policies consistent with that province’s Human Rights Code by September.
“Everybody who does policy within the different boards understands that the human rights code is the law,” Chambers Picard says. “The trouble with all of that is not everybody has the same level of education about it, about what needs to be protected and how you protect somebody’s rights and how you provide a safe environment.”
According to a national survey conducted in 2007 by the queer lobby group Egale Canada, 75 percent of queer students feel unsafe at school, and one in four said they were physically harassed for being gay.
Six out of 10 queer students surveyed also reported being verbally harassed for their sexual orientation, while half said they hear homophobic slurs on a daily basis.
“That type of information is essential because that gives us a reflection of what the reality of our children’s lives in schools are,” says Chambers Picard, who sits on Egale’s Safe Schools Initiative committee. 
“We need to get this broader public awareness of what life in school in this country is like for sexual minority youth,” Grace insists from Alberta. 
“On the surface, Canada looks wonderful: lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans citizens have equality rights, I can get married as a gay man, and we think, ‘Oh, it’s all done now, it’s all solved.’
“But kids are living in fear in schools every day,” Grace says.
When he was still a high school student in Newfoundland, Jeremy Dyer witnessed enough homophobia in the classroom to drive him to write to his province’s Department of Education — twice.
Dyer was particularly disturbed that teachers were telling homophobic jokes in class, accepting students’ use of derogatory language and publicly discussing people’s “unnatural” choices.
He called on the department to offer a professional development day for teachers to learn more about gay issues.
“The very least that can be done is to educate teachers and staff to help promote a safe and happy environment for all students,” he stated.
Dyer, now in university, says his first letter was “glossed over.”
He’s still waiting for a reply to his second letter, written just a few weeks ago, requesting a meeting with the minister to discuss the importance of having queer-friendly curriculum in schools.
Steve Mulligan is the anti-homophobia consultant to the Vancouver School Board. He thinks it’s important for each province’s ministry of education to take the lead in implementing anti-homophobia policies. 
Mulligan refers to research done by the US-based Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network that demonstrates that where school policy is inclusive of queer lives, the atmosphere in schools improves for queer students.
When the policy just vaguely refers to bullying, change is negligible, he notes. 
“To have government actually say, ‘You need to do this,’ is super helpful,” Mulligan maintains. 
Greenbaum believes in government policy only up to a certain point. 
“If someone tomorrow would say, ‘Okay, now every school must have a policy and that’s the way it’s going to be,’ I’d be happy, but at the same time I’d go, ‘Big deal, let’s see what’s going to happen.’”
All the policy in the world won’t motivate teachers to do anything if they’re not adequately trained, she maintains.
At the top of Greenbaum’s wish list is teacher training, specifically at the university level before teachers are already working in schools.
“Any type of teacher should have that sort training, should know about homophobia, should know about people from different sexual minorities. It should be part of what they learn before they start working with students,” she insists.
“Let’s change the curriculum for future professionals.”
Otherwise, says Greenbaum, government orders from “up above” won’t be implemented.
“If the minister would all of a sudden say, ‘Now you’re going to have to have a course called homosexuality 101 in your classes,’ I don’t think that would be the way to do it,” she says. 
“One of the things that makes it a little bit difficult here, and I would guess it’s probably the same thing across Canada, is that our schools are very decentralized,” Greenbaum explains. “It’s not like our ministry of education could decree something and everyone has to follow.
“It’s even schools versus school boards, because schools have a lot of autonomy,” she adds.
A multi-pronged approach might be best, she offers.
“For the schools that are most reticent, maybe working with the school boards and having some school boards put pressure on other school boards — or not put pressure but make suggestions,” she says.
For Chambers Picard, the impetus either has to come from the top — “or a groundswell from the bottom.”
“That’s happening,” she says, “but it’s also very hard because you know that children in our schools who self-identify, or who are harassed because of a perceived orientation, they don’t have the ability to speak up. Children who are bullied don’t usually, but children who are bullied around those kinds of homophobic slurs, they can’t necessarily go home and say, ‘Hey, I am gay, I am lesbian’ and know that they are going to be safe,” she points out.
She suggests that change will come from the teachers.
“When I saw the [Corren] complaint in BC, it seemed right and logical to me,” she says, “because it’s up to individual teachers whether or not their program includes in it a reflection of our broader society.
“Our classroom is a microcosm of our society, and every classroom is going to have somebody who is going to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender,” she notes, “and it’s not in our textbooks yet, so it’s up to teachers to bring different resources into the classrooms.”
But Hansman points out that many teachers are still afraid to come out, let alone teach gay material in their classrooms — even in progressive school districts like Vancouver where anti-homophobia policy has been in place for years.
He says he doesn’t have “a golden answer” to the problem.
But what’s critical, he insists, is for more courageous people to come out and take a stand.
What’s critical, Rose maintains, is government leadership.
People in positions of power need to know that the message kids are getting within school walls is that queers are not valued as people in society and that their families are not worthy, Rose says.