Turning homophobia into gold. That’s Jeremy Dias’ Midas touch. He’s at the end of a struggle with Sault Ste Marie’s Sir James Dunn Collegiate And Vocational School and the Algoma District School Board. And the University Of Ottawa student is turning his experience with schoolyard homophobia into something good – a scholarship fund for students who want to improve the world for queers.
Dias filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission in November, 2002, alleging that Sir James Dunn staff members would not allow him to start school clubs to encourage a more positive environment for non-heterosexual students.
Dias came to Sir James Dunn in Grade 10, having recently moved from a suburb outside of Edmonton, Alberta. He’d come out young.
“I tried to establish a gay and lesbian program, gay social group, awareness, as well as education,” he explains. “However, the administration kept on opposing it.”
Dias approached the high school principal, the board’s director of education and superintendent, and wrote then-provincial Minister Of Education Elizabeth Witmer. The superintendent, Carole McPhee, encouraged Dias to send her brochures and pamphlets about sexual diversity, but wrote him that “the board does not permit the posting of material advocating any specific lifestyle in classrooms or hallways.”
Dias grew more and more frustrated. He didn’t want to just put up posters, although he alleges the school never posted the ones he did produce. He passed around a petition and collected over 600 signatures.
“By the end of Grade 12, I got fed up,” says Dias. “I called up the Human Rights Commission, and over the summer I did some research – human rights complaints and other battles. That year, I filed a human rights complaint against the school board.
“It was part of the frustration, just being unable to do anything else. I was graduating and I wanted to make a last effort, a last big shot at making a difference at my school. For a long time, I was the only out person at the school,” he says.
Dias entered into mediation with the Algoma District School Board, but that dragged on well past his graduation. So, at Christmas time last year, he made a suggestion based on some motherly advice. He and his family realized that, even if he won and the school had to, for example, buy queer-friendly books for the library or put up new posters, there would be no way to monitor the changes.
He settled out of court with the school board.
And put the money to good use by starting an endowment fund for high school and CEGEP grads – the Jeremy Dias LGBTQ Scholarship Fund.
The Dias scholarship fund is about “that essence of humanity, that natural giving of yourself,” he explains. Organizers of the endowment fund are “trying to reward students for their efforts to make their school or community a more positive environment” for gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and questioning youth.
“I sent the scholarship suggestion to the mediator,” recalls Diaz. “The school board liked it because they didn’t have to apologize. At the very beginning of the human rights complaint, I said ‘If you guys apologize and put up one gay poster anywhere in the school, then I’ll drop it.’ And they said ‘No.'”
When asked about the mediation process, Algoma superintendent Carole McPhee directed Capital Xtra to their lawyer, saying, “This is a human rights issue and I’m sorry, but I’m not at liberty to talk about it.”
The lawyer representing the Algoma District School Board did not return Capital Xtra’s call.
When Cheryl Smithers, the principal at Sir James Dunn, was asked about the outcome of the mediations, she replied “I’m not aware of that. I wouldn’t be able to speak to any of that. Carole would speak to that.” She directed the reporter to speak to McPhee.
When asked if Sir James Dunn Collegiate had started any gay support clubs since Dias graduated, McPhee said she did not have that information. “That school particularly works quite seriously on the diversity issue,” she adds, “but not just related to gays and lesbians but to ethnic diversity and religious diversity and so on. Are there any clubs in the school? I wouldn’t know that.”
“We’ve never had formal clubs,” adds Smithers. “There’s no clubs. We’ve never had a club per se. We just have the support issues – usually that’s a one-to-one thing that they’re sharing with a counsellor or a nurse. So what we do is put them in contact with a community aid network” or the community gay and lesbian group.
“We have four posters from the Algoma lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer group – I think that’s what the group is called – that’s also [posted] in guidance,” says Smithers.
Smithers also listed a slew of other human-rights posters that now hang in the school’s halls. All principals in her region are taught about the Ontario Human Rights Codes by the Ontario Principal Council, she says. And Smithers attended an Ontario Human Rights workshop at a conference last year.
It remains unclear whether there was a link between Dias’ mediations and these workshops.
In between his endless other high school activities, Dias did manage to start a city-wide queer youth group in Grade 11. It is still on-going. Ironically, his was the only area high school that would not display the community group’s posters. When staff did put up the posters, he alleges, they placed them on the back of the nurse’s door.
But now he can move on. Dias is now a third-year psychology major and an active member of several campus groups.
How does he feel about settling the mediation?
“It’s weird, actually,” he says with a smile. “It’s become something that’s always put on the backburner. ‘Oh God, you know, I should be doing research on this instead of going out and partying.’ It’s really allowed me to grow in different ways – researching legal proceedings and past cases, and allowed me to create a scholarship.
“In its own subtle way, it kind of makes the world a shinier, gayer place to live,” laughs the man who is also known by his drag name, Trixie Brown. “I’m kind of wondering if there was an easier way to do it.”