Michael Ross remembers only too vividly the experience of being hung out of the second-storey window of his Cowichan Valley high school — with a noose around his neck.
His tormentors — fellow students — told him if he ratted them out, they would reenact the incident, and this time, drop him.
“Now I’m a full-grown adult, I doubt they would have gone that far,” Ross muses, “but as a Grade 9 student, I lived in fear of my life. Walking home from high school, they would drive their car right onto the shoulder to make me jump into the ditch and tell me next time we come back, we’re going to hit you.”
Then there’s the time a bottle of perfume was dumped down his back.
“I was told since I looked and acted like a fag, I might as well smell like one,” he recalls.
Now 50 and a school teacher himself at Christine Morrison Elementary School in Mission, Ross says he’d like his school board to pass an anti-homophobia policy. “I thought it would be easy, but it has not been.”
Though the district’s harassment policy already explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, Ross says it’s not enough. He’d like to see a comprehensive anti-homophobia policy that not only deals with harassment but proactively fosters a gay-friendly learning environment.
The current policy “has nothing connecting to educating colleagues and students as far as homophobia is concerned — what does it sound like, what does it look like, what can you do when you hear kids in the hall calling each other fags and fairies,” he explains.
He points, in contrast, to the anti-homophobia policy the Vancouver School Board passed in 2004. It not only prohibits “any language or behaviour that deliberately denigrates” or harasses students or employees on the basis of their sexual orientation, but commits to re-training school staff and administrators, holding anti-homophobia workshops and adding positive images of queers to the curriculum.
Ross incorporated many of the principles of the Vancouver policy into the proposal he brought to the Mission school board in March.
“When a school community fails to acknowledge and validate LGBTQ youth, parents and employees,” he noted in his written brief, ” we become invisible and feel socially isolated. Along with invisibility and isolation comes the danger of harassment and discrimination.”
In his presentation to the board, he also pointed to districts like the Southeast Kootenays which “you could stereotype as being cowboy country, or stereotype as being very, very rural” but which now has its own anti-homophobia policy.
If the Southeast Kootenays could take such an initiative, Mission which is “so close to Vancouver and so metropolitan” would surely do the same, Ross thought.
For added measure, he took the extra step of coming out to the board and those present at that March meeting. “I naively thought that would quickly get things going,” Ross admits.
The trustees’ reaction?
“You could have cut the air with a knife,” Ross alleges. “Some representatives of the school board looked like they were ready to faint.”
“I’m quite surprised that he would describe it in that way. I think we were very grateful for his speaking out,” says trustee Pam Alexis. “We have nothing but respect for Mr Ross, and how courageous it was for him to do that.”
Randy Huth, Mission’s district principal in charge of high school programs, echoes Alexis, saying Ross’ recollection couldn’t be further from the truth. The trustees were responsive and supportive, says Huth, who also attended the meeting.
Huth believes the district’s existing harassment policy adequately addresses homophobia.
“We have an anti-harassment policy and our anti-homophobic policy would fall under those guidelines,” he says. “We have harassment within the Human Rights Act and working within a respectful workplace, so anybody who is being harassed under discriminatory grounds such as race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, sex, sexual orientation… So our anti-homophobia policy would fall under that policy.”
As for anti-homophobia training, he says it happens on a daily basis in classes such as Planning 10. But he admits the district holds no specific workshops.
Alexis, too, says the existing harassment policy is sufficient, though she notes that policy is always changing to reflect the needs of the community. “So no policy is ever said and done and that’s the end of it. I think we examine constantly.”
Ross says he’s still hoping the school board will move forward with his proposal for a full anti-homophobia policy. So far, he says, he has mainly encountered silence. “It’s mainly me e-mailing and sending letters and phone calling and following up.
“I just feel like there is no momentum behind this, and I worry [with the failure of] Bill 22, there’s going to be even less reason for them to want to do anything about this. I think they wish that I would just shut up and leave it alone.”
Bill 22, passed by the BC legislature in May, amended the province’s school legislation to require all districts to implement codes of conduct. But the bill did not specify what forms of conduct would be acceptable, and made no mention of prohibiting harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Vancouver-Burrard MLA Lorne Mayencourt told Xtra West in May that the codes would be set in accordance with provincial standards now being developed.
Reached by Xtra West Jul 13 for an update on the standards’ progress — and their likelihood of explicitly protecting queer students from homophobia — Mayencourt refused to comment.
Meanwhile, 16-year-old MacKenzie Cross says he hasn’t been on the receiving end of any physical abuse in his Mission high school, but people can be “very harsh” with their words.
“The worst I’ve ever gotten is someone causing a big fight in the hallways,” he recollects.
“I went to my locker to take out my stuff, and there were some guys waiting around my locker. I walked up and did my own business, and this guy just walked up and started rummaging through my locker, and I was like, ‘What are you doing?’
“He was just like, ‘you’ve got too much colour in your locker for a guy’ or something like that. And one of the other guys piped up and said, ‘Oh, don’t pick on the fag,’ and it just kinda went downhill from there,” Cross recalls.
What is needed is district employees who are willing to take risks and speak out, Ross suggests.
“At this point, the districts that have passed anti-homophobia policies successfully have had a school trustee, or someone within the school board system who is also advocating for them. That is the missing link in Mission.
“I don’t believe there is any specific person who is standing up and going, ‘Yeah, I’m backing Mike on this, this is something I want to see happen.’ That’s out of my hands. I can only present what I can present and try to show stats that are there, that it is a problem. And then, if anybody takes up my cause, that’s great. But I can’t rely on that, and I can’t wait for it.”
Of BC’s 60 school districts, to date only five have voluntarily passed anti-homophobia policies without government direction.