High schools across New Brunswick are becoming more understanding of queer issues with each passing year, as proven this past weekend at the first Pride in Education (PIE) conference. Student and teacher members of gay-straight alliances (GSA) from 12 schools came together in Fredericton for Building Bridges-Changing Lives, to discuss the successes and challenges they’ve seen in the fight to stamp out homophobia in the halls and classrooms.
Teacher Richard Blaquiere, founder of the Woodstock High School GSA and a conference organizer, was awestruck by how many young people attended the weekend forum and asserted what an achievement it was to even hold such an event. “If there’s a book written about the queer movement in Canada, this will be in it,” he told the audience of 122 elated teens. “We’ve created a new community here.”
The weekend’s lectures and discussions focused on being out in sports, queers in the media and the highs and lows of coming out, but the groups also brainstormed ideas for an action plan to make their schools homophobia-free. At the end of the conference, each school chose one student to become a part of a province-wide GSA action committee.
PIE chair Shawn Corey got choked up when speaking about the year-long effort in putting the meeting together. “The enthusiasm has taken us by surprise, we’re a little bit blown away,” he said. “Last year we had one active GSA. At this point, we have 12. That’s been a resounding success.” He hopes the conference will further empower kids to fight homophobia in their schools.
The excitement and emotion of the gathering wasn’t lost on the attendees. Many were anticipating a week of activity at their schools, following Monday’s International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
|“We all just need to band together: gay, straight or whatever your orientation is, even if you don’t even know. I want to let people know we’re all human. It doesn’t matter who you are we are still all connected in that one way.”
Jessica Brace, 18, Grade 12 student at Oromocto High School
|“My school is really good about it [homophobia]; they don’t allow it. When it happens we stand up against it. I know that there is a lot of homophobia still in schools and I hope that people here are going to take that back with them and use it and stand up and be who they are.”
Amy Ketch, 18, Grade 12 student at Woodstock High School
|“I just don’t want anyone to have to jeopardize their happiness for the sake of someone else’s ignorance. If I can help at least one person come out and be sure who they are, I’ve done my job.”
Lindsay Anderson, 20, St Thomas University student and guest speaker from Geary, NB, with Richard Blaquiere and Shawn Corey
Not all queer students take part in GSAs, says Fredericton teacher Peter Papoulidis, but just having it there makes a difference. “We’ve asked them to use gay-straight alliance — not GSA — so the words become a normal part of everyday speech in the school system.” Teachers are allies, he adds, helping to establish an atmosphere where the word gay is “just another word explaining a club.”
New Brunswick’s Minister of Finance Greg Byrne attended the opening day, in lieu of Premier Shawn Graham who sent his regards in a letter to the students. GSAs have a place in schools, Byrne said in an interview, even though there is sometimes opposition. “The province has to take leadership. As a society we do celebrate our differences. I believe people do support these initiatives. You’ll always have people in society who are intolerant, but that is certainly in the minority.”