A bunch of teens sit around a large grey table, munching down on pretzels and candy and talking about their summer vacations. A couple latecomers rush in just before the meeting starts in a bit of a sweat, having just raced here from their part-time jobs.
The atmosphere is just like that of any other high school planning committee, but once the meeting is called to order, the discussion turns away from high school cafeteria talk. These young people didn’t come all the way downtown on a 30-degree summer day to plan a pep rally. They came to fight for a safer school environment for Ottawa’s queer students.
I am sitting in on a meeting of the National Capital Region Gay-Straight Alliance (NCRGSA), a group that unites gay teens and straight allies in hopes of promoting diversity and creating an accepting environment across the school board for teens that are coming out.
Entering her first year of university this fall, NCRGSA founder Paula Collins started up the group in January when she was a senior at Sir Wilfred Laurier Secondary School. Cute, sunny and straight, Collins’ work as an ally has already made a significant impact in the lives of gay teens in just one high school semester.
Collins’ first-hand experience with extreme homophobia is what initially motivated her to get involved with diversity initiatives.
“I first started getting interested in gay rights when I was living in the Philippines and a teacher at my school was murdered,” recalls Collins.
“We found out that there was evidence that he and his partner were both killed because they were gay.”
After moving to Ottawa, Collins started getting involved in leadership camps and other school activities, but realized there wasn’t much going on in her high school to promote diversity or gay rights.
After Jeremy Dias of Jer’s Vision gave a workshop at her high school about the National Day Against Homophobia last fall, Collins invited him to talk at a leadership camp she was planning. Soon after, she started attending Jer’s Vision meetings.
After meeting a bunch of gay teens who were struggling in their schools, Collins realized that what was sorely lacking in high schools was an actual safe space for gay teens to go and be themselves.
“My school had a diversity group, but nothing really specifically targeted at gay youth,” says Collins.
“Even worse, most other schools don’t even have anything at all. So, I started talking to Jeremy and sending out a ton of emails to teachers and friends about setting something up where high school students from a bunch of different schools could get together to connect and talk and discuss ideas.”
And so, the NCRGSA was born.
“We had our first meeting in January, and it went really well. A lot of the people who went to the first meeting are still really active now, and are participating in other Jer’s Vision stuff too.”
During the school year, the monthly NCRGSA meetings take place at the Jer’s Vision office at the University of Ottawa. Collins says that as of now, the organization has over 15 schools involved with about three members from each school attending meetings.
“High school is tough for everyone, regardless of if you’re gay or not,” says Collins, who says that even though the group is primarily meant for gay teens to feel safe, it is also an important outlet where straight teens can go to feel accepted as well.
“I’ve been to a lot of high schools and it’s the same all over the world — some places are more accepting than others, but there’s still those stereotypical groups of people who bully, no matter where you go.”
Collins recounts one of her proudest moments with the NCRGSA so far as being an emotional monthly meeting where one closeted teen decided to come out to his peers.
“He was actually able to do it because he felt there was support, and there were people to talk to,” she says.
“Kids need support, and I think that if you’re able to actually feel safe and happy and become empowered in high school, then the real world afterwards might not be so bad.”