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Pink shirts, pink days and bullying in Canada

Can we tackle bullying without talking about homophobia?

David Shepherd and Travis Price, the Nova Scotia youths who originally wore pink T-shirts to support a fellow student who had been bullied.
On Feb 29, Pink Shirt Day addresses bullying in communities across Canada, primarily in BC. On April 11, the Day of Pink addresses bullying, homophobia and transphobia in schools and communities across Canada and internationally.
 
The difference between the two is small but significant.
 
Both Pink Shirt Day and Day of Pink claim the same incident as their origin. In 2007, two high-school students in Cambridge, Nova Scotia, witnessed a Grade 9 student being bullied for wearing a pink polo shirt. They then convinced classmates to wear pink to support him. However, only the Day of Pink story mentions that the student was called gay as an insult.
 
That inclusion is important.
 
“I think that because of the nature of bullying in Canada, it is not effective to talk about bullying without talking about homophobia and transphobia,” says Jeremy Dias, the director and founder of Jer’s Vision, an Ottawa-based youth diversity initiative involved with the Day of Pink. “We need to shift the dialogue back to the causes of our challenges and be more effective in supporting youth.”
 
Pink Shirt Day was started in 2007 by then-CKNW talk show host Christy Clark, now BC’s premier. The CKNW Orphan’s Fund handles Pink Shirt Day media and promotional deals, as well as purchasing and distributing T-shirts.
 
The day focuses on “all bullying in general,” says Jen Schaeffers, the executive director of the Orphans’ Fund.
 
“We bring up topics such as workplace bullying, cyber bullying, schoolyard bullying, indirect bullying . . . We like to bring a greater level of awareness about all the types of bullying that are taking place,” Schaeffers says.
 
Rather than running educational programs itself, all fundraising from Pink Shirt Day goes to anti-bullying efforts at the Boys and Girls Clubs of South Coast BC, which runs formal programs that focus on what it means to be (and how to avoid being) a bully, a victim or a bystander, in addition to informal programming that works to prevent bullying on an everyday basis.
 
“Our bullying programs go through the year in formal ways and every single day through informal opportunities,” says Carolyn Tuckwell, the president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of South Coast BC. “We’re helping people to understand that even something like the way we use words is a form of bullying and that negative words about sexuality, gender and race can be harmful.” 
 
While the organization runs programs about both bullying and sexuality, it does not run any programs specifically about homophobic or transphobic bullying.
 
Day of Pink was also started in 2007 and is not officially run by a single entity. Instead, Jer’s Vision manages the website and T-shirts and pairs up schools with organizations to help run events.
 
“Events like this are important because they raise awareness about bullying in our community. Homophobic bullying makes up [most] bullying seen in schools. Kids are calling each other ‘fag’ and ‘gay’ and ‘queer,’ so what we’re seeing is that the language that they’re using . . . is really toxic,” says Dias. “We’re seeing this very visceral hatred towards people who are openly queer. But that’s not the cause of the problem. The cause of the problem is a lack of dialogue about LGBTQ tradition in schools,” Dias says.
 
According to the 2009 Canadian Climate Survey on Homophobia, 59 percent of queer high school students reported they were verbally harassed, compared to seven percent of non-queer students. Additionally, 25 percent of queer students experienced physical harassment, and 31 percent reported harassment via the internet or text messaging, while only eight percent of their non-queer counterparts experienced similar kinds of bullying in both cases. 
 
The importance of addressing not only bullying in general, but homophobic and transphobic bullying in particular, is also under discussion in multiple pieces of anti-bullying legislation currently making their way through local/provincial governments. 
 
In Ontario, two competing anti-bullying bills are currently under consideration. One, introduced by the Liberals, specifically addresses homophobia and transphobia. The other, introduced by the Progressive Conservatives, does not. Neither does a proposed piece of legislation in BC, which has been criticized as a result.
 
“It is essential that any new anti-bullying measures specifically address concerns about bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students, who are particularly vulnerable to discriminatory bullying,” writes West Coast LEAF legal director Laura Track in a statement earlier this month about proposed anti-bullying legislation in BC.
 
“They say, ‘We’re not saying anything bad, we’re just not talking about it,’” says Dias about the proposed legislation in Ontario. “But silence breeds discrimination and hate . . . What we’re finding is that the only solution that works, which is engaging kids and talking about it, isn’t really being used. And so we’re seeing homophobic and transphobic discrimination.”
 
As a result, events such as Day of Pink are particularly important.
 
“They help us combat homophobia and transphobia in Canada and in turn all over the world, and that in itself is important,” says Ben Marmer, the out, 18-year-old leader of the Youth Action Committee at Jer’s Vision. “We need to combat [it] directly.”
 
Learn more about Pink Shirt Day at pinkshirtday.ca. Learn more about the Day of Pink at dayofpink.org.