When Anna Turjewas 16 she decided it was important to face the potential risk of being publicly out in the most hostile environment she knew.
“High schools are arguably the most homophobic institutions because nobody tries to control the kids. So many slurs, so much name calling-the same as most high schools,” she shrugs.
Gossip and rumour exploded at Prince of Wales school when Turje opened the closet door in Grade 9.
“It was just insane,” she recalls. “There was no one else out in the school when I came out and I wished so much that I’d had some sort of a mentor. I remember how hard it was.”
After coming out to her best (straight) girlfriend, “we decided we needed to do something about it and started a Gay/Straight Alliance at the beginning of this school year,” Turje says.
Now in Grade 12, she is also a peer counsellor and students come to her with queer-related issues. “I know how much of a difference it would have made for me if I had known any out students, so it’s great to give that to someone else.”
The six-foot-tall, 18-year-old grins. “I’m kind of the queer figurehead at school now,” she says.
Queer visibility is paramount in high schools, Turje believes. “Even if there isn’t a GSA in every high school, I think there should be a designated teacher or counsellor who students know is gay-friendly.
“There should be leaflets and stuff around the school saying this is a homophobia-free zone,” she continues. “Let people know it is against VSB [Vancouver School Board] policy-and it should be enforced.
“I’ve seen teachers turn a blind eye to the word ‘fag’ every day,” she notes. “Ignoring it is condoning it.”
Turje’s GSA recently brought the National Day of Silence to school, “where everyone who supports gay rights-to commemorate the silence gays have to go through because of homophobia-refuses to speak for a day.
“We had stickers saying: ‘I support gay rights.’ I was silent for the day and just overwhelmed handing out stickers. It went so well. I don’t think that would have happened at the beginning of the year, at all. That was a huge step forward.”
On that day, however, the sharp sting of homophobia reminded her of why she was making the effort. “When I was out there handing out stickers there were people calling me dyke,” she says.
Prince of Wales school got its first crash course in homophobia several years ago, she notes. “Aaron Webster’s cousin is my chemistry teacher and helps the GSA a lot,” she confides.
These days, the GSA’s weekly meetings focus on activism and raising awareness because, Turje says, “the most urgent thing is just to get information out there, break down barriers.”
To finish up this school year, she has been giving 75-minute talks in the Grade 8 classrooms with her best straight friend, “just telling my coming out story.” Her friend talks about being a straight ally and what it was like to have a friend come out to her.
“They say that Grade 9s are the worst for homophobia so I got the Grade 8s-so maybe next year it’ll be a little bit better. That’s around the time when people start coming out to themselves.”
Turje isn’t afraid to use a little bit of subterfuge to get the information out there, either. The GSA showed movies in the high school auditorium one evening and invited the whole student body. “We did tons of posters but we didn’t tell people what the films were about,” she laughs. “We just said, ‘free popcorn, free pizza-come get it.’ A ton of people showed up and watched the movies. It was really positive.
“We’ve made so much progress over the year,” she smiles. “I love my school for that. My school is definitely a success story as far as the older grades go.
“I’ve had a lot of kids come to me saying that the GSA has helped them come out to and be comfortable with themselves.
“I would like to see a really positive environment in the schools for gays,” she continues. “I’ve already seen a giant shift since I started it. I’d like to see everyone be able to be as comfortable with their sexuality as I am. I’d like to see kids be able to come out and it be celebrated.”