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Progress – slow progress – at Ottawa schools

It's become more not-cool to be homophobic: student

HOMO HIGH. Queer students are stepping out and queer support groups are helping. Even the school board is gradually opening up. Credit: John Crossen

Increasingly, gays and lesbians realize that it’s vulnerable members of our community that are most in need of our attention: sex workers, queer people of colour, two-spirited people, straight-identifying men who have sex with men (MSM) — and high school students.

But progress in the schools has been hampered by twin irrational fears: fear that gays and lesbians are recruiting in Canada’s public school system and fear that gays and lesbians will molest students.

“That’s still a view that is held,” says Tony Lovink, one of the few openly-gay teachers in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB). He’s the former coordinator of Glebe’s gay-straight alliance, but he’s currently on a leave of absence while he pursues his doctorate.

“Teaching is a conservative profession by nature. Because part of the goal of teaching is to socio-culturalize students, they are by definition reflecting the status quo,” he says.

There’s a danger in generalizing. Students in Carleton Place and Arnprior — both part of the OCDSC — live in a different reality than students at urban schools like Lisgar or Glebe, not to mention students in either of Ottawa’s Catholic school boards. That’s because “the principal has tremendous amount of autonomy to set the tone of a school,” says Lovink.

But even at progressive schools, queer students face day-to-day harassment, bullying, insults, slurs, and gossiping. Even students who are not out of the closet have to deal with students’ harmful speculation — is he gay? Is she? — plus the persistence of “That’s so gay” used as an insult for everything from Tupperware to detention, say teachers and students alike.

Both Lisgar vice-principal Susan Smith and student Evey Hornbeck agree that physical violence against gay and lesbian students is giving way to harassment, insults, and gossip at their school.

Pink Triangle Service’s Darryl Lim says that teachers are less inclined to take matters seriously.

“When girls use gossip to be destructive, it’s bullying,” insists Smith. She’s had to haul students into her office and read them sections of the Criminal Code, which she keeps on her desk, in sightline of the rainbow sticker on her door. She also says she involves the police’s “school resource officer” when necessary.

Increasingly it’s parents and not the school board that are the most conservative voices in education, says Lovink. He notes that a debate he organized at Glebe High School in 2004 about same-sex marriage resulted in “vicious e-mails” from parents. Meanwhile, the OCDSB was organizing its first Rainbow Schools Forum.

That forum was a 2004 project bringing together students from queer clubs across the board with guidance councillors, teachers, and school administrators to talk about improving the lives of gay students in Ottawa. A second forum was held last fall, attracting 100 students from 24 schools, including English and French Catholic schools and North Dundas District High School.

There were also a handful of out gay teachers there, including Lovink, a huge step for one of the most closeted professional designations.

Although some may see the forums — one day each, two years apart — as glacial progress, in an institution as reactionary as the school system, it’s progress that needs to be celebrated.

“It’s more than glacial; it’s been a significant shift,” says Lovink.

Adds Darryl Lim of Pink Triangle Services, “I think [the school board] is still conservative. As much as it’s conservative, there are elements — teachers, administrators — that are active. A lot of the support is coming from the ground up, from schools.” PTS was among the community organizations partnering with OCDSB to host the November forum.

Lim says the forum does two things. Firstly, it encourages administrators to tackle issues like harassment and verbal gaybashing, issues that teachers are tempted to turn a blind eye to. And on the other hand, conferences that bring queer students together are also an opportunity to build solidarity.

“At the same time, it teaches kids, empowers kids to take action,” Lim says. He anticipates that the conference will “open the floodgates” for gay teens to fight homophobia in their high schools.

Students from Lisgar Collegiate went back to school after the conference and asked to set up a gay-straight alliance. Those teens also want to bring in speakers to talk about gay issues, according to Lisgar vice-principal Susan Smith.

Lisgar Collegiate is one of Ottawa’s most urban schools. It exemplifies the grinding progress activists could only have guessed at 10 years ago, according to its students.

“It’s become more not-cool to be homophobic,” says Lisgar high school student Evey Hornbeck.

“At the same time, there are lots of people who are not as comfortable as they say they are. Or they don’t really know much about it,” she adds.

But Hornbeck and others are working to address that gap. In addition to being a high school student, she is a youth educator through Insight Theatre, a Planned Parenthood-run initiative that puts on 50-60 presentations about sexual education for students each year.

At each presentation, they do about 25 skits, including tackling gay identity, dental dams, and lube.

“It helps demystify what being gay is,” says the program’s coordinator, Jenn Hunnisett. To some extent, the students that it most helps are those that “don’t know much about” gays and lesbians.

Hunnisett’s choice of vocabulary echoes the goals of one of Canada’s foremost high school outreach programs, the Montreal-based Groupe de Recherche et d’Intervention Sociale gaies et lesbiannes de Montreal (GRIS-Montreal).

GRIS-Montreal does 700 high school presentations a year in area schools. The program places one gay man and one lesbian in classrooms, invited by teachers or school nurses. The presenters give a little background about themselves, where the ranging subject matter includes raising children and playing in a gay sports league.

“It’s often the first or one of the rare times that students can discuss homosexuality without the fears and taboos usually associated [with gays and lesbians],” says GRIS-Montreal president Robert Pilon, himself a volunteer.

Throughout the introduction, the volunteers drop hints about some possible conversation topics including coming out and their sexual and relationship histories. Then they open the floor to questions, careful to note that no questions are off limits.

“One of the ideas is to get to know us enough — at the start they might think we are monsters. We hope that by the end of the session that they know one gay and lesbian. They saw a person,” Pilon says.

Sometimes they are met with disbelief. Pilon says one student asked him, “You’re telling me you’re gay to my face?” But those are precisely the people GRIS is reaching out to – those whose only experience with gays and lesbians is a cruel caricature. But GRIS isn’t there to preach, and they’re careful to leave the final learning outcomes up to students.

“There’s never any speech we give that says you should or you shouldn’t think that way,” says Pilon.

Ottawa youth advocate Jeremy Dias says that “things are a little bit better, but not much” in local schools. He says that the wildly different situations faced by students in downtown versus rural schools underlines the need for some “basic minimum of resources” available to students – and not just when they are victims of violence.

“Given access to resources, queer students use them. High school is a difficult time for everyone, but hopefully, we can make things a little bit easier for queer kids to find the self-confidence to stand up.”