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Queer school best if allies welcome, group says

Rhizome hosts series of school meetings

Teacher Mimi Mahovlich (second from left) wants to know what queer students need in school. Credit: Erin Flegg photo

Tucked into the Rhizome community meeting room Nov 20, a small group of students and teachers from a variety of educational backgrounds gathered to discuss the future of queer education in Vancouver.

The event, titled School’s Out, was the second in a series of three meetings to discuss issues facing queer students and educators in the public school system today. Up for discussion this time was the idea of a queer-centred school, how it would work and what it would look like.

Attendance was much lower than the previous meeting — about 10 people compared to 30 — likely because of the rain and the overlap with Trans Day of Remembrance ceremonies, but there was no shortage of ideas tossed out.

Organizer Mimi Mahovlich, a teacher at Killarney Secondary School and sponsor of the school’s gay-straight alliance, used the “six thinking hats” model to lead the group through logistical, creative and emotional aspects, in addition to the pros and cons, of a queer-centred school.

Participants shared their high-school experiences, both positive and negative, and multiple people spoke to the need for a greater diversity of role models for queer students, both in terms of their peers and their teachers, as well as a safe space to explore and develop their identities.

Another prominent topic was the desire to include not just those who identify as part of the queer spectrum but allies as well.

The group suggested numerous ways a queer school could function, from a mini-school within an existing high school, to an evening program, to a stand-alone school offering the full spectrum of academic curriculum. The group agreed that any program designed to support queer students would undoubtedly be beneficial for both the students and their allies.

Mahovlich said her experience working with lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans youth has put her in a position to see the gaps in the current system and prompted her to reach out to the community to discuss solutions.

“Support of self-growth for [queer students] could look a lot different than what is available,” she said, adding that both students and teachers are more likely to take risks and challenge themselves if the non-academic aspects of life at school are more openly addressed.

“If there’s not that respect for people different than yourself, it’s really difficult to focus on learning.”

She said these meetings aren’t about making concrete plans just yet. For now, she hopes to hear from as many people as possible to find out what is most needed.

She was also quick to stress that whatever comes from these meetings, it’s not intended to replace the work already being done in public schools. “This is something to have in addition to the other choices people can make.”

Capilano University film student Krista Martin said an opportunity to meet and interact with people of a variety of identities would have made a huge difference in the development of her own identity throughout school.

“The first time I met someone who was gay was when I moved here to go to BCIT,” she said. She was 26 at the time. “I didn’t grow up with any diversity at all.”

Bam Radvar, an arts student at Capilano, had a similar experience. He said there was nothing resembling a gay-straight alliance when he was in school.

“I didn’t even know what that term meant before I left high school.”

The next meeting will take place at Rhizome on Tuesday, Nov 27, and Mahovlich hopes to see more current high-school students at the final installment.

“If this is to be a combination of dream and reality, what do you want to look at? People who are still in school, obviously they would be the best people to ask.”