3 min

Queer youth leading charge for safer schools: study

'Most ministries of education remain silent'

Queer high school students are stepping up to the plate to make schools safer and more inclusive, while leadership from the powers-that-be remains largely lacking, say the authors of an article assessing queer youth activism at Canadian high schools.

“What we’re trying to show with this research is a lot of queer youth are changing in significant ways,” says one of the article’s authors, Dr Andre Grace, noting that queer youth eschew a victim mentality.

“A lot of youth are very much taking the initiative in different cities across Canada. They’re demanding support,” says Grace.

In the article, Grace and Kris Wells of the University of Alberta’s education faculty, focus on the stories of three male students: Bruce of Port Coquitlam, Jeremy of Sault Ste Marie, Ont, and Ryan of Edmonton, hightlighting how they worked to make their respective schools and communities safe and inclusive.

Bruce and Ryan, both white, identify as gay, while Jeremy, an Indo-Canadian youth, identifies as bisexual. All three have now graduated from high school.

The researchers, who study sex, and sexual and gender differences in Canadian education, feel the three are “representative of a significant group of people across the country,” Grace indicates.

When students get involved, things happen, says Chris Buchner, a youth worker at The Centre’s GAB Youth Services. He points to the Pink T-shirt campaign as a case in point.

It started in Nova Scotia with two students who bought 50 pink t-shirts to hand out to classmates after a grade 9 boy was harassed and called gay for wearing a pink polo shirt on his first day of school. The next day, there was a sea of pink at the school, with many students sporting their own pink outfits head to toe in support of the bullied student.

Schools across Canada have been holding similar campaigns ever since.

“Teachers can’t do much unless the students are wanting to do something,” Buchner adds but stresses that policy is still necessary to support student initiatives.

“You can be set up to fail if there is no support from the administration and teachers,” says Buchner.

Bruce, Jeremy and Ryan had one very important thing in common: supportive families.

Without this, “it would be very different,” Wells says, noting that most out students who are active in making their schools safer and more inclusive have strong family support.

For Jane Bouey, an education activist and member of the Vancouver School Board’s Pride committee, the situation of youth living in less-than supportive environments is a significant concern.

“At rural schools, how can you expect [youth] to be drivers of change?” asks Bouey.

Wells shares her concern, stressing the need for provinces to create queer-positive policies that are enforced by school boards across Canada.

“School boards become the gatekeepers around the issue. They translate policy into practice. In rural areas, policies are even more important.”

Jeremy’s experience in Sault Ste Marie illustrate Wells’ and Bouey’s point of view in concrete terms.

Though Sault Ste Marie is a city, it’s a small one. Jeremy was unable to win the support of his high school principal or counsellor to run a positive space campaign before he graduated. He tells the authors, “I think the principal was happy that I finally graduated and moved away to go to university.”

“Right now, there is a tremendous amount school administrators can be doing,” says Grace. “There are challenges and barriers in even getting school principals to listen to [students] sometimes. Teachers won’t act unless supported by principals,” he says.

Teachers associations and school districts need mandatory training on “sexual minority issues,” Grace adds, so they can be aware of how the law has changed, and learn tips and strategies for supporting queer students.

Provincial ministries of education are still lagging, for the most part, in taking the initiative in creating policy, he continues. In Alberta, for instance, the province has often taken a “hands-off approach.” The lead has been taken in Alberta by the provincial teachers’ association, which he says is slower as the ATA has to dedicate time and money “to what the province should be doing.”

“Most ministries of education remain silent. This makes them complicit,” in homophobia, Wells alleges.

In the meantime, Canadian youth continue to fight the fight.

“It’s a real tipping point for queer youth in Canada,” says Wells, who describes such students as “educator activists.”

“They’re leading change in schools, educating teachers, parents and peers. Despite the risks, they’re very courageous.”