Safety in education and a community-inclusive approach to combating homophobia are on the agenda for Ryan Clayton, who announced his intention to run for the Vancouver School Board on Feb 27 under the Vision Vancouver banner in civic elections due in the fall.
The 23-year-old, openly gay education activist recently sat down with Xtra to talk about his activism, his platform and how to make anti-homophobia policy work.
XTRA: Why are you running for Vancouver School Board trustee?
RYAN CLAYTON: I’ve always been interested in politics. The two things that I’ve found were the most effective ways of changing things are politics, where you can get policy and foundations set, and education, where you can actually implement those and make schools work. School board just seemed like the logical place for me because it combines the two things that I think are the most powerful for making change.
XTRA: You have experience speaking about homophobia in schools. Tell us about the other kinds of anti-homophobia work you have been involved in.
RC: I got involved back when I lived at home [Salmon Arm]. I used to be a youth worker. I was also working in high schools as a guest speaker/facilitator talking about homophobia and just about my own experiences and my career paths. [Also] while living up north I’ve done after-school teacher workshops. I do a lot of different types of [community] outreach as well. Having that community around the school is equally important to the education students are getting.
When I moved down here I got involved working with politicians on all levels – federal, provincial, civic. I really got involved in civic. I’ve toured schools with Gab Youth, I’ve toured with Out in Schools, and I’ve also worked with Condomania, which is a Vancouver Coastal Health sex education program. I also sat as the co-chair of the LGBTQ civic committee.
XTRA: In your experience speaking in schools, what has struck you as the most effective ways of combating homophobia?
RC: Personal stories. You can throw as many statistics around as you want, but having someone sit down and tell you their personal story of what they’ve been through – positive or negative – can have a powerful impact. Those personal stories are what’s effective and what people connect to, and that’s where it stops being education and starts being reality.
XTRA: And the least effective ways of combating homophobia?
RC: Just implementing a policy. I think that’s the worst thing in the world because that absolves the school board of responsibility, and they think that because there is a policy that says you can’t discriminate against gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender youth that they don’t need to do anything else. A lot of schools just implement policy and that’s the extent of the work they do, and I think that’s the worst thing, because that does nothing.
XTRA: Some politicians seem more comfortable with the word “bullying” and calling for its eradication rather than speaking about queer-friendly curriculum and homophobia.
RC: Yeah. Well, in the case of particular politicians, they are just taking an issue and making it into an electable issue and they don’t really care. I’ve definitely seen a case where a politician talks about bullying and then when you ask them what kinds of things are kids bullied for, they don’t know. So a bit of it is political posturing; it’s less risky. A good politician will take those risks, especially a good education minister will take those risks. The VSB has been incredible in stating what they really believe. There are brilliant politicians that do that, but in terms of declaring “Pink Day” without implementing any sort of anti-homophobia strategy – that’s posturing. It’s not looking at how to actually deal with the problem.
XTRA: Comox is only the 12th school district to have explicit anti-homophobia policy in place. We have 60 districts. Many school districts are not in compliance with 2007 legislation that calls for school codes of conduct that must refer to the BC Human Rights Code.
RC: Policy needs to be there, but I don’t think it’s the end-all, be-all. I know that in the Salmon Arm school district they made a choice not to have an explicit policy for homophobia because they thought it wouldn’t be effective. Instead, what they did was hire me to come and facilitate in the school year after year after year, speaking to every single Grade 8 and 10 class as a way to address that policy and make sure it’s implemented. The effect of that has been a very substantial decrease in complaint calls from parents and a huge awareness in schools. Obviously, they could still make an explicit policy, but I just don’t think that would be the most effective way to deal with homophobia because they’re already doing something that’s more effective than that.
XTRA: Speaking of policy, in your opinion what is the level of resistance in the province to queer-friendly curriculum and having anti-homophobia policy in place?
RC: To be honest, I haven’t found much resistance, but it does require a certain amount of going in and making sure you understand the concerns of parents, concerns of teachers, concerns of the community and making sure you’re not just going in and saying you have to do this. That’s the approach I’ve taken and it’s been very effective.
XTRA: What policies regarding homophobia would you like to see implemented in schools?
RC: In terms of actual written policy the VSB is incredible. Their policies are strong and they’re well-implemented. What I’d like to see is more elementary work because that’s new. We’re realizing that we can address homophobia at an elementary school level. It’s not above students’ capacity to learn about homophobia at that level, and that’s what teachers and policy makers once believed. We’re now learning through pilot projects that that’s not true.
XTRA: What has been the response of teachers and parents to your anti-homophobia work in schools?
RC: When we sent out information about the workshops in Salmon Arm schools, we didn’t receive a single complaint that year. I think parents just want to be involved. Obviously, there’s probably some homophobia [but] out of a district of 16,000 kids I think four kids got pulled, which percentage-wise is amazing. I’ve had the odd teacher who would not introduce me or would be distant, which I later found out was related to homophobia, but that’s not active so I don’t get much resistance there. Getting into schools is difficult, but that’s a funding issue. And funding is a huge barrier, so that’s where you get more resistance.
XTRA: What does the ideal gay-friendly school curriculum look like to you?
RC: They would have a comprehensive anti-bullying policy in place, which Vancouver schools almost all have. They would have outreach programs where someone goes into the schools and teaches about homophobia, which now some elementary schools are getting and high schools pretty much have. How they implement is up to the school districts. Also, a huge thing that has to happen is that teachers and the Vancouver Police Department need to hold open discussions with students about what would make schools safer. It would build a relationship between students and the VPD and give students a feeling that there is someone to look out for them, and it would give teachers and the VPD a chance to really hear from students on what students need.
XTRA: Besides the initiatives mentioned, what are some other ideas you would implement if elected?
RC: I have three major things I want to look at in schools. One is safety, which homophobia is a part of. Also, Islamophobia is a huge part of what I’d like to address. The other thing is to build communities. I’d really like to look at the ways schools can branch out to their local communities, so they’re creating connections. And the third thing is student engagement, and video gaming falls under [that]. That’s something that can engage students – depending on how it’s used – but it is also something that distracts a lot of students. I’d like to create a commission to address the impact of video games.
XTRA: Is it up to the gay community to do most of the work to ensure queer-friendly schools?
RC: It shouldn’t be but it kind of is, only because we have those personal stories that are going to make the difference and the ability and knowledge and resources to make those changes. I think I’m a very good candidate with a particular voice who can focus on making sure the work is done without needing the community to do it for me. Obviously, I’d be going out and consulting and being a part of the community, but I would be at a point where my voice is directly in the school board. Also, what sets me apart is that I will be 24 years old at the time of the November election, and my focus is on students. I’m close to their age and I can consult with them. I bring a queer focus and a young focus. I am confident that I can bring something new and interesting. I bring a perspective that hasn’t been there quite yet [and] I bring a passion and drive to get it done.