3 min

Second-class students

More education is the only way to stop bullying

I recently heard some Ryerson students talking about homos. These young men stood on Church St, not far from the centre of Toronto’s gay village. The volume of their conversation, and the ease with which they conducted it, suggested a shared feeling of entitlement to fill the open air with slurs and slagging.

Did they assume there were no homosexuals around, and that anyone within earshot would agree with their expressions? Or worse, did they simply deem insignificant any homosexuals in the vicinity?

It reminded me of a scene in Far From Heaven, the new film by Xtra’s cover star this issue, Todd Haynes. At a cocktail party in ’50s Connecticut, the white guests discuss racial integration. One of the guests notes that there are no black people in Hartford, as the camera pans to the black servants catering the party.

It’s amazing, the degree to which second-class citizenship becomes accepted. Consider the Triangle Program, see elsewhere on this site.

The program was created to make a place in the education system for kids who were having a rough time at school because they’re queer. Better to remove them from the general population, the logic goes, than to have homophobic harassment drive them to drop out or kill themselves. The program is laudable, as the success of the students attests. But the continued need for such segregation can only be seen as an indictment of an education system which fails its queer students.

It’s worth remembering, as kids across the land go back to school this week, how Canada has achieved a multicultural yet relatively harmonious society. The education system plays no small part in ensuring that kids from all kinds of cultures learn to respect each other.

That respect, however, stops short where gay and lesbian students are concerned. Despite policies outlawing bullying or discrimination, most educators shy away from any active promotion of respect for homosexuals.

Many of the kids in the Triangle Program cite their teachers’ sins of omission – their willful ignorance of homophobic harassment – as prime reasons they had to leave their schools. We also have the story of a Sault Ste Marie student whose campaign to encourage respect was thwarted all the way up to the superintendent of the board. And then there is David Knight, a former Burlington student who is suing his school board and various educators for, he alleges, turning a blind eye to homophobic brutality throughout his high school years.

One might expect we’d benefit from an education system which embraces cultural diversity. But Sally Jordan, the head of guidance at Toronto’s Jarvis Collegiate, notes that cultural diversity brings its own unique problems, as some parents consider homosexuality an affront to their religion.

It’s a touchy issue, and one that the gay community generally avoids. Rightly, we don’t want to stereotype anyone belonging to a particular religion as homophobic, nor do we want to play into the hands of racist opportunists, who might use allegations of homophobia to denigrate different cultures.

But parents from varied religions can be an impediment to the well-being of queer students – including their own children. Ponder, if you will, the depths of inhumanity with which religious parents in Surrey, BC, treat their lesbian and gay neighbours.

Surrey, we are told, has gay parents and students in its school system. Christian and Muslim parents there teamed up to convince the school board to ban innocuous books which included portrayals of lesbian and gay families.

What these religious parents are saying is that students should not be taught to accept or respect queer kids and their families – kids they go to school with, and families who live in their neighbourhoods. This is vile and dangerously uncivil behaviour.

While the bigots were kicking up all this fuss, Hamed Nastoh, a 14-year-old Surrey student, jumped off a bridge. In his suicide note, Nastoh wrote that he could no longer endure the taunts delivered by the other children, who suspected he was gay.

Education promoting understanding and respect for gay and lesbian people should be mandatory in all schools from early grades. The avoidance tactics of educators give tacit approval to bigots and bullies.

David Walberg is Publisher for Xtra.