3 min

Smells like teen spirit

Why is it so hard for schools to respect gay and lesbian students?

Teens are coming out in droves, it seems. It’s easy for anyone no longer a teen to think these kids have it made. But recent skirmishes expose the ignorance and discrimination that these kids continue to endure. There’s an upside to their struggles, though: their own moxie. These kids are coming out swinging.

There’s Jeremy Dias, a high school student in Sault Ste Marie. Jeremy, an out bisexual, tried to organize a “positive space” campaign in his school. The campaign, like those launched at various colleges and universities, involves posting a symbol in classrooms and entrances to signify, in Jeremy’s words, an environment “that welcomes sexual diversity, and advocates tolerance.”

Jeremy’s school board decided that the campaign advocated a specific lifestyle – something the board says it does not permit.

Then there’s David Knight of Burlington. He and his family are suing their school board and a slate of current and former school principals and vice-principals. They allege that the school failed to prevent a group of students from bullying David and his sister Katie over a period of several years. We don’t know if David is gay, but the alleged bullying was brutal and decidedly anti-gay. (The school board says their staff appropriately handled every incident brought to them.)

And, of course, there’s Marc Hall, the gay teen who took on his Catholic school board to win an injunction allowing him to take his then-boyfriend to the prom. The injunction was a temporary measure, and Hall promises to proceed with his suit against the board.

And so we have at least three current battles with Ontario school boards, in which the boards’ handling of sexual orientation is a major issue.

Why is it so hard for schools to respect gay and lesbian students? Surely it’s a school board’s desire to create an environment where all students feel comfortable and appreciated for who they are, and are free from harassment and other impediments to their self-esteem and their studies.

The Algoma District School Board’s values statement says the board encourages students to “value themselves and others with dignity and respect; develop the qualities of compassion, tolerance and social responsibility; appreciate and respect the multicultural diversity of Canada.” Jeremy’s positive space campaign would appear to jive nicely with those stated values.

The problem, of course, is that many educators themselves continue to misunderstand or revile homosexuality. But as Jeremy points out in a letter he wrote to Ontario education minister Elizabeth Witmer, teachers don’t have to understand or agree with homosexuality. He also notes, however, that it remains their professional duty to ensure the well-being of all students, and to promote the healthy development of gay and lesbian students.

Other educators may wish to do the right thing, but fear the wrath of parents. Parents often oppose teaching kids about sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular. The issue is highlighted for us this week, as the Supreme Court hears the Surrey, BC, book banning case. There, fundamentalist Muslim and Christian parents teamed up to convince the school board to ban books which depict kids with gay and lesbian parents.

What we need from educators is a policy of zero tolerance for parents who object to promoting respect for gay and lesbian students, parents and teachers. Bigoted parents need to understand that mutual respect in a school setting doesn’t prevent them from objecting to homosexuality or from teaching their beliefs to their own children.

If educators fail to protect and foster gay and lesbian students because it’s the right thing to do, the three battles noted above should encourage their compliance for more selfish reasons. Is it a coincidence that Hamed Nastoh, a student who killed himself after being bullied because he was perceived to be gay, lived in Surrey, BC? Could his parents sue educators there, and cite the banning of gay-positive books as evidence that they failed to create a safe environment for their son?

Educators should take note of the burgeoning sense of entitlement felt by today’s gay teens. Increasingly, it seems, educators won’t be able to ignore the needs of their gay and lesbian students. Today’s savvy gay teens won’t let them get away with it.

* David Walberg is Xtra’s publisher.