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Start anti-homophobia education sooner, students say

Maple Ridge keeps its promise to adopt a policy

"A dialogue is not happening at the elementary school level, and conversations about sexual orientation really need to happen earlier," says Grade 10 student Narisa Windover (front, second from right) with the Thomas Haney gay-straight alliance. Credit: Nathaniel Christopher photo

Nearly three months after the adoption of their school district’s anti-homophobia policy, gay-straight alliance (GSA) members and teacher-sponsors at Thomas Haney Secondary in Maple Ridge are calling on policymakers to reach students at a younger age.

About 15 members of Thomas Haney’s GSA, named Fruit Salad, recently shared their views with Xtra at their weekly meeting.

“I’m still dealing with the infamous ‘F-word’ 20 to 30 times a day,” says teacher sponsor Kathryn Ferguson. “That has a lot to do with the macho bravado among some of the boys who feel that it’s worth hanging on to. They equate human rights with being weak even if in their hearts they support equality. So they won’t display rainbow stickers or buy rainbow cupcakes.”

Grade 10 student Narisa Windover says many boys in younger grades still use gay sexuality as a joke among their peers and would probably buy the rainbow cupcakes sold at GSA fundraisers as a joke. She feels that schools should make more of an effort to educate students in Grade 8.

“That kind of immaturity mostly exists in the younger grades,” she says. “But they eventually reach a certain maturity level after Grade 9, especially in the Vancouver area and across Canada. But a dialogue is not happening at the elementary school level, and conversations about sexual orientation really need to happen earlier.”

Austin McCabe, a Grade 8 student who is the youngest member of Thomas Haney’s GSA, says anti-gay name-calling begins well before the first day of secondary school.

“They say the name-calling starts in Grade 8, but from experience I say it starts in Grade 5,” he says.

“Teach them definitions and proper words and less negative words,” suggests Megan Pearson, who is in Grade 10. “A lot of kids know that ‘gay’ is something negative but don’t know what it actually means.”

Jessica Pickering, who is in Grade 12, says she learned the definitions of the words “gay” and “lesbian” only when she looked them up online. She believes casual use of the word creates a hostile environment for students.

“There could be someone in a group of friends who is struggling with their decision on whether or not to come out,” she says, “and when they hear their friends casually say, ‘That’s so gay,’ they may feel like they would lose their friends if they came out.”

Evan Howe, Grade 9, says coming out was a scary decision even though many of his friends encouraged him to do so.

“I haven’t lost any friends since I came out,” he says. “I thought I would lose my friends. I knew that some friends would be there for me no matter what, but what if someone calls me names behind my back or makes excuses to not hang out with me anymore?”

On Feb 27 the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school board followed through on its promise to adopt an anti-homophobia policy. This came a year after an emotionally charged meeting in which board members, all wearing pink T-shirts, listened to impassioned presentations from students and staff.

“With any policy, it’s only as good as implementation,” says board chair Mike Murray. “We have asked staff to follow up with implementation in the schools, and that process is beginning now. Staff and students will be involved in talking to students and staff in the school district about how implementation might be handled within schools. The policy refers to school codes of conduct and whether they need to be adjusted in any way to reflect the policy.”

The Safe, Caring and Healthy Schools policy – which also addresses discrimination based on race, religion and other personal characteristics – includes a three-page glossary of terms specific to queer and transgender issues.

“I hope the policy empowers some teachers to go forward and know that the school district backs you,” says GSA teacher-sponsor Erin Talbot. “Right now it’s in the initial phases, but next year we hope to get out there.”

Windover says she is excited about the policy’s implementation. People are becoming more accepting, she says, but students still need to push for change.

“There are some teachers and administrators that don’t support the policy, but they won’t actually say that,” she says. “But we’re here and this policy gives us our foot in the door. With this policy we are able to put a lot of heart into it. The most satisfying thing for me is if people read that policy and realize that at least one person they know is gay.”

All the GSA students in attendance expressed support for the aims of the 2011 Purple Letter Campaign, which challenged the BC government to adopt a provincewide sexual orientation and gender identity policy for schools.

“If you’re in high school and struggling, go to a GSA at your school – if your school doesn’t have one, then start one or go to another GSA, or come to ours,” Pickering suggests.