Ricki Duong stands at the head of a classroom at Westside Secondary watching a group of 10th grade teenagers settle into their seats.
He tries to remain focused on the task at hand and push out the onslaught of bittersweet memories that come with the familiar aroma of chalk dust and sharpened pencils.
As students enter the room in clumps, they glance at Duong who stands silently before them. With his spiked black hair and DC shirt, he seems like any other teenager who would rather cut fourth period to hang out at the mall than stand at the head of a classroom.
But this session will not be a typical study period. There will be no exams or homework to hand in. There are only a few questions that need to be asked.
The students begin to settle down and fix their eyes on the 19-year-old Duong, who fearlessly takes on the daunting task of trying to hold their attention.
This workshop is called a PrideSpeak and it is put on by The Centre’s GAB youth services.
“A PrideSpeak is basically how we take words that we hear everyday —like gay and fag —and educating students about what those words actually mean and how it is to be a homosexual,” Duong tells me. “We’re not there to tell them that homosexuality is right. We’re just there to tell them that homosexuals exist.”
Duong has been training for this moment for months by watching other facilitators run this workshop in schools across the Lower Mainland. Instead of lectures about tolerance, facilitators interact with the students through questions and games to spark discussion about harmful words. The students are then prompted to make more informed decisions about the words they use by applying what they’ve learned to their own vocabulary.
Today, Duong is finally ready to take on a class by himself.
He asks the students to play a game where they switch up the phrase “That’s so gay” with another word. “If you switch up the word ‘gay’ with something else, the insult loses meaning,” Duong explains.
“To use the word ‘gay’ is more detrimental because it targets reputation,” he continues. “Rumours go around and some parents neglect their kids because they are gay. A lot of kids are afraid of that happening, so using the term ‘that’s so gay’ can really harm a person in a lot ways.”
The discussions bring to light the consequences of making homophobic remarks. Statistics show that gay teens are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight counterparts because of the way their peers treat them and the lack of resources they have to help them come to terms with their sexuality.
“Words do harm,” Duong says. “I hear stories every day about how homosexuals commit suicide because they can’t handle the stress. I heard one story at the National Day Against Homophobia where a youth committed suicide due to the fact that students at school called him a fag and he wasn’t gay.”
More games and discussions follow as students begin to feel more comfortable with the topic of homosexuality.
At first the room is silent, but Duong soon manages to coax a few opinions out of the class and offer a few positive images of his own.
“I was really amazed by the class.” Duong tells me later. “They said some very mature things for their age. They weren’t scared of homosexuality. But when it came to the question of if they thought their school was safe for homosexuals, everyone said no.”
Their response comes as no surprise to Duong.
Almost two years ago, during his senior year at Gladstone Secondary, he decided to take the leap and come out to his friends. A stressful home life and mounting school pressures made the secret of his sexuality a burden that he could no longer bear.
He began slowly by telling a select group of people. Only one friend stood by him while the rest of his male friends thought it was a secret that should never have been revealed.
“About a month after that, the whole school knew,” Duong says. “I was being called fag, slut and whore —all the things they think about gay men because of the stereotypes. Ever since then, my former friends and I would just glare at each other in the hallways.”
The rest of Duong’s high school experience was a pale comparison to the senior-year celebrations that his classmates were enjoying.
When it came time for prom, Duong and his then-boyfriend decided to celebrate in their own way.
“We rented a limousine and went to the Pan Pacific where the prom took place,” Duong remembers. “We took pictures out front but we didn’t go inside due to the fact that we weren’t going to be well received. My boyfriend and I wanted to have our own prom so we went home, got changed and went out for dinner at the beach. We went with my closest friends —there were only three or four of them at the time —and that was enough for me.”
Whereas most gay teens would sink into a depression from the lack of support, Duong was able to direct his sense of injustice into improving the lives of gay students at his school. He started Gladstone Secondary’s first gay-straight alliance (GSA) with a few close friends that he knew he could count on.
“I found that Gladstone’s homophobia level was too high,” Duong says. “If I was the only student out there, how [were] other gay students, who were closeted, reacting to the environment? We needed a safe space where we could just talk about anything we wanted, be ourselves and stop faking it through life.”
The group attracted 10 other closeted students. Together they put on events to raise awareness about homophobia throughout the school.
They took part in the 2006 International Day Against Homophobia by distributing masks to all the students without telling them what they were for. At the end of the day, they revealed that the masks represented the need for gay students to conceal their identity in the face of homophobia.
“Ultimately I want everyone to be able to go to school and be themselves,” Duong says.
“I want to work my way into being a youth worker for The Centre,” he continues. “That way I can get into schools and help them organize their own GSAs.
“My sister is still in Gladstone and she tells me everything that goes on,” he notes. “To me, it still seems unsafe. Since I don’t go to that school anymore, I can’t go in there and provide services to keep the GSA going. Doing PrideSpeaks helps me release all the tension that I have.
“That derogatory word fag,” Duong says. “That’s what keeps me going.”