Back to school shouldn’t mean students and teachers have to go back into the closet, say the researchers behind a nationwide study assessing anti-homophobia policies.
“Education is the next big frontier” in changing our culture so it better reflects the legal protections and rights of queers, says Dr Andre Grace, leader of the study.
Grace and Kris Wells, both members of the University of Alberta Faculty of Education, examined the work of ministries of education, teachers’ associations, school boards and queer grassroots community groups to assess anti-homophobia policies and practices in schools across Canada. They also interviewed 52 queer and ally teachers nationwide.
Grace and Wells are in the final editing stages of their report with the goal of having it published next year. They hope it will be used as a resource by teachers’ associations, school boards and education ministries across the country.
Overall, many teachers surveyed were “largely ignorant” of resources in their respective communities, says Grace. For example, many in Edmonton weren’t aware Edmonton’s Planned Parenthood includes programs on gay and lesbian sex, or of the police department’s hate and bias unit, says Wells. The key now is letting educators know what resources are available in their communities.
“The theme will be positive change and momentum. There are things happening in every province and territory,” says Grace. “Good communication is needed for teachers. We tell them you don’t have to reinvent the wheel here.” School districts in Vancouver, Victoria and Southeast Kootenay have led the way in anti-homophobia policy in BC, while the Elementary Teachers’ Federation in Ontario has been active on queer issues. Meanwhile, grassroots organizations on the East Coast are taking up the cause.
That’s not to say there aren’t particular areas of concern based on their findings. “It was more difficult for teachers in more isolated regions, the northern regions of the provinces and in the territories,” Grace explains.
Teachers in these regions are typically expected to be more involved with their communities, communities where homophobia may be “very pronounced,” says Grace. This means many stay closeted out of concern for their professional security and personal safety. This makes it more difficult for students in these regions to come out without visible queer role models.
Both researchers, who taught in relatively small communities, say personal experience motivated their study.
“We’re reaching back to heal that queer youth within us who didn’t have that chance to be out,” says Wells, who grew up and taught in St Albert, Alberta.
Wells recounts how his students once confronted his boyfriend, who was sitting in a car outside a video store waiting for Wells. When the students asked if he was Wells’ boyfriend, he denied it. Wells eventually decided, “teaching was too toxic an environment,” and began working with queer youth.
Grace was closeted to colleagues and students while teaching in Catholic junior and senior high schools for 15 years in Newfoundland. He moved to Nova Scotia in the 1990s to get his doctorate at Dalhousie University and teach, where he was out.
Some of his students confided they were worried about being out once they started teaching. Grace was particularly troubled on work placements in Halifax area schools, where he noted racial slurs were not tolerated, but teachers and school staff ignored homophobic abuse.
Religion too plays a role, says Grace, though he notes, “you can’t generalize too much.” While some Catholic schools now recognize queer students do exist, when this recognition is mixed with the rhetoric of the catechism, namely that queer sex is immoral, the message gets confused.
“It’s challenging to work in the Catholic context, but we need some positive points,” says Grace, who was happy to find some priests and Catholic teachers involved with queer work in schools.
Though the Southeast Kootenay school district recently introduced an anti-homophobia policy, generally speaking, educators in rural communities are “more reluctant” than urban teachers to speak out about queer issues, says James Chamberlain, a member of Gay and Lesbian Educators of BC (GALE).
“They are afraid of being targeted. Even straight allies are afraid of being accused of being LGBT,” says Chamberlain.
Provincial leadership can help change that. Grace and Wells say the Saskatchewan provincial government is the most progressive in Canada when it comes to queer education issues. “Their Ministry of Learning has infused LGBT issues into the curriculum without impetus,” says Grace. Further, the province’s minister of learning is the only provincial minister to have endorsed a handbook for gay-straight alliances in schools recently written by Wells.
Chamberlain is not surprised, given an NDP government in Saskatchewan “sensitive to queer issues to begin with.”
“When you’ve got the government on your side so to speak, there’s potential for change,” he says.
Though Grace and Wells say gains can be made without provincial leadership, having that support is ideal. Government support trickles down to school districts, teachers’ associations and grassroots organizations. The more people who are behind change, the more likely it is anti-homophobia policies will not just be introduced, but enforced, they say.
Gerald Walton, a self-proclaimed queer scholar, recently completed his dissertation entitled “No Fags Allowed” through Queens University’s education faculty, examining the role of difference in homophobic bullying. He says the notion of difference, not just diversity, must be considered when developing anti-homophobia policy and queer curriculum.
For example, while the notion of diversity examines who can be recognized as a family, looking at difference means looking at how queer youth and their families are marginalized and not treated as equals as a result of policy, or lack thereof, Walton explains.
In addition to introducing codes of conduct, school districts must provide information and education to students, staff “and anyone else who wants to read it,” says Walton, who is “very encouraged” by policies in Victoria and Vancouver.
Further, professional development for administrators, teachers and staff must be made mandatory in order for it to be effective, says Grace.
“The most resounding gap is between policy and practice. We have to move past the culture of survival so teachers and students can thrive,” Wells adds.
Having a queer caucus at the school district level is also vital, says Chamberlain, adding that enforcing policy “is not a short-term thing.” The Vancouver School Board’s queer caucus developed an action plan for its policy before it was introduced to trustees. “You have to have a road map with clearly defined goals and actions,” for a policy to truly work, Chamberlain concludes.