3 min

‘The after-school special we always hoped for’

Out On Screen brings queer images to high schools

Credit: Xtra West files

“My school didn’t have a GSA [gay-straight alliance],” laments August LB. “They were too busy censoring art and shitting on students.” Now 20 years old, LB (editor’s note: this is how LB spells her name) is trying to earn her high school degree through distance education. She left school after suffering “bullying, harassment, violence, and massive sexism within the school administration.”

Like many queers in BC high schools, LB missed out on connections where she needed them most-amongst her peers and educators.

But today’s youth may have a chance to access what past generations never dreamed possible. The good (and mighty busy) folks at Out On Screen, headed by executive director Drew Dennis, have hatched a pilot program to bring queer films into schools around the Lower Mainland.

“It’s the after-school special we always hoped for,” enthuses the media kit for 21, a feature film by Erin Greenwell. Along with two short films (Grade 12 Queer by Canadian director Jim Lemoire and Beauteous by Giovanna Chesler), 21 is forming the vanguard for Out On Screen’s as-yet-unnamed but bold new program.

The program began two years ago as a humble test: What would happen if a queer organization brought queer cinema into Vancouver high schools? Turns out, a great deal.

At the David Thompson Secondary screening, youth from Churchill and Lord Byng high schools even trekked over to take part. Since when do youth travel to other high schools to learn? Since when do youth bus across town for an “after-school special”? Since now.

With the aide of GAB Youth Services’ facilitation skills, the screenings have opened up into broader discussions on queer high school life.

“The films allow the conversations to be pushed,” says Dennis over a double-espresso (decaf, now that the film fest is over for this year). “Youth are smart! They use these films as a springboard for really interesting discussion.”

In one discussion-starting film, Blue Haven by Julian Cautherley, two skateboarding-obsessed friends search for the perfect swimming pool to skate in and encounter, along the way, a sex-change, gangsters and, ultimately, love. It’s not exactly Tales of the City; but then these youth aren’t exactly ’70s flower power types either.

Each high school screening begins with a simple seed: the school’s GSA, which operates as a club and is sponsored by at least one teacher, expresses interest in a visit from Out On Screen and contacts the organization. The club then gets the opportunity to screen the films ahead of time. If all goes well, the students then organize a public screening for their peers, usually held at lunchtime or after classes let out. They do it on their own time, Dennis emphasizes, noting the importance of “a student-driven program.”

The films, thus far, have been shown only to a self-electing audience. But Dennis wonders whether the program could someday become a mandatory part of an academic year.

So who’s footing the bill? Out On Screen, which recently had its provincial funding cut from $32,000 down to $20,000 to run its annual film festival, has absorbed the costs. “Up to $5,000 will be going to the youth program,” says Dennis. However, where the BC government cut back, Canada Council has stepped forward. It recently gave Out On Screen $8,000 to spend exclusively on its youth initiative.

The grant means that Out On Screen will be able to expand its program five-fold this year. “We’re planning on 10 schools,” says Dennis. “And we’re looking to move into the suburbs.” For its ‘burb ventures, Out On Screen will enlist the help of Youthquest, which specializes in outreach to suburban youth.

While the average high school youth might be more inclined to watch But I’m a Cheerleader than a documentary on Stonewall, part of Out On Screen’s role is to help ensure that youth get some education along with their entertainment. “We work with youth to select the films,” says Dennis. Films produced in Canada are pushed, as are films produced by queer youth-homegrown initiatives.

For LB, the opportunity to see herself reflected could have made all the difference between life as an outcast and acceptance. While it may be too late to salvage her own high school experience, she’s hoping Out On Screen’s new project can pry open the door for the next generation of students. “I’d like to see an emphasis on youth documentaries. You could integrate them as part of drama class, part of CAPP [Career & Personal Planning], or let youth make queer films for a graduating credit,” she says.

“Movies are one of the last ways we can connect as a society-one of the last ways we really see ourselves, or hear a story,” she continues. “They’re a brief reminder of what it’s like to be a community. Films bring out compassion in people because they are a vehicle most can empathize with. Through the imagination, one can get a sense of an alternate reality, a ‘what if that was me’ feeling. That’s why films can change lives.”

* To book a film for your GSA or high school call 604.844.1615, or check out