Ryan Clayton was bullied long before he came out on his 16th birthday.
A foot shorter than most of his classmates in the rural town of Salmon Arm, he was a frequent target for verbal and physical attacks throughout elementary and high school.
“I was already so downtrodden it almost didn’t matter,” he says. “It was like, what worse can you do to me that hasn’t already been done.”
Still, he says, coming out was “terrifying.”
“I was worried my parents would kick me out. I was worried that my classmates would reject me, and some of them did. There were quite a few people who never spoke to me again.”
It’s from these experiences that Clayton has drawn over the last seven years as an advocate for anti-homophobia policies in public schools and as a facilitator of anti-homophobia workshops in more than 500 classrooms across British Columbia.
He started off by joining Qmunity’s PrideSpeak program, which trains youth to conduct workshops for other youth in Metro Vancouver.
He later reached out to his old school district and asked if he could speak at his former high school. That led to an annual tour and more engagements at other nearby schools in the North Okanagan and Columbia River regions.
“They keep asking me to come back,” the 26-year-old says.
“Because I’m from a small town, it meant way more to me to go out and reach out to rural communities,” he says.
A former co-chair of the City of Vancouver’s LGBTQ advisory committee and co-founder of the Purple Letter Campaign, Clayton continues to press the provincial government to enact a provincewide policy to address homophobia in BC schools.
He says small-town schools are no different than those in urban areas when it comes to being safe or unsafe spaces for youth who are different. But issues concerning sexual orientation and gender identity are often less discussed at home or in school, he notes.
“We like to think, with the information age and the internet, that we have tons of access to information, but you still have to know what to look up,” he says.
“In urban areas, even if people are uncomfortable with it or actively against gay rights or gay issues, they tend to have had that discussion already.”
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