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4 min

When students take the lead

Gulf Islands school district passes anti-homophobia policy

Queer and allied students of the Gulf Islands Secondary School’s gay-straight alliance (GSA) have helped create what may be the first-ever student-driven school district anti-homophobia policy in BC.

“It shows youth can make a difference within the system and youth can be social justice activists,” says James Chamberlain of Gay and Lesbian Educators of BC.

The Gulf Islands policy commits to taking proactive steps to ensure all queer and questioning students feel welcome in school, and prohibits all forms of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

It’s the fourth such policy passed by a school district in BC. Vancouver, Victoria and most recently the Southeast Kootenays passed similar policies in the last two years, while BC’s remaining 56 school boards lag behind.

Jacob Schweda, a former Gulf Islands Secondary School (GISS) student and founder of its GSA, was “instrumental” in creating the Gulf Islands policy, credits school board chair May McKenzie. Schweda, who won the 2005 Xtra West Hero award for Youth Activist of the Year, now attends Lester B Pearson College near Victoria.

“It was completely student- driven,” says Schweda, who started Grade 9 at GISS in 2003. At the time, he notes, there was no mention of homophobia or heterosexism at the district level. The first step was starting a GSA, which then contacted the school principal about reforming the district’s policy.

“It had to be student-driven because there was no action from the district,” Schweda says.

The GSA initially approached the school board about creating a policy last fall. At the time, McKenzie admits the board thought the existing, general anti-violence policy was adequate in protecting queer and questioning students. She credits Schweda’s passion with winning them over.

The policy, passed on Jun 28, states: “The board will promote a safe environment, free from harassment and discrimination, by encouraging proactive strategies and guidelines to ensure lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, intersex, queer and questioning students, employees and families are welcomed and included in all aspects of education, life and treated with respect and dignity.”

It also provides that “Any language or behaviour that denigrates, labels, stereotypes, incites hatred, prejudice, discrimination, harassment towards students or employees on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identification will not be tolerated.”

The policy includes a Dec 31 deadline to ensure students, teachers and employees are aware of the policy and how to enforce it, though a draft procedure is already in place, notes McKenzie.

Meanwhile, the Gulf Islands GSA is trying to get into Grade 9-11 classes to raise awareness about the new policy, says co-chair Clare Lannan.

Lannan is disappointed the school did not include the new policy in this fall’s student handbook, which highlighted other district policies. She hopes the policy will be introduced in school newsletters and at parent advisory council meetings, so parents will be better informed about it.
The GSA’s teacher sponsor, Bill Turner, says he’d like the principal or superintendent to e-mail every teacher about the policy to explain “the background, importance and need for it.”
Schweda hopes sexual health classes will be reformed so gay and straight health issues will be given equal billing. He would also like to see schools and the district encourage students to take the new Grade 12 Social Justice course being piloted in 2007 to “get the message out” to younger students.

For the most part, homophobia on the islands is “not overt” but hidden, says Turner. “It’s uncomfortable for some people to acknowledge.”

A former president of Gays and Lesbians of Salt Spring Island, Turner still recalls manning the group’s booth at the annual fall fair in September. “People I knew came by and said hi. But some people I knew looked at the booth and averted their eyes from me.”

It was this less overt homophobia that surfaced while the new policy was being debated, suggests Schweda.

Not one board member voted against the policy, notes McKenzie. However, Turner observed that one board member who is a born-again Christian “didn’t say a word” during the policy discussions. “I think he would have been shot down if he had said anything. It wouldn’t have been politically correct.”

“I felt not opposition, but some people didn’t think there was a necessity for it to be in place, that it could just be tacked on to the anti-violence policy,” adds Lannan.
“A lot of people claim this place is very accepting. But my community is the school and I notice [homophobia] a lot more there,” she continues.

Much of the school-based homophobia is seen in the language used by some students. Hearing “fag” or “homo” in the hallways is common, she says, though she notes the phrase, “That’s so gay,” is losing steam. “It seemed to go out of style, almost.”

Interestingly, it’s students who will call their peers on the inappropriate use of homophobic labels, while teachers “say they don’t notice it,” says Lannan.

“They don’t see it and don’t respond to it when it’s thrown out in the classroom,” agrees Turner. “It’s because of their own discomfort with it.”

As more teachers learn about the new Gulf Islands policy, Turner hopes they will intervene in such incidents and that, eventually, queer and questioning students will feel better about being out in school.

“There is an awful lot of work to be done. There has been no same-sex couple at a dance or even present holding hands,” says Turner, who looks forward to the day when it will be just as commonplace to see a same-sex couple kiss in the hallways between classes as straight couples have done for years.

What advice do the folks behind the policy have for students in other districts?
“It’s a pretty long road,” Lannan warns. Starting a GSA if one doesn’t already exist is a crucial first step, she advises. Students should back up their demands with research and cite incidents of homophobia in their schools.

Schweda says striking a balance between working for change and remembering to have fun is crucial. “You need to take care of yourself too. You can’t stress. Stay positive, enthusiastic and try to have fun in the process,” he says.