In tiny Gimli, Manitoba, about an hour north of Winnipeg, progressive teachers at the local high school have signs on their classroom doors that declare Safe Person, Safe Space, students are filling out a national survey on gay and lesbian issues, and the student-run Social Justice Committee just completed a 20-minute DVD about homophobia called In the Locker.
But 10 years after Manitoba had a divisive debate over anti-homophobia education — that queers technically won — schools like Gimli High are still the exception rather than the rule when it comes to tackling gay and lesbian issues.
It’s a “huge challenge” getting schools to talk openly about homosexuality, says Shelly Smith, executive director of Winnipeg’s Rainbow Resource Centre. “We’re either not getting into schools, or it’s the same schools every time.”
In April 1999, the Winnipeg School Division (which is one of seven in the city) became the first of 38 in the province to enact policies to support gay and lesbian students and staff, with mandatory anti-homophobia training, lessons on non-hetero life, and several hundred dollars a year for each school to buy queer-themed books.
But no other school board has tackled the issue since, meaning that local politicians are forcing students and staff to bring up the still-touchy subject of homosexuality themselves.
“There are lots of kids actively seeking support but they’re not being taken seriously,” says Smith. When it comes to homophobic bullying, “many schools still choose to look the other way.”
And for the most part, it’s going to stay that way, says Catherine Taylor, until school boards make it clear that being gay is OK. Taylor is the head of Egale’s national education survey on queer issues in the classroom. Earlier this month, the first phase of her survey concluded that queer kids who go to schools with explicit anti-homophobia policies are better off.
According to the report, they are “less likely to hear homophobic comments or to be targeted by verbal or physical harassment, they are more likely to report it to staff or parents when they are, and staff is more likely to intervene.”
Taylor says that Manitoba school boards that fail to address queer issues head-on are sending this message: “Our issues are not fit for public conversation.”
She says that Manitoba’s NDP government needs to take a leadership role, too. The NDP has done a good job of instituting specific policies and programs for Aboriginal students, she says. “It’s about time for this, too.”
Smith confirms that Winnipeg School Division has the best record of supporting queer kids. Several high schools in the division have gay-straight alliance clubs. As well, General Wolfe School, a junior high, held a Human Rights Day with half-hour lessons on gay rights.
But there are also signs of hope outside the division. At Oak Park High School, students organized a Day Against Homophobia, while St James Collegiate invited a coordinator from the Rainbow Resource Centre to conduct workshops on trans issues. Louis Riel and Seven Oaks School Divisions are both participating in phase two of Egale’s education survey (as is the Winnipeg School Division).
“Rural schools are really difficult,” says Smith, yet there are signs of progress there, too. Prairie Spirit School Division, which oversees the province’s Hutterite colonies, is getting its students to fill out Egale’s survey. Selkirk High School, not far from Winnipeg, is the first school outside the city to organize a gay-straight alliance club.
Then there’s the gold-star of gay-positive schools in rural Manitoba: Gimli High.
There, students on the Social Justice Committee are busy packaging, labelling and mailing their anti-homophobia DVD, In the Locker, to schools across the province. So far, they have 21 orders.
But it’s not the local school board that’s taking the initiative on queer issues. “Kids are the driving force,” says teacher Rob Jantz. “You need a special mix of people who are willing to be out there with their views.”
Last spring, one of Winnipeg’s top young athletes left one school as a girl. In the fall, the 15-year-old reappeared at another. But this time, as a boy.
The Rainbow Resource Centre helped the trans student make the switch. Shelly Smith says he’s doing well and his parents are “extremely supportive,” but he doesn’t want to be a “poster child” for other trans kids. So she’s not divulging his name.
Slowly but surely, Smith says, Winnipeg schools — especially within the Winnipeg School Division — are acknowledging trans students and making accommodations for them. Some are even handing over staff washroom keys to trans kids, so they don’t have the dilemma of choosing between boys’ and girls’ facilities.
With higher-than-average suicide rates for queer kids, growing up can be a “life or death situation” for some, she says. Schools are starting to get the message that being trans means “more than just someone deciding one day to change who they are.”