Policy into Practice – Addressing Homophobia
by Kate Lushington
A student groans to a friend, “That assignment was so gay.” His teacher calls him on his choice of words. “Oh, I don’t mean gay like you, sir, I mean gay like retarded.” Now it’s the teacher’s turn to groan.
Gay. Sissy. Fag. Dyke. “These words hold a lot of power, especially ‘fag,’ ” says Julie Slimmon, OCT, a guidance counsellor in a large rural high school in the Waterloo Region DSB.
The statistics support her. From Grades 9 to 11, 34 per cent of boys and 22 per cent of girls report being subjected to anti-gay slurs and name-calling, according to a study of 23 schools in southwestern Ontario released by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in 2008.
Yves Carrière, OCT, teaches Grade 7 French, math, science and visual arts at École secondaire publique De La Salle, Ottawa. He hears ‘gay’ a lot.
He says, “I believe they use this term almost automatically, without even thinking about it. They don’t say it to insult someone who is gay. They can’t see the difference.”
However, Carrière, who is openly gay, is quick to point it out when he hears it. “When a student uses this word, I ask, ‘Do you mean stupid? If so, then use the word ‘stupid.’ If you thought such and such a film was ‘stupid,’ use that term. If the film doesn’t deal with homosexuality, it’s wrong for you to use ‘gay’ because you may be insulting someone who is gay or whose parents are gay.’ ”
“It’s really hard for LGBTQ youth because they are constantly hearing insults,” Carrière sighs. Indeed, for students who may be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ), school can be a place to be hidden and afraid. Data from Egale Canada’s school climate survey released last March reveal that 60 per cent of LGBTQ students feel unsafe in school, with 40 per cent at risk of dropping out.
Despite all the work done in Ontario’s education system to foster equity, inclusiveness and safe schools, there are still some groups of students who face discriminatory barriers. The Ministry of Education issued a policy directive in June 2009 that boards review, develop, expand and monitor “equity and inclusive education policy” to promote human rights as set out in the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The policy is to be embedded in all aspects of the education system.
The power of story
Just being an example of a professional, competent human being who happens to be gay is huge.
When then-education-minister Kathleen Wynne spoke publicly about homophobia in the context of the province’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy (Realizing the Promise of Diversity, released in April 2009), she didn’t begin with statistics. She told a story about a girl whose paper was returned marked F because she wrote about her two mothers.
For many teachers, sexual diversity is a difficult topic to broach. For others, it is the story of their own lives.
Slimmon says, “Just being an example of a professional, competent human being who happens to be gay is huge.”
She came out professionally herself about nine years ago. She was teaching English and art at the time. “Then kids came out to me. A couple of kids had been bullied. They moved away. So I wanted to create a safe space.”
Slimmon formed the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), an extracurricular club for gay students and their allies, which began by meeting off site. The GSA is now an official club at Waterloo Oxford DSS, thanks in part to a board-wide equity audit in the Waterloo Region DSB.
Slimmon also continues to model the change she wants to see. “I’m a guidance counsellor. You just have to step into my office, and you can see pictures of my family and posters that support LGBTQ issues and equity for all cultures. It creates a positive space.”
The equity audit was three years ago, and according to Slimmon there has since been a huge sea change in attitude at all levels of the board and administration. “In the past, individuals did the work, but they were not supported by the board. Now they are,” she says.
It wasn’t quite three years ago, in November 2007, when 13-year-old Shaquille Wisdom committed suicide as a result of homophobic harassment in Durham. Computer science teacher David Martin, OCT, from Maxwell Heights SS in the Durham DSB, says, “He told a friend over the summer that he was gay, and by the time he set foot in Grade 9 it was all over the Internet. There was a GSA in his school, but he didn’t have time to find it.”
Martin says, “For some of our students it’s a matter of life and death, not just quality of life – though, if you’re denying who you are for your whole life, it will have a terrible impact on your quality of life.”
Gay himself, Martin knows the pressure students can be under to hide their orientation.
He is active in OSSTF District 13, encouraging the formation of Gay Straight Alliances board-wide (13 out of 21 high schools now have them) and supporting them with an annual conference at the board office and with plays and activities.
Martin affirms that teachers, both gay and straight, play a crucial part in positively transforming a school climate. He says, “Homophobia is alive and well. If you can’t talk about it, you can’t deal with it. Anything that breaks the silence is good.”
Not about sex
Heterosexism is the assumption that all people are heterosexual and that any deviation from this perceived reality is abnormal. It forces young individuals to prove themselves or to hide.
Dougall Newport, OCT, tells a story about her son, an only child with two moms and no pets, who came home from school with a cut-out picture showing a mom and dad, two kids, a cat and a dog.
“He felt bad. He didn’t want to show the picture. It stayed in his backpack.”
She checked in with his teacher, who had not thought about the rigid idea of family that the cut-outs conveyed. For her that was not important since the exercise was about cutting and how to write a sentence.
At école secondaire publique De La Salle in Ottawa, Club de diversité (Diversity Club) members help to create a safe and inclusive environment.
Teachers need training, tools and resources. But they also need to be invited to re-examine why they first went into teaching, according to Chris D’Souza, OCT. D’Souza recently conducted a workshop on equity and inclusion for seven Catholic school boards, receiving standing ovations. He developed and delivers this in-service workshop as part of the plan outlined in the Ministry’s equity strategy, for which he was a key member of the writing team. He also chairs the Equity Summit of AMENO (Antiracist and Multicultural Education Network of Ontario).
D’Souza has infectious energy and enthusiasm for his avocation, despite the challenges of reconciling the directive of equity for sexual minorities with the denominational rights of separate schools. He says, “There’s a perception that homophobia and faith accommodation might be contentious – but in reality our approach, to love and respect all students, fits directly into the Gospel values of Catholic pedagogy.”
Currently, D’Souza is on secondment from the Dufferin-Peel Catholic DSB to York University’s faculty of education, which is the first faculty in the province to offer a mandatory full-time, year-long course on teaching and inclusive education.
Homophobia is part of an overarching inequity model based on power imbalance, he explains. This model includes the intersecting identities of race, gender and culture, as well as ability and sexual orientation. “Orientation does not exist in a vacuum. It is only a part of the fabric of the person.”
D’Souza observes that teachers have tremendous power. “We must constantly use this power to eradicate any form of discrimination on all levels.”
Don’t ask, don’t tell
At Central Technical School in Toronto, the Grade 10 law class of Stan Klich, OCT, watches a young actor perform a 30-minute monologue.
Get Yourself Home Skyler James is based on the story of a 19-year-old US Army recruit. Under the army’s 1992 “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Skyler has kept the fact that she’s a lesbian to herself, but the guys in her unit discover the truth. After relentless and terrifying harassment involving ugly words and physical intimidation, which she endures in silence, she is threatened with gang rape and flees to Canada to claim refugee status.
The story is designed to prompt discussion in an intimate environment. Roseneath Theatre stages the high-octane production in the homeroom of the Grade 10 class, while the Toronto DSB provides trained facilitation. Today, equity consultant Steven Solomon is on hand to lead the discussion.
“What do you think the rule is for gay people in the military in Canada?” Solomon asks, starting in a safe zone.
“In Canada? We don’t care,” says a laid-back boy from the safety of his desk.
Solomon agrees. Canada is indeed in the vanguard of human rights legislation. Discrimination within the armed forces on the basis of gender or sexual orientation is against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
An in-class performance of Get Yourself Home Skyler James at R.H. King Academy in Toronto prompted discussion in an intimate environment.
“But what if someone comes to the semi-formal in your school and brings a same-sex date?” he asks, bringing the topic home.
The room is so quiet a hushed sound of “eeew!” can be heard.
Slowly the class agrees that we do care. It may be all right in the military or in theory, but at the semi-formal there’d be embarrassment. People would be laughed at.
“Is this equal? Is this fair? What can be done about this? What would make a difference?” Solomon asks.
“Speaking up?” suggests one boy.
“True,” says Solomon. “But is that easy or hard?”
The class is animated about why it would be hard. One quiet boy puts his hand up for easy. “It would be easy to speak up if you already had friends who were gay or lesbian,” he says.
It’s all about context. Teachers prepare the students and follow up with activities from the study guide. For Klich, the play’s presence in the school sends a message. “The message is being received by the community; now the complexities have to be addressed.”
Why is hate okay?
At Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School, drama teacher Tracey Hughes, OCT, describes a show her Grade 9 class created in May 2008. Coming Out Proud was a series of vignettes based on stories the 26 students had heard from classmates or experienced themselves. “It was anti-homophobia in a celebratory way,” she says.
“I could never have written anything like they wrote,” says Hughes, who is straight and runs the school GSA with her gay male colleague. “Straight and gay students participated in a scene with boys kissing boys. At the Q and A they were asked if they were comfortable with this.”
“Why wouldn’t we be?” they replied, “Why is hate okay?”
One youth in the audience declared, “I’ve been contemplating suicide; this play made me realize I’m not alone.” Another said, “I’ve been gay for six years. I can come out now because you’ve inspired me.”
At Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School, drama teacher Tracey Hughes and math teacher Dan Kivari provide teacher support for the school’s GSA club and integrate anti-homophobia content into the curriculum of regular classes as well.
The positive response led to several invitations to perform Coming Out Proud: at a Say What youth conference for the Durham DSB, a meeting of chiefs of police, a tour of Grade 7 and 8 schools, and a conference of the Peterborough AIDS Resource Network.
Currently vice-president of her local Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation branch, Hughes is on the writing and presentation team for an anti-homophobia and violence-against-women workshop titled From Pain to Pride.
Her colleague in the GSA, math teacher Dan Kivari, OCT, uses data about LGBTQ experience in his method analysis and statistics class.
“The artsy stereotype needs to be broken,” says Kivari, noting that not all gay male students are involved in drama or the arts. “There are gay mechanics and hockey players too.”
In October, during LGBTQ history month, Kivari posts pictures of gay people and their varied contributions to society. One is mathematician Alan Turing, an early inventor of the computer who broke the German Enigma code during World War II. Because homosexuality was against the law, he was blackmailed and committed suicide in 1954.
That was more than 50 years ago, and laws have changed. Attitudes are still changing.
The rainbow sign is a powerful symbol. In école secondaire l’Essor it’s the way Marc Dubois, OCT, comes out to his school – by putting a rainbow on his door. L’Essor is a small school in a francophone community near Windsor. Dubois, who is also an elected member of the College Council, suggests there is a cultural difference between the two language solitudes when it comes to being gay positive in the separate school system.
“My classroom is a space where people are accepted for who they are,” he says. “I have never had any problems. I’m the president of Windsor Pride. People know that and I have no fear of being out.”
For Marc Dubois – a math teacher at école secondaire l’Essor and president of Windsor Pride – the rainbow sign is a powerful symbol.
He hears that there is talk about the situation in other schools but feels that his board supports its students and teachers.
Dubois is a math teacher, so there is little opportunity for the kind of class discussion on social issues found in drama or history. “But in math class,” he says, “it isn’t necessary to add anything to the curriculum – you can just be inclusive in the written questions. For example, instead of writing, ‘If Jack and Jill were to buy a house at this mortgage rate,’ you could write, ‘If Jack and John were to buy a house …’ ”
That’s breaking the stereotype and following the Ministry directive to embed inclusiveness.
The biggest closet
“Education is still the biggest closet,” maintains Solomon, the equity facilitator for Skyler James. “If teachers come out, it makes a difference.”
But coming out can be professionally and personally risky. In the Waterloo Region DSB, Newport tells a story about the time she presented a National Film Board video clip to her Grade 7 class. It showed teens and kids with two mums or two dads going to the park, having a birthday party, talking about their lives. The discussion became heated.
“The trouble with gays is that they flaunt it,” says one kid. “Gay people should be rounded up and put on an island.”
Another kid says it doesn’t matter who you love – love is what matters.
A more popular student dismisses this idea. “If you admit to being gay, you deserve anything that happens to you.”
An art teacher at Kitchener’s Laurentian Senior PS, Newport decided when her son was born that she had to come out. She didn’t want to deny the reality of her family. But she needed to feel safe.
Initially reluctant, her administration eventually supported her decision, and together they prepared a carefully focused lesson plan on families.
In the public realm we need to be respectful of people and their differences.
The first period covers the concept of human rights and the Ontario Human Rights Code. The second period covers the constellation of different families: adopted kids, divorced parents, stepfamilies, grandparents, gay parents, what a family looks like.
In the third period students make posters of their own families. And in the fourth period they share the posters and discuss them. At this point Newport introduces her partner with their son. The vice-principal also agreed to come in for a visit with his adopted daughters. In the fifth and final period Newport discusses the issues raised with her class.
The kids are now thoughtful, honest and respectful, Newport reports. “One girl asked the best question: “In my family I am taught that being gay is wrong. How do I reconcile the respect I have for you with what I’m being taught at home?”
“I told her we are allowed to believe whatever we want, but here in the public realm we need to be respectful of people and their differences.”
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) has published Newport’s story as We’re Having a Baby in a K–8 resource kit titled The Power of Story (see Resources).
Not everyone can use personal experience as a teachable moment linked to curriculum in this way. Newport’s family lesson plan works so well because of the trust built between students and their middle-school homeroom teacher.
Human rights challenge
The son of Ellen Chambers-Picard, OCT, was eight when the harassment started. Ten years later, the April before he graduated from high school in Thunder Bay, he filed a human rights complaint against his school for “failure to provide a safe environment.” The case was settled in 2005, and the Lakehead DSB has made changes as a result of the suit.
A Senior Kindergarten and Special Education teacher on full-time release to work as president of the Lakehead local of the ETFO, Chambers-Picard was appalled that she had not been able to protect her own child. “I didn’t want to step in, as I was afraid to make it worse for him. How wrong I was. It launched me into a whole area I knew nothing about, something I’m now firmly committed to,” she says.
We are reaching a tipping point in our culture where the status quo can no longer be homophobic.
Chambers-Picard became an active volunteer member of the education committee of Egale Canada, a national organization that advances equality and justice for LGBTQ people and their families. Five years ago Egale decided to collect statistical data through its school climate survey on the LGBTQ experience at school.
Schools must be a safe place, especially since many LGBTQ kids don’t know if they will be accepted when they go home. And even when parents are accepting, they may not understand the depth of the problem, as Chambers-Picard understands only too well.
Her goal is to be part of the solution. For that to happen, she believes, the school system must work with the LGBTQ community as allies.
A lot has changed in Thunder Bay. There are now GSAs at all four high schools, along with initiatives such as Pink Day (see Resources). A diversity committee is active within the board, and training workshops with the local AIDS committee and Pride Central are organized for teachers.
Chambers-Picard herself facilitates a day session on addressing homophobia for Lakehead University’s faculty of education.
Imagining the future
Teachers are making themselves part of the solution through GSAs by telling their stories and using their individual skills and subject areas. As a result of the Ministry directive, more resources are becoming available to help teachers lead the changes.
For example, a team at the Waterloo DSB produced a powerful DVD called LGBTQ OutLoud with the help of Brooke Younge, a facilitator from a local program called OK2BME. The modular training tool for staff and student groups includes a video in which diverse students and teachers (including Slimmons and Newport) share their experience and hopes. Other modules on the DVD offer suggestions for ways to handle various situations or issues, including responses to the ubiquitous, “It’s so gay.” Humour for example: “How can that test be gay? I don’t see it having a relationship with another test.”
But as Younge points out, it is the personal stories that create the change, “because they’re about real people. Heterosexism and homophobia really impact everyone. They put people in boxes so they are not true to who they really are.”
The Council of the Ontario College of Teachers has launched a consultation, involving education stakeholders, about the content of an Additional Qualification course for teaching LGBTQ students.
The College Council launched consultations this spring with both French- and English-language stakeholders about the content of an Additional Qualification course for teaching LGBTQ students.
For the College’s Deputy Registrar Joe Jamieson, OCT, it’s not just a question of following a Ministry of Education directive but of allowing for the full range of human potential for students and teachers alike.
Imagining the future, he thinks about his five-year-old nephew. He hopes that when the time comes for his nephew to affirm his sexuality, whatever that might be, there will be no need for coming out because by then a person’s orientation will be as unremarkable as whether that person has blue eyes or brown.
But until that day, says Jamieson, “it’s great that those of us in the LGBTQ community who are in education leadership have the opportunity to be role models, so that LGBTQ teachers in this profession can feel safe and honoured.”
Chris D’Souza is optimistic. “We are reaching a tipping point in our culture where the status quo can no longer be homophobic.”
This is the sea change Julie Slimmon refers to, as she reflects on her own experience as well as all the stories in the OutLoud training DVD. “We talk about the experience of the negative, which is good to know about, but also the positive, which is even better. There is movement. We have a ways to go, but there’s a convergence of things bubbling and brewing for change.”
“We’re Having a Baby,” in The Power of Story, Volume 2, K–8 resource kit
OK2BME news, events, video clips, blogs and links (www.ok2bme.ca)
LGBTQ OutLoud training DVD (Deepa Ahluwalia at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Pink Day, a day against bullying, discrimination and homophobia, started in Nova Scotia
OSSTF workshop From Pain to Pride: Gender-Based Violence and Homophobia
Free resource materials concerning International Day Against Homophobia
Realizing the Promise of Diversity and other documents related to the Ministry of Education’s diversity policy