Queer Education

Last week, a high school student I know sent me a message with some questions he had about, well, being gay. The questions were good ones, and I gave a lengthy response that I thought I would duplicate here…

we are talking in social class about descrimination in canada. my group got assigned descrimination based on orientation. so my question is is discrimination against gays as prevalent and widespread as the media sometimes portrays? and also does the fact [that] such a big deal is made about gay pride and the like, keep perpetuating the discrimination?? and to what extent should schools (not post secondary) embrace diversity in regards to orientation?? should schools have gay pride rallys [sic] and similar events??

[My response:] Excellent, excellent questions. Let’s see if I can do them any justice…

While in some places — big cities, say, like Toronto and Montreal and Vancouver — being gay doesn’t face very much discrimination day to day, there’s still a lot out there. In the last year or so there were something like half a dozen violent gay bashings in Vancouver alone (we’re talking people getting verbally abused and beat up, requiring emergency hospital visits, facial reconstruction, and in one case long-term coma and eventual death, just for holding hands with another man in the gay village). And while there’s a lot of acceptance by some people, I’m sure there are many who just don’t say anything out loud.

Furthermore, the farther you get from a major city, on average, the worse it is. There was a lot of latent homophobia in Whitby [Ontario, where I used to live]. It is, of course, generally worse as well in religious communities, where parents have a tendency of trying to impose their religious values on publicly-funded schools (which is, by the way, against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms).

There’s a city here in BC called Abbotsford, which is a very religious community out in farm country about an hour and a half from Vancouver. There’s a lot of discrimination there — the BC schools created a high school course called Social Justice 12 that discussed, among other things, social equality for LGBTQ people. So many parents in Abbotsford protested the course (which, let’s be clear, was optional) that the Abbotsford school board removed it from the curriculum.

Homophobia is, on average, also worse in older populations. It was the parents who had a major problem in Abbotsford; many students protested the removal of the course, held Pride rallies, and eventually got the course reinstated.

But as much as things are better in younger crowds, there’s still tons of homophobia among youth. How often do you hear “that’s so gay” in the hallways, or people calling each other “fag”? To put that in perspective — that’s about as bad for a straight person to say as it is for a white person to use the N-word.

To skip to your third question, schools are in fact the most important place to begin education and acceptance of the diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity (which are, by the way, different but equally important issues; I’d highly suggest a bit of research into that. For instance, do you know the difference between sex and gender?). Schools are where kids, teens, can actually get some education about these issues. Teachers have a responsibility to the youth to share this education — if a school has any public funding (that is, from the government), it’s bound by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which includes protecting against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Youth need to understand what homosexuality (and other orientations and gender identities) is, need to understand that being gay does not make someone any different from being straight, other than the biological fact that they are sexually attracted to members of the same sex. And furthermore, that there’s a good chance they know someone who’s gay, even if they don’t think so. There’s a lot of debate over what the percentage of homosexuals in the overall population is, but it’s likely around 5%. Even if we make a conservative estimate and say 2%, that means one of every fifty people is gay. Let’s say you go to two classes in the morning, both with 25 kids in them. At least one of them — but more likely two or three or more — are gay. There’s a very good chance one of your friends is gay.

Maybe they’re not out yet, though — but take a good listen to how your peers talk, the general attitude in the hallways at school, the joking of the boys in the change rooms for gym. Would you blame someone who wants to hide the fact that they’re gay?

The problem is, if we hide who we are, then we don’t get visibility, other people don’t see that we’re here, and that we’re not going anywhere. They don’t see that we’re really not any different from them, except what they force us to be.

Kids’ exposure to diversity — racial, religious, sexual — happens in the schools. If they’re not getting the proper education about it, they won’t know how to deal with it — and the way to deal with it is to treat everyone as equal, as they would treat themselves.

If this education is not happening in classrooms, it absolutely should happen through extracurricular groups. Does your school have a Gay-Straight Alliance or something similar? Do you recognize events like the Day of Silence? I guarantee you that there are gay kids at your school. Do they have a group in which they can feel safe, in which they can express themselves as they truly are without fear of harassment from their peers? From teachers?

My school had a GSA, but I never went. Because I was afraid of what people would think when I walked into the classroom at lunch for a meeting. Nevermind that it was supposedly for straight people too. I regret that now, not being able to have that avenue for expression, or self-education. But that’s the way it was.

It’s hard being gay.

Now back to your second question, which is actually a tougher one to answer. Does an event like a Pride Parade, which seems only to prove that queers are quite different from straight people, only make things worse? There’s actually some debate about this within the queer community itself.

What Pride does do, is create visibility. It says yes, we’re here, there are a lot of us, and we’re not going anywhere. There have actually been scientific studies (let’s see… http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=unconscious-disgust-gay-behavior&page=1 ) that say that the more people see homosexuals holding hands/kissing/etc., the more they’ll grow to accept them.

On top of that, there are certainly some people in the gay community who are a little, let’s say “wilder” than others, and may offend straight sensibilities more at an event like a Pride Parade. But hey, why not? What’s wrong with expressing yourself like that? One argument says that part of the perceived problem might just stem from prudishness — gay people are flaunting sex on the streets. But we’re all sexual creatures, what’s to hide? And if people are complaining about the wildness of our pride parties, all we have to do is point to something like Mardis Gras to show that queers aren’t unique in their penchant for making a big deal of themselves. Finally, for queers, Pride is just that — it’s a chance for us to show our pride in who we are, just as cultural festivals might do that for different ethnic groups. Just like the Calgary Stampede lets Calgarians and cowboys show pride in who they are. Just like the Olympics in Vancouver did the same for Canadians as a whole.

So, yes, making a big deal about Pride might invite some level of discrimination. In a perfect world, there would be such a total acceptance of homosexuality that it wouldn’t seem out of place, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But until that day, it’s important for us to be visible, to fight for acceptance, to work on educating the world and to shout from the highest rooftops that we’re here — everywhere.

And let’s not forget, homosexuality is still illegal in many parts of the world. It carries the death penalty in some places. It wasn’t that long ago that homosexuality was considered a disease in Canada. The rights for civil unions, gay marriage, adoption — there are still huge problems with this in the States nevermind, say, Uganda.

There is no doubt that gay rights and the acceptance of diversity in sexual orientation and gender identity has improved in leaps and bounds, even in the last few years. But there’s still an extremely long way to go, even just in Canada. Homophobia is still rampant — and that won’t change until there is far better education in public schools. Maybe that has to start with better education about it for teachers, some of whom themselves might not know the difference between sex and gender. Regardless, it has to start.

Some more resources and articles you can read:

and most of the blog posts at http://www.slapupsidethehead.com/

A little research can go a long way. Education can go even further.

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