Despite progressive policies and media attention homophobic bullying remains a dangerous problem Shameal Daniel knew being gay in high school would be tough the day a student told him, “You should be dead.”
Daniel, an artsy and outspoken student who loves painting, listening to Linkin Park and watching Glee, says he was targeted by homophobic bullies beginning in Grade 9. “It started with kids calling me a fag. You know, the usual stuff,” says Daniel, who moved to Toronto from the island of Antigua in the Caribbean when he was nine. He’s now 18 and in Grade 12.
None of his tormentors got suspended because the bullies at his school would pretend to act innocent whenever a teacher intervened, he says. “Except for the time when students threw rocks and snowballs at me,” he adds. Then there was the time a student threatened Daniel with a knife because, according to Daniel, he “didn’t like the fact I was gay.” In a school with no gay-straight alliance or LGBT resources, Daniel felt utterly alone, and often contemplated suicide. “I’d tell my friends I wanted to kill myself, and they’d start crying,” he says. Daniel is now a student at the Triangle Program, an alternative school for LGBT students seeking refuge from homophobic bullying.
It’s a story no friend or parent wants to hear. However, in light of a recent spike in media reports in the US and Canada about gay, lesbian and transgender teens killing themselves due to homophobic bullying, Daniel’s brush with attempted suicide sounds all too familiar. Today’s news, it seems, has become a eulogy to gay teens bullied to death because of their sexuality (or perceived sexuality). Homophobic bullying in schools is very real — even in Toronto, a city’s whose school boards have equity policies that are the envy of progressive policy makers in most parts of the world. Still, the system isn’t flawless. Youth advocates say educators, save for a few leaders, are not responding quickly enough to stop homophobic bullying.
Interventions in schools are “quite often reactive, not proactive,” says Anna Penner, program coordinator of TEACH, an anti-homophobia workshop project led by students between the ages of 16 and 22. Started in 1992 by Planned Parenthood Toronto, TEACH workshops encourage students to think critically about the negative impact homophobia has on LGBT teens. Schools will invite TEACH students into classrooms to speak… but often, it’s too late. “We often find we’re dealing with something that has already happened to a youth, instead of cutting it off at its root,” says Penner.
Lives could have been saved. In 2007, there was Shaquille Wisdom, a 13-year-old student at Ajax High School in Durham Region, who hung himself because of homophobic bullying. Recently, there was Tyler Clementi, 18, a freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who plummeted off the George Washington Bridge after his dorm mate allegedly secretly streamed video of Clementi having sex with a man; Asher Brown, 13, from Houston, Texas, who shot himself in the head after being bullied at school (earlier Brown had revealed to his stepfather that he was gay). Mere hours before Spirit Day, a national LGBT anti-bullying campaign on Oct 20 that urged people to wear purple, Corey Jackson, a 19-year-old student at Oakland University in Michigan hanged himself. The headlines go on.
“Youth who take their own lives have been pushed into a corner and made to think that there is no joy or option for them. They’ve been made to feel that way because of their peers,” says Jennifer Fodden, executive director of Toronto’s LGBT Youth Line, a toll-free Ontario-wide peer-support phone service for youth in crisis. Fodden feels the media reports on gay teen suicide do not necessarily indicate an acute crisis. In light of all the coverage, however, she says, “calls to the Youth Line have gone up.”
The spike in gay suicide reports is what prompted syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage to launch the It Gets Better project, a popular anti-suicide Internet campaign urging people to make YouTube videos that stress the message to LGBT youth that life is worth living. Several celebrities have recorded videos, including Ellen DeGeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, Kathy Griffin, Adam Lambert and Perez Hilton. Even US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and President Barack Obama have gone viral.
“For every youth that commits suicide, there are hundreds of others who think about it, or make attempts,” says Fodden. “A light is being shone on something that has happened consistently, and quietly, for a long period of time.”
In 2009, Egale Canada, a gay rights lobby group, pioneered the First National Climate Survey on Homophobia in Canadian Schools, a report that surveyed thousands of students to identify and measure the extent of homophobia in high schools. It found that three-quarters of LGBT students feel unsafe in at least one place at school, such as a change room or hallway; six out of 10 reported being verbally harassed about their sexual orientation. The numbers are higher for trans students.
“I think it’s a crisis when we’re ignoring it and allowing this to go on,” says Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale. Kennedy says Canada’s federal government isn’t taking the stand it should to eradicate homophobia in schools. “They have to start talking about this,” she says.
Egale is currently seeking support for MyGSA.ca, its website that shows parents, educators and LGBT students how to start a gay-straight alliance (GSA) and make schools safer. Egale’s annual fundraiser this year raised $60,000 for the initiative, which includes assembling gay-straight alliance kits for schools.
Twenty-year-old Hannah Dees only wishes she had access to a gay-straight alliance while attending high school in Barrie. “I came out when I was 12,” says Dees, who now lives in Toronto and studies social work at Ryerson University. Feeling “numb” from loneliness and her high school’s lack of LGBT resources, Dees says she spiraled into a depression as a teen. “I started to cut myself,” she says. “I wondered how anyone could ever love me.” She developed an eating disorder.
It wasn’t until her mother found a suicide note Dees wrote that the student sought counselling, which helped. So did meeting another lesbian student. “I met a girl on the cheerleading team,” she says. That cheerleader wound up being Dees’ date to her Grade 12 prom.
On the evening of Oct 6, Dees was one of more than 500 people who gathered at Church and Wellesley streets in Toronto’s gay village for a candlelight vigil to commemorate young lives lost to homophobic bullying. Facing the bright lights of television news cameras, she shared her story, alongside other queer youth who had experienced bullying.
Local musician Vivek Shraya organized the event as “an emotional response” to the international media’s coverage of gay teen suicides. Shraya, 29, says he was called “fag” everyday from Grades 7 to 12. “I used to write suicide letters on a regular basis,” says the activist, who works as a human rights officer at George Brown College. “The thing that kept me alive was imagining my mom finding my body,” he says.
In 2007, a report by the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops noted that suicide rates among LGBT students are higher than among their heterosexual peers. It was this report, among others, that prompted Ontario’s Ministry of Education to introduce the Equity and Inclusion Strategy, a program that requires school boards to develop policies that address homophobia, gender-based violence, racism, bullying and sexual harassment in publicly funded schools.
Ontario’s latest Safe Schools initiative is Bill 157, “Keeping our Kids Safe at School,” which came into effect on Feb 1, 2010. It mandates creating positive spaces for LGBT kids in schools, says Ken Jeffers, coordinator for the newly formed Gender-Based Violence Office at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). Jeffers’ team trains teachers about homophobia and develops anti-bullying strategies for schools. “If a student wants to start a GSA, school administrators are now obligated to comply,” he says. Bill 157 also requires educators to report homophobic and gender-based bullying, provide information to students wishing to discuss their identity or sexuality, and conduct routine surveys that measure the kinds of harassment students are facing.
Bill 157 directly cites the words “gay-straight alliance,” “homophobia” and “gender-based violence,” outlining Ontario students’ legal right to be gay, lesbian or transgender at school, whether students, or even teachers, like it or not.
Are Catholic schools obeying the province’s anti-bullying and equity initiatives? “Do we honour the Ontario Human Rights Code? Yes, says Patrick Keyes, superintendent of Equity and Inclusive Education at the Toronto District Catholic School Board. “It’s how we go about doing it.”
Catholic schools, for one, circulate an annual student survey that evaluates each student’s experience with bullying; “sexual orientation” was added to the survey just this year, says Keyes. Catholic schools allow gay-straight alliances, but chances are they won’t be called that. “The term ‘gay-straight alliance’ is used by gay organizations. Do we want to be aligned with a gay organization? Not necessarily,” Keyes says. “We have student groups that discuss social justice issues, like homophobia.”
It’s clear Catholic officials are struggling to comply with the new policy. “One of the real problems is if we’re liaising with organizations that support gay marriage and gay sexual activity. It’s tough for a [Catholic] school board to liaison if an organization holds those positions,” says Keyes. It’s a compromise between competing sides, he says. “There are religious families who would see homosexual activity as sinful. Are their rights being honoured?”
Catholic schools take a “pastoral care” approach in helping gay students, says Keyes, “to care for how a person is feeling and always show compassion.”
Clare Nobbs, coordinator of community programs at Supporting Our Youth (SOY), an LGBT youth support program at the Sherbourne Health Centre, says that SOY’s website, a resource for LGBT youth, was once blocked by the Catholic school system’s computer server. She says the block has since been lifted. “Anything that restricts one’s access to a healthy self-image and attitude is problematic,” she says.
Some Catholic schools make an effort to reach out to gay teens. “The Dufferin-Peel Catholic School Board called us about our Pride Prom [for LGBT students]. They wanted to do something similar,” says Nobbs. There’s also what’s called the Catholic Student Leadership Impact Team, a board-run initiative where students address social issues, like LGBT inclusion.
At the TDSB, Bill 157 complements the board’s own equity policies, which have been in place for nearly a decade. “I’m convinced some schools are running with it,” says Steven Solomon, a social worker at the TDSB’s Triangle Program. Many Toronto schools, he says, have embraced LGBT initiatives, such as starting GSAs or promoting Pink Shirt Day, a day where staff and students wear pink to raise awareness about bullying. But positive change is not happening everywhere. “I wouldn’t be surprised if not all schools have taken it up with enthusiasm.”
Solomon, who taught 300 diversity workshops in 25 different schools last year, says it’s hard holding schools accountable for practising what anti-bullying legislation preaches. There are amazing teachers, and there are teachers who “just don’t buy into this kind of work,” says Solomon. “Most often it’s an LGBT parent who takes the school to task,” he says. Last year Solomon spoke to 100 LGBT students who contacted the Triangle Program because they didn’t feel safe at school. And it wasn’t just kids in Mississauga or Richmond Hill. “People think the suburbs are more problematic,” says Solomon. “Not the case. A well-to-do neighbourhood doesn’t mean more accepting.”
Even the provincial government has difficulty practising what it preaches. Back in April, Premier Dalton McGuinty scrapped proposed changes to Ontario’s sex ed program for elementary schools. One proposed change was to teach young students about diversity, such as same-sex families. Educators and activists argue it’s never too early to address this kind of diversity work. “The proposed sex ed changes would have brought a positive change in young kids,” says Shraya. Those changes might have made a world of difference to the next batch of queer teenagers making their way through high school.
The onus to protect our children’s lives is on school staff, whether they work in elementary or high schools, in the public, private or Catholic systems. A principal setting a good example can make all the difference. “There are teachers who are afraid of interrupting homophobia because they don’t want to be identified as queer,” says Clare Nobbs at SOY. “If it’s only queer teachers who are stepping up, schools will continue to be dangerous places.”
Despite progress made at the policy level, the religious and political concerns of adults are too often given precedence over the rights and concerns of youth. Until that changes, there will continue to be victims of homophobic bullying. And survivors. Survivors like Shameal Daniel, who’s planning to leave alternative schooling this year to attend an arts high school in Scarborough. He hopes to get into OCAD and major in visual arts. Before ending our interview, he insists on sending a message to gay teens contemplating suicide that they’re not alone. “They gotta stick through it,” he says. “Stick with your friends and do what you love to do.
Where to find − or offer − help
Youth Line Toll-free Ontariowide peer-support phone line for youth in crisis. 1 (800) 268-9688. youthline.ca. Line Art, a fundraising auction for the Youth Line, is Wed, Nov 10.
Egale National gay lobby group with a strong focus on schools. (416) 964-7887. egale.ca.
MyGSA Egale website for parents, educators and students wishing to start a gay-straight alliance in schools. mygsa.ca.
TEACH (Teens Educating and Confronting Homophobia) Offers anti-homophobia peer education in high schools and community settings across the city. Run by Planned Parenthood Toronto. (416) 961-0113. ppt.on.ca/anti-homophobia_teach.
Triangle Program Canada’s only high school classroom for LGBT students. Part of the Oasis Alternative Secondary School. triangleprogram.ca.
SOY A Toronto-based support network for LGBT youth offering a wide variety of drop-ins, mentoring programs and art events. (416) 324-5077. soytoronto.org.