Queer Pressure

Uppity students are making sure being gay in school doesn't have to be a misery-of-the-week miniseries

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They didn’t teach you about pussy in teachers’ college.

“People will ask transsexual lesbian women, ‘Why the hell would you want to lick a pussy? Why didn’t you just stay a guy if you like women so much?'” laughs transsexual activist Mirha Soleil-Ross as she gives a roomful of sincerely nodding high-school teachers her Trannie 101.

Like, is this going to be on the exam?

Last weekend, Soleil was one of the presenters at the Rainbow Classroom Network’s conference Equity For All: Safe Schools For Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual And Transgender Students.

The two-day meet held at Jarvis Collegiate brought students, educators and activists together to ponder the existential meaning of fags being beat up in the locker room, how to make the curriculum inclusive, and strategies for turning high-school hell into homo heaven.

And as the first-ever conference of its kind kicks off, there is One Great Sequined Hope in the air.

Is queer life in high school finally moving beyond its movie-of-the-week misery?

Equity documents of the Toronto District School Board include sexual orientation. (A proposal to also include gender identity, i.e. transsexual or transgender students and staff, in anti-harassment policy, is headed for public consultations.) But the gap between policy and a dyke getting her locker defaced is sometimes wide.

There is no official word on which schools are safest, and most administrators are mum about pointing fingers.

“It’s more complex than that,” says Vanessa Russell, who teaches at the Triangle program, a special one-room schoolhouse for queer students who have had trouble in mainstream schools.

“A really horrible school can be turned around if an administrator leaves or a teacher arrives. It’s very fluid.”

But while talking casually to administrators, teachers and, earlier in the week, students from the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Youth of Toronto group at the 519, some schools consistently come up as good.

All the alternative schools make the gossip list, as do Rosedale Heights, Northern Secondary, Etobicoke School of the Arts and Central Commerce. And the schools on the shit list? The ones in the burbs, especially that place called Anything in Scarborough.

“Basically, it comes down to this,” queer youth-group participant Chad Mahar sums up snappily (sans grain of salt), “- the alternative schools are probably best, downtown schools are up there. And anywhere else, you’re fucked.”

Thinking back to my high-school years, when nobody – nobody – was out, at LGBYT I saw something I never expected to see: two fags squabbling over whose school should get the Homo School Prize for being safest.

Not that everything is coming up pansies, mind you. The continuing higher suicide rate of queer teens in comparison to their straight peers is well known, and this conference is based on the fact that queer students face higher levels of violence, harassment and alienation.

Dropping out

And of the 30 or so students at the youth-group meeting last week, fewer than half had made it through the mainstream system. Many were in various stages of transitioning to alternative programs, dropping out or taking time off.

“I’m sure my locker still has my ass-print on it from the number of times I was shoved up against it,” one guy quips grimly.

The battered metal lockers lining the halls at Jarvis have no ass-prints on them, though one is swathed in Teletubby wrapping paper. (Hmmm…. )

Jarvis was founded in 1807, and award plaques that honour, among other things, 1920s-era “moral influence” festoon its walls. The painting of the Jarvis Bulldogs mascot looks peeved that books like The Whole Lesbian Sex Book are being hawked in the cafeteria today.

“I’ve been having bad high-school flashbacks since I got here,” shudders Tina Strang as she leads a presentation on working with transgender youth (those with issues not about their sexual orientation per se, but rather their biologically assigned gender identity).

“If a kid comes to you,” one girl/boy in the audience implores the teachers and counsellors, “take them seriously. When I grew breasts, I didn’t want them. I thought bodies were made of water, and I would cut them to let the water out.”

Along with co-presenter Soleil’s whirlwind tour of transsexual and transgender issues, Strang makes some undoubtedly controversial points – for instance, that kids should be allowed to take medication to suppress puberty.

Sigh. PD days just haven’t been the same lately.

After the transsexuals, I decide to take on something tamer. Like Catholics.

“My school is hell. I go to Catholic school. Think about it,” says a student at LGBYT. “They just want to fix you.”

And you’d probably be right in guessing that a school system whose views on sexuality are permeated by the dogma that sex should occur solely for procreation and only between married heterosexuals would probably not be the best place for anyone who isn’t June Cleaver.

So what in the going-to-hell are they doing at this conference?

In Catholic school, everybody is officially a child of God, you have to love everyone and you can’t discriminate or be cruel. But you also can’t affirm or proactively support that lonely gay 16-year-old stuck in his uniform.

“Things are not exactly where we’d like them to be,” admits Norman Forma, a recently retired director of education at the Toronto Catholic board .

“Some wonderful things are happening, but there are irate parents, fundamentalists and overzealous trustees, and any of these people can not only put up obstacles, but in fact bring down committed and fine teachers.”

On their panel, a Father Rob Repicky of the Catholic Teacher Centre refers angrily to “bigots,” a gay student who survived the system talks in a painfully strained voice about the depression and isolation he experienced, and a Catholic mother admits that Catholic school was a damaging place for her gay sons.

Could it be? Is there movement even in that old butt of queer humour, the dreaded Catholic school?

“Every school has a culture of its own,” says Stan Kutz, a retired Catholic high-school principal and an out gay man, when asked if the panel members are representative of an attitude shift.

“At some schools, anything that was said here today wouldn’t be particularly shocking. Other schools would freak out.”

Timeless question

One of the last workshops of the day addresses the timeless question plaguing every teacher who never wanted to be accused of being a pedophile, “To be out or not to be out?”

“Teachers need to come out,” LGBYT facilitator Sara Bruntz says when asked what would make schools better places for queer students. “There need to be more role models instead of teachers saying ‘I’m OK with it, it’s cool.’ There’s gotta be gay teachers.”

Well, there are at least four. I saw them. I did so. On a panel.

And the consensus seems to be that the unions are behind their teachers, and parental complaints don’t have a leg to stand on in the face of human rights legislation.

But that doesn’t mean the gym teacher doesn’t still get made fun of.

“I wouldn’t be worried about losing my job,” says Chris Snow, a grade four/five teacher. “But I wonder about a gay glass ceiling, and I worry about losing credibility with my students.

“They ask, ‘Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend? Do you want a girlfriend?’ I don’t know what I’m going to say when one of them asks, ‘Are you homo?'”

Grade seven/eight teacher Lisa Moser didn’t know what she was going to say either, until one day a student said he hated gay people because they hide behind bushes and rape little kids.

“Just your presence as an out person is powerful and practical,” she says. Now kids come up to her in the schoolyard and say, “Gee, we heard you’re a lesbian.” And she says yes. Then they shrug and go away. Ten years ago she would never have dared.

Or there’s the story Krin Zook, an out youth worker at Rosedale Heights, told me in an interview, about what a student said to her.

“He said, ‘You know, miss, I used to gay-bash for fun. But I don’t do it any more. Because I realize it might have been you.”

The conference ends, and the rainbow flag hung on the cafeteria wall gets pulled down. For now.

But maybe some magic day in the future, the Jarvis Bulldogs will be wearing rainbow boas and chaps.

Hey – you can dream.

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