Friday, March 13, 2009

Local Queer Youth Speak Up About Unsafe Schools

Here is an important article from my local corporate daily about the dangers faced by queer youth in the local school system...particularly relevant given last year's national study showing how unsafe schools are for queer youth Canada-wide, and given the pitiful initial reaction by local school officials to death threats against queer people made by a federal election candidate in a school last fall.

Youths discuss terror of being gay; Study the rainbow in schools
by Harold Carmichael, The Sudbury Star, March 13, 2009.

A teenage lesbian had this advice for an audience filled with representatives of local school boards looking to help make gay, lesbian and other non-heterosexual students feel safe in school: use rainbows.

"Put a rainbow sticker up, rainbow poster up," Colleen, 19, said at The Classroom Closet: Creating a Positive Climate for Gay and Lesbian Students workshop held at the Howard Johnson Hotel in the city Thursday.

"We see the colours and we think you just gave us a whole new breath, more oxygen.

"It just opens us up. There's a safe space ... It feels like an oxygen injection in our lungs. It feels good."

The rainbow is used as a symbol to represent gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered and two-spirited people.

Colleen was one of four local teens on a Youth Voices panel that addressed more than 35 education professionals from across the northeast during the Access Aids Network-organized workshop.

The workshop was inspired by the province's Safe Schools Act and the new bill -- Shaping a Culture of Respect in Our Schools: Promoting Safe and Healthy Relationships.

Liz Sandals, an MPP and parliamentary assistant to Education Minister Kathleen Wynne, gave the workshop's opening address before returning to Toronto on a morning flight.

Colleen, who has just returned to school to complete her diploma after time away, told delegates that because she is a lesbian, she was singled out for ridicule, acts of violence and more.

"My friends were picked on and bothered because of me," she recalled. "If you are going to target me, don't target my friends. It was just blowing my mind. It made me so upset and angry. I got picked on by girls and called a dyke. 'I'd better not catch you looking at me.'

"I still see those girls today and look away. I am a target to them. It's so wrong."

Colleen said the worst thing to happen to her was in Grade 11 when the teacher in her classroom stepped out for a moment. Three boys cornered her, pushed her down and touched her all over before she was able to pull away.

"I was like some kind of animal," she recalled. "I sat in the bathroom for one hour, shaking. It was so terrifying for me to have that happen. It took me so long to trust people after that. I still have issues with people coming up and giving me a hug. I still shake."

Ashley, 14, came out as a lesbian in Grade 8.

She said that while schools are supposed to be safe places and no students should be made to feel unwanted, that's not the case.

"Some teachers who teach religion in the Catholic schools are really homophobic," she said. "It's really hard for a student to come out when they say it's wrong to be gay."

Ashley said that a gay or lesbian student is always worried about being beaten up at school.

"I remember, for the longest time, I used to have two friends come with me to the washroom," she said.

Ashley added that when she first came out as a lesbian in Grade 8, many boys thought she would be very interested in group sex.

"They think if you are gay, 'wow! A threesome!' " she recalled. "It's hot!"

Jenista, 16, came out as a bisexual in Grade 8, and then decided in Grade 10 she was a lesbian.

"It's not really just homophobia that students have to deal with, but everything," she said. "Sometimes, our parents are not there to talk to. We just want to be able to talk to people."

Vince Bolt, 19, a transgendered, bisexual male, told the delegates the emotional trauma he went through in trying to come to grips with his identity resulted in two suicide attempts and alcoholism at the age of 13. On his left arm, he said, there are 38 scars that are the result of self-inflicted cuts. On the right arm, there are 34.

"They were my coping mechanism," said Bolt. "In Grade 11, I came out as a transgendered male -- a trans-male. I didn't know how to take it (myself ). I confided in a teacher I trusted. I know I wouldn't have made it through school without her."

Bolt also had a message for the many teachers, guidance counsellors and other school officials in the audience.

"You have the power to stop the transphobia and the homophobia in the (school) hallways," he said. "It can be done."

Another speaker, Gaston Cotnoir, Access Aids Network's healthy sexuality co-ordinator, told delegates that students, especially those in high school, have a hard time coming to grips with the fact they could be or are gay or lesbian.

"When you are in the closet, you have to watch what you say," said Cotnoir, a gay male himself. "You have to hide details. If you have a crush on a guy, you don't talk about it. For the longest time in university, I had a crush on a girl -- Stephanie. His name was actually Trevor."

Cotnoir said that students who don't want their gay or lesbian identities known sometimes resort to things like being hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine to deflect attention. Some also have very low self-esteem and get involved in unprotected sex.

"It's a very hard life for them -- lots of stress, lots of pressure." he explained. "I don't want anyone to think different about me -- guess my sexual identity."

Cotnoir said that simply being a friendly adult ear at a school for a student to talk about their sexual identity issues can do a world of good as it creates a feeling of self-esteem and self-confidence in the student's life.

The original was posted here but the Star only keeps stuff online briefly. Thanks to SC for the link.

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