When the Intrepid Junior Blogger came home from school at the beginning of the year with the news that she was a founding member of a new school club I admit I knew little about the club she was part of founding. She explained it was a Gay-Straight Alliance - or GSA for short - and I could tell she felt it was important in a way I didn't yet comprehend. The reality is, though, that the IJB has grown up believing in social activism and I wasn't surprised she was involved in a club of this nature. I suppose what has surprised me over the last few months is learning just how important a GSA is, and why she knew it.
Last week the IJB and I had the honour of attending a talk from Dr. Kristopher Wells, who is an Assistant Professor and Director of Programs & Services, Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta. Dr. Wells is also co-founder of Camp Fyrefly, a leadership retreat for sexual and gender minority youth (and, according to what I have read, a life changing experience for youth).
I was delighted that the Fort McMurray Public School District had brought Dr. Wells to Fort McMurray to talk to both the community and their administration and teachers, as the issues of gender identity and sexual orientation are perhaps one of the most pressing in our society today. It has perhaps been one of the greatest wars for civil rights of all time, particularly if one notes that inclusion of sexual orientation in human rights legislation in our country has been a fairly recent addition.
Dr. Wells tells a troubling tale of youth in our schools who are bullied, and the impact this has on them. Higher rates of suicide (both attempted and completed) in LGBTQ youth, as well as lower rates of completion of Grade Twelve and lower rates of going on to post-secondary education, point to a serious issue in our schools. And one point he made repeatedly - and with which I resoundingly agree - is that schools should be places where all students thrive, not survive.
That used to be the mantra, you know. The "it gets better" talk we would give to youth who were struggling in school, telling them to "just hang in there!" with the ease distance had given us and the sort of casual "oh it's not really THAT bad!" indifference of adulthood. And it was then and is now entirely the wrong message, telling our kids they just need to "survive" their school experience as opposed to finding ways to make it an environment in which they thrive. The trouble is that some kids don't survive the experience, finding the bullying based on their gender identity or sexual orientation too much, and ending their lives.
Ending their lives. I don't even know how we can be so blase and indifferent to this, argue the concept of groups like GSAs when these have been shown to provide the support students need to not only survive but thrive. We act as if this should even be a conversation, as if it is a matter of debate when we should be encouraging every school to have one of these groups if there is even one sole student who wants it and could benefit. But no - we talk instead about school board autonomy, hiding behind that argument as often the real sticking point is religion and morality.
I know there will be those offended by this, but as a parent and a youth advocate I would be terribly remiss if I did not take a side in this dialogue. I am the product of twelve years of Catholic education, and the child of a Roman Catholic family. I respect religion and those of faith, but I do not and cannot accept when an attempt to supecede human rights is made on the basis of religious rights.
The argument I have heard is that "inclusion" and "diversity" clubs serve the same purpose as a GSA and therefore a GSA is not required. The theory states that the school boards arguing against allowing the formation of GSAs do not wish to see students "labelled" - and yet I cannot help but think that they would have no trouble allowing a Filipino club to form, or another cultural group. And they are arguing against allowing students to identify themselves as they choose, in effect telling them they cannot self-identify as gay, and why is that? Students find safety and normalcy in surroundings where there are others like themselves - in fact we all do, not just students. We feel represented and included when we know there are people like us in our world, and we find comfort in identifying with others like ourselves, whether we are gay or straight or anywhere along the rainbow that is our identity and orientation as a species. By denying them the right to self-identify - to call themselves a Gay-Straight Alliance - we are shoving them back into the closet and trying to close the door, pushing as hard as we can to keep it shut.
And it will not work. I have spoken to many young adults who tell me of harrowing experiences in high school and how they wish they had access to the kind of GSA now found in three schools in this city. They tell me tales of both casual and overt homophobia, and of incidents in which they feared for their safety. And some have told me of dark moments when they felt so alone they considered ending their own lives. They survived. They did not thrive.
During Dr. Wells' talk I watched the IJB as I often do, observing her reactions. I was deeply troubled to see her nodding in vigorous agreement when he discussed spaces in schools students see as "dangerous" - hallways, washrooms and locker rooms - and on the way home we discussed this as I was so alarmed to see her degree of agreement. She told me that she did not personally feel afraid in those spaces but that she knew these were "dangerous spaces" for other students, and that there was always a heightened awareness and alertness when in them as what happened there could be unpredictable, spaces not supervised as closely as classrooms and other common spaces. We talked about ways to change that, including groups like GSAs which could "blow open" those dangerous spaces and find ways to make them safer, including simply having other students being vigilant for trouble if it arose and immediately seeking help.
And on the way home we spoke about the casual homophobia which the IJB and other students witness every day, the "that's so gay" comments, the taunts about "fags" and "dykes", the insidious bullying that is occurring in our schools every day but often in an undercurrent where teachers and administrators cannot hear. Our youth are smart and they know they cannot say these things openly in front of the adults, and so they reserve them for times when there are no adults around, casually tossing around these words as if they are nothing and as if they do no harm. I wonder at times if we as adults even realize the harm they do, wonder if we would be so blase if the words were instead racist and not homophobic?
Everything the IJB told me made me understand why the GSA in her school was necessary. It made me realize that we still have a great deal of work to do in schools to ensure students can thrive, not just survive, and that we are still fighting a battle to ensure all students, regardless of race, colour, creed, sexual orientation or gender identity can enjoy a safe and inclusive learning environment. I like to turn it around in my head and wonder how I would feel if my work environment was as the youth of today describe life in their schools, with spaces I felt were dangerous and colleagues who casually said things filled with hate - I would be miserable, of course, and yet our youth are in their work environments in their schools, not much different as they are there to do our job just as we go to our workplaces to do ours. Just as we have the right to expect we will not just survive our job they have the right to expect they do not just have to survive school, as if it is a trial they need to endure - and yet for some it still is.
I am not about to shut up on this issue, either. We have every reason to anticipate an election is coming in this province, and I intend to seek a commitment from any candidate wishing to represent my constituency that they will fight to see the right to form GSAs entrenched in any legislation put forward in the future. I do not want to hear arguments of school board autonomy or religion or morality - I want to hear that anyone wishing to represent us and our youth understands that things need to change in favour of our youth and not in favour of the adults who already wield the power. And change is coming, you see, as I can see it in the face of the IJB who I suspect will one day be one of the ones leading this world and wielding the power. She already sees the disconnect between our generation and hers, the way we put school board rights in front of the rights of students, and how we seem to casually ignore that while we get to expect to thrive in our lives we seem to expect some of our youth to just survive in theirs because we hold onto old norms and ideas, seeing the world as it was and not as it is for them.
I firmly believe that GSAs should be mandated by the government in any and all schools where students request the ability to form one. The school, regardless of board or district, should be required to support this initiative and put aside any questions of religion or morality (often hidden behind the veil of autonomy of the board). This is about the very LIVES of our youth and ensuring that we provide every and any support necessary to have them thrive in their schools - and maybe, just maybe, stem the tide of youths who commit suicide because they do not feel included, represented or reflected in their schools. This is NOT a question of religion. This is NOT a question of morality. This is a question of human rights, and I would suggest the time has come for us to be on the right side of history and stand with our youth, of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and give them our unconditional and unreserved support to thrive.
This is about thriving, not surviving. And I don't know about you, but I will do whatever it takes for my kid and others to not just survive - but thrive. And I am both unapologetic and unafraid to do so, too.