Sexual and Gender Minority Youth in Canadian Schools
The following article was first published by the Canadian Education Association (www.cea-ace.ca) in Education Canada, Winter 2008, Volume 48, number 1. Updated by Kristopher Wells in the spring of 2012 for the ATA Magazine.
Marc Hall just wanted to be “treated like a normal human being.”1 In 2002, he launched a lawsuit against his Roman Catholic school board in a fight to win the right to take his boyfriend to his grade twelve prom. When asked why he took the school board to court, he answered, “Don’t you see that I’m not fighting for this just because it’s my prom? It’s my whole life and the lives of other gay people. I’m fighting for what so many people don’t understand. I’m trying to speed up the process of equality because I am sick of being treated like someone absent of feeling and emotion.”2
On May 10, 2002—the day of Marc’s Prom—Justice MacKinnon ruled in Marc’s favour, upholding the equality provisions in Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and granted Hall an interlocutory injunction allowing him to attend the prom with his boyfriend.
Some ten years later, Hall and the politicization surrounding his case brought a newfound voice and visibility to sexual and gender minority youth issues in Canadian schools. Hall’s courageous stand has served to galvanize an entire generation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth who will no longer be forced to remain silent and invisible in their schools. Hall’s prom fight represents a significant “tipping point” in Canadian education. Buoyed by Hall’s courage and determination to say no to the forces of oppression, other LGBTQ youth have begun to file human rights complaints against their schools for failing to protect and respect them. Often with the full support of their families, these youth are challenging the pedagogy of negation they experience in their formal educational environments. Silent no more, these students represent a new generation of queer youth who have the knowledge, support, and confidence to speak out against homophobia and transphobia and demand that their human and civil rights are not only protected, but also respected. No longer will they remain hidden away in the classroom closet. Unlike previous generations of LGBTQ youth, this generation of queer youth is challenging and changing their schools from the inside out.
In order to understand this trend towards resilience and the emergence of “Generation Queer” in Canadian schools, we need to become aware and examine the research that has shaped our understandings of the health, safety, and educational needs and experiences of these vulnerable youth. Correspondingly, we should also examine the opinions and experiences of Canadian sexual and gender minority youth, themselves. These understandings are necessary if we are to fulfill our ethical and professional responsibilities as public educators and help sexual and gender minority youth move from feeling at risk to becoming resilient leaders for positive social change in their schools, families, and communities.
In his typology of the emergence of LGBTQ youth-related research, Ritch Savin-Williams3 identifies four stages in the evolution of our understanding of the needs and experiences of sexual and gender minority youth.
- First stage response: 1970s and 80s—During this stage, the experiences of LGBTQ youth were positioned as “a distinct category from ‘normal’ adolescence.”4 LGBTQ youth were constructed as deviant, pathological, and in need of specialized medical intervention. For example, before 1973 homosexuality was considered a mental illness. After the American Psychological Association declassified homosexuality as a pathology, research and clinical interventions began to move beyond attempts to “cure,” “fix,” or “repair” adolescents of homosexuality to a new focus on helping these youth to learn how to cope with stigmatization. Homosexuality was no longer seen as the problem; rather it was the discriminatory environments, policies, and educational practices that needed to be reformed. In Canada, we witnessed homosexuality become decriminalized when then Justice Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau famously stated, “The State has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.” For the first time in our history, a whole new generation of LGBTQ youth were no longer born as criminals, but as free persons who deserved the same rights and protections as other members of Canadian society.
- Second stage response: 1980s and 90s—In this period, distinctive LGBTQ youth realities were recognized, although primarily through a clinical lens, as being at risk for increased school-related problems, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, violence, bullying, and suicide. The research literature from this time period is dense with narratives of victimization, or what Rofes identifies as the “martyr-target-victim” paradigm.5 The key outcomes of this early research led to the widespread recognition of formal schooling as an exclusionary heteronormative site with tremendous consequences for the health, safety, and wellbeing of sexual and gender minority and questioning youth. Quantitative research studies on the risk factors associated with being or being perceived as a sexual or gender minority youth became critical catalysts in advocating for educational interventions and political responses to the health and safety needs of LGBTQ students. Anti-LGBTQ violence and abuse in symbolic and physical forms became a serious source of concern. Hatred in the hallways was rife and students and parents started to demand that teachers take action.
- Third stage response: Late 1990s and early 2000’s—This progressive stage is characterized by education for social change to ameliorate the social, cultural, and political marginalization of LGBTQ youth. Educational interventions focus on the creation of safe spaces, LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum, and anti-harassment policy development. Advocacy is primarily based in identity politics and liberal human-rights discourses that call for tolerance, compassion, and societal understanding. Rapid and significant gains are made in law and legislation at the federal and provincial levels. For example, in 1998, the Supreme Court of Canada read sexual orientation into the Alberta human-rights statute and in 2005 same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada. However, these gains are largely assimilationist in nature and the (hetero) normalizing structures of schooling have been left largely intact. During this time period, research on LGBTQ youth has begun to shift its emphasis and concentrate on a resiliency or developmental assets-based approach. The protective factors that enable LGBTQ youth to overcome discrimination and thrive as leading change agents in their schools are becoming an increasingly key focus for educational interventions and research investigations. Key questions include: What can we learn from those youth who seem to thrive in hostile environments to help support those who slide towards risk and erasure?
- Fourth stage: Future response—With increasing gains in the legal recognition and protection of LGBTQ individuals, Savin-Williams argues that “banality” may be the next wave of the future. He posits that youth are increasingly adopting a “post-gay” identity where sexuality is no longer considered the defining characteristic of their personhood. Savin-Williams maintains that the everyday ordinariness of same-sex attractions, as increasingly witnessed on television, film, and other media, may well become the defining feature for the future of LGBTQ youth. Because of these controversial claims, this fourth stage, banality, is currently one of the most contested issues in the field of LGBTQ educational studies. Many researchers argue that our society will reach a post-gay world at the same time we emerge into a post-racist world, neither of which appears to be on the horizon anytime soon. Yes, conditions are getting better, but positive social change does not happen on its own. How can we work to make it better now for sexual and gender minority youth in our schools?
Canadian Queer Youth Trends
Evidence from several large-scale Canadian surveys has re-affirmed earlier research, finding that sexual and gender minority youth are still reporting more emotional and behavioral difficulties; higher symptoms of depression and externalizing behaviors; more hostile peer environments and victimization; greater rates of bullying and sexual harassment; and, less social support in both their family and peer group contexts than their heterosexual peers. On the other hand, they also point to a slow, yet growing sense of LGBTQ acceptance amongst Canadian youth.
In 2011 Egale Canada published results from the first national climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools.6 The survey, which involved more than 3,700 youth from all provinces (with the exception of Quebec) and territories, revealed that:
- 70 per cent of youth surveyed reported hearing comments like “that’s so gay” every day at school.
- 10 per cent of youth reported hearing these comments coming from teachers.
- 1 in 5 of the LGBTQ youth surveyed reported being physically harassed or assaulted.
- 40 per cent of gay males, 33 per cent of lesbians and 49 per cent of transgender students reported being sexually harassed within the past year.
- 50 per cent of LGBTQ youth reported feeling unsafe at school, compared with only 3.4 per cent of the heterosexual youth surveyed.
- 60 per cent of LGBTQ youth reported that their teachers were largely ineffective in addressing homophobic harassment.
To date this survey represents the largest and most comprehensive national quantitative baseline data on the experiences of LGBTQ youth in Canada. Its results show that schools are still dangerous and risky spaces for youth who are or are perceived to be non-heterosexual. Survey results also found that the more different you are the more dangerous your schooling experience may become.
Increasingly, young people are becoming more comfortable with LGBTQ issues than their parents and teachers, and they view sexuality as much more fluid, situational, and relational than previous generations. Perhaps, this is why so many youth prefer “queer” as an identity marker rather than lesbian, gay, bisexual, or homosexual.
The word queer comes from the Latin torquere, which means to twist or traverse. Today’s youth are not only challenging, but also twisting and re-deploying traditional understandings of sex, sexuality, and gender. Members of “Generation Queer” are increasingly reluctant to have their identities categorized into neat boxes or traditional sex roles. Many youth are actively embracing post-modern identities, which address the messiness and complexity of an increasingly diverse, multicultural, and pluralistic world.
Contemporary research also points to an emerging trend: LGBTQ youth are coming out at younger and younger ages. Whereas the “coming out” age used to be in the early to mid-twenties, research now indicates that LGBTQ youth are now coming out at age 15 or 16, which squarely places sexual and gender minority issues in today’s classrooms.7 However, many LGBTQ youth perilously find themselves caught in a double bind; they often need to come out to access inclusive supports and services (particularly in rural communities), yet by coming out they also become more likely targets of violence and victimization.
Violence and safety are ever-present concerns in the lives of all sexual and gender minority individuals, perhaps especially for youth. The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics indicates that sexual minorities are continually among the most frequently targeted groups for hate and bias crimes in our country. In 2005, criminologist Douglas Janoff released a ground breaking study on homophobic violence in Canada.8 His book begins with a necrology detailing the more than 100 homicides of LGBTQ persons in Canada from 1990-2004. More than 40% of the perpetrators of these hate crimes were homophobic teenagers. Correspondingly, the Public Health Agency of Canada identifies the most common perpetrators of youth violence as young, heterosexual males. The most common victims of youth violence are: “peers, including girlfriends, boyfriends and other young people; family members, including siblings and parents; and members of ethnocultural groups or sexual minorities.”9
Moving from Risk to Resilience
Given what we know about the educational experiences, health, and safety needs of sexual and gender minorities, how can we, as inclusive educators, help these youth move from risk to resilience in their schools? Perhaps more pointedly, what conditions enable some youth to overcome tremendous obstacles and still thrive in hostile school environments? How can we, as educators and researchers, learn from these examples to help other youth develop what Goldstein and Brooks identify as a “resilient mindset”?10
Contemporary researchers have identified the following protective factors as critical ingredients in helping to build the resiliency of sexual and gender minority youth.
- Positive representations: Affirming representations that move beyond stereotypical portrayals of LGBTQ persons in the classroom curriculum and larger social media can serve to help build the self- and social-esteem of sexual and gender minority youth. Visibility is often critical in helping students come to voice.
Ask yourself: Are the images on the walls of my classroom and in the books in my school library inclusive and affirming of LGBTQ individuals?11
- Family acceptance: Welcoming and supportive familial relationships are arguably the most important resiliency factors in the lives of all youth, especially sexual and gender minority youth who may need support in buffering the adverse effects of discrimination and prejudice. Helping these youth to develop a positive sense of self and reducing the stresses associated with coming out and coming to terms with a non-heterosexual identity are critical aspects of fostering the development of a resilient mindset.
Ask yourself: Is my school a welcoming, inclusive, and supportive place for same-gender parented families? Are the realities of these families included in our school communications and welcoming messages?
- School and peer support: Teacher training on LGBTQ issues is strongly associated with the development of positive school outcomes, such as successful high school completion and increased academic achievement, and can also help to buffer or decrease the stress associated with homophobic and transphobic bullying and harassment. Gay–straight student alliances (GSAs) are one powerful example of school-based supports that can help to build school connectedness and foster a sense of acceptance and belonging to a community. For example, research indicates that schools with GSAs have a “significantly less hostile, more supportive psychosocial climate for LGB [lesbian, gay, bisexual] students” than those without.12
Ask yourself: Does my school have a GSA or similar support groups for LGBTQ and allied students? If not, will you be the teacher ally who helps to create one?
- School-based policies: Schools with policies that explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity are also considered a significant resiliency factor in the lives of LGBTQ and questioning youth. Goodenow, Szalacha, and Westheimer found that schools with support groups for sexual minority students were more likely than other schools to have written policies on sexual orientation and were more likely to have provided staff training to support those policies. Clearly, the school environment is a major influence in suicidal tendencies and other risk factors that sexual and gender minority youth experience. As Goodenow, Szalacha, and Westheimer state:
Threats, harassment, and intimidation at school may be especially critical for sexual minority youth. ... Anti-gay victimization has been found to occur often in the presence of others, and is sometimes even encouraged and applauded by peers. ... [As a result,] LGB adolescents may be reluctant to report even the most severe victimization if they perceive school authorities as unsympathetic, unapproachable, and unwilling to intervene on their behalf.13
Ask yourself: Does my school have comprehensive LGBTQ policies in place? Are these policies clearly articulated to staff, students, and parents at the beginning of the school year/term? What are the consequences for students and staff who violate these policies?(In 2011, Edmonton Public Schools became the first school board in the prairies to pass a standalone sexual orientation and gender identity policy to support and protect LGBTQ students, staff, and families. Ask your school board to consider creating a similar policy.)
- Support networks: Sexual and gender minority youth are often the most important sources of support for one another. The shared experience of coming out in a heteronormative world can help to foster a sense of connection, which, in turn, reduces feelings of isolation, alienation, and despair. For example, community-based support groups offer a critical source of resilience by providing a place where LGBTQ youth can openly discuss their feelings without fear of stigmatization or violence. These groups provide an opportunity for peer-to-peer and intergenerational mentoring; where everyday role models can help youth develop real-life strategies for overcoming adversity within their local communities.
Ask yourself: Do I know where to refer LGBTQ youth for support in my community? Consider becoming that “trusted adult” who can make the difference between a youth who slides towards risk or is supported to grow into resilience.
- Sexual health education: Fears and inaccurate information related to sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS can lead to increased risk-taking behaviours and suicidal thoughts for many sexual and gender minority youth. It is important for educators to challenge stereotypes and misinformation that conflate sexual practices with specific sexual identities. HIV/AIDS does not discriminate based on sexual or gender identity. Correspondingly, age-appropriate, evidence-informed, and comprehensive sexual health education, provided in a non-judgmental manner, is strongly correlated with a reduction in sexual risk-taking and other health compromising behaviors. Unfortunately, many LGBTQ and questioning youth continue to be denied access to non-judgmental sexual health information in their schools, placing them at increased risk for physical, emotional, and mental health problems.
Ask yourself: Are the units taught on sexual health and healthy relationships in my school inclusive of the mental and sexual health needs of LGBTQ and questioning youth? Does our school understand how sexual rights are also fundamental human rights?
Collectively, these protective factors can help sexual and gender minority and questioning youth to develop a resilient mindset. However, we should be mindful “that resilience is not absolute. Virtually every youth has a breaking point.”14 With a variety of supports in place, youth can be encouraged to develop a “resiliency toolbox” from which they can select the right tool or strategy to help them address a particular problem or challenge in their lives. By having the right tool for the right challenge, youth are better able to cope with adversity and the complex challenges of personal growth and development in a heteronormalizing world. Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves if our classrooms and schools will be humanizing or dehumanizing spaces for all the sexual and gender minority youth and their families who enter our schoolhouse doors.
1A. Grace and K. Wells. 2005. “The Marc Hall Prom Predicament: Queer Individual Rights v. Institutional Church Rights in Canadian Public Education.” Canadian Journal of Education 28, no. 3, pp. 237–270.
3R.C. Savin-Williams. 2005. The New Gay Teenager. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, University Press.
5E. Rofes. 2004. “Martyr-Target-Victim: Interrogating Narratives of Persecution and Suffering among Queer Youth.” Youth and Sexualities: Pleasure, Subversion, and Insubordination In and Out of Schools. Eds. M.L. Rasmussen, E. Rofes and S. Talburt. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. pp. 41–62.
6Taylor, C., and T. Peter, with T. L. McMinn, K.Schachter, S. Beldom, A. Ferry, Z. Gross and S. Paquin. 2011. Every class in every school: The first national climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools. Final report. Toronto, Ont.: Egale Canada Human Rights Trust.
7C. Ryan and D. Futterman. 1998. Lesbian and Gay Youth: Care and Counseling. New York: Columbia University Press.
8D.V. Janoff. 2005. Pink Blood: Homophobic Violence in Canada. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.
9Public Health Agency of Canada. 2006. Youth and Violence. Retrieved October 17, 2006. www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/ncfv-cnivf/family violence/html/nfntsyjviolence_e.html#8
10S. Goldstein and R.B. Brooks. 2005. “Why We Study Resilience?” Handbook of Resilience in Children. Eds. S. Goldstein and R.B. Brooks. New York: Kluwer. pp. 3–15.
11See my co-authored book for suggestions on how to build an inclusive library collection. A. M. Schrader and K. Wells. 2007. Challenging Silence, Challenging Censorship: Inclusive Resources, Strategies and Policy Directives for Addressing BGLTT Realities in School and Public Libraries. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Teachers’ Federation. Also available in French.
12C. Goodenow, L. Szalacha and K. Westheimer. 2006. “School Support Groups, Other Factors, and the Safety of Sexual Minority Adolescents.” Psychology in Schools 43, no. 5, p. 576.
14J. Gabarino. 2005. “Foreword.” Handbook for Working with Children and Youth: Pathway to Resilience across Cultures and Contexts. Ed. M. Ungar. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. pp. xi–xiii.
Dr. Kristopher Wells is a researcher with the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services, Faculty of Education, University of Alberta. He is also the book review editor for the International Journal of LGBT Youth and the author of many of the Alberta Teachers’ Associations and Alberta Government’s LGBTQ educational resources. Wells is the co-founder and co-director of Camp fYrefly (www.CampfYrefly.ca), an award-winning annual summer leadership retreat for sexual and gender minority and allied youth. Wells can be contacted at email@example.com.