Conference shares strategies for creating safe schools for all students
“Have we really come a long way?”
That was the question posed by Ivan Coyote, the keynote speaker for this year’s third annual GSA conference, held at the University of Alberta on Nov. 22. With homophobia and misogyny still rampant in our culture and schools being just as unsafe now as they were 25 years ago, Coyote said the answer to that question seems to be “No.”
Presented by the Institute for Sexual and Minority Studies at the U of A, the GSA conference was part of the province’s Bullying Prevention Week. One of the conference’s main aims is to help students, teachers and school leaders learn how to create, support and sustain gay-straight alliances in their schools. Gay-straight alliances are student-run groups that aim to combat homophobia by bringing LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) and straight students together in a supportive, inclusive environment.
Coyote’s talk focused on the need to make public schools, those “tiny fishbowls full of piranhas,” safe places for all people, not just some people. Twenty-five years ago, when Coyote was a teen, schools were unwelcoming and dangerous places for those belonging to a gender or sexual minority, Coyote said, and it seems that not much has changed.
Coyote, who self-identifies as transgender, further illustrated the point by referencing a national survey of Canadian high school students commissioned in 2007 by the Education Committee of Egale Canada Human Rights Trust.
The survey asked more than 3,700 students from across Canada about the school life of students with gender or sexual minority status. The resulting report contains many statistics that suggest LGBTQ students still don’t feel safe at school.
One statistic that Coyote singled out for discussion is a list of places where LGBTQ students feel most at risk of verbal, physical and/or sexual harassment in their schools. The top two are gendered bathrooms and phys-ed change rooms.
The alarming findings of this survey make a potent case for schools and school leaders to take immediate action and do much more to ensure that LGBTQ students feel safe, secure and welcome, Coyote argued. Without substantial change, the public school system cannot truly be “for the public,” which is bad news not just for schools, but for democracy itself, Coyote said.
But where to start?
Investing in relatively simple changes to school infrastructure, such as eliminating gendered bathrooms and replacing them with single-stall gender-neutral washrooms is crucial. A few teachers and administrators in the audience commented that their schools had either already taken such steps or were in the process of doing so.
Coyote urged the audience members not to stop there, however, but to push for more far-reaching, substantial changes in attitudes and policies. Coyote advised teachers and other school leaders not to deny the reality of daily life for LGBTQ students by squelching any kind of negative discussions about what happens at school and school culture generally.
Don’t use euphemisms like “Pink Shirt Day” or “Spirit Day” to hide the fact that these students face violence, hatred, fear, bigotry and misogyny every day, Coyote said. Don’t hide from this truth. State the issues plainly and discuss them openly, because it is only through open discussion and honest confrontation that these issues can begin to be adequately addressed.
This was a message that some in the audience wholeheartedly endorsed. Lisa McMullin, counselling co-ordinator for Lethbridge School District No. 51, said her reason for attending the conference was precisely to help push for changes at the policy level, to change the way people think about these issues in a fundamental way.
To LGBTQ students, Coyote offered advice based on experience – motivate and activate queer youth. Don’t be silent. Love yourselves and love other queer students for who they are, even when they make mistakes and do things you disapprove of. Don’t use shame as a weapon to silence others, and finally, “Make yourselves into yourselves.” ❚