Looking back on my years as a public school teacher in Alberta, I am often reminded of the situations when my students taught me important lessons. One such situation came toward the end of the 1990s at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School in Red Deer. Two students, Rachel and René, approached me and another teacher to ask about what they could do to help make the school safer for all students, and especially those suspected of being gay or lesbian.
Our immediate reaction was to say they could probably do very little; after all, addressing sexuality with teenagers sounded controversial. They politely reminded us that they were not talking about sexuality at all; they were simply asking us to help them create a safe learning environment for all of the students attending our school. Students do not actually have to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ), they said, to face homophobic or transphobic intolerance. Their wisdom seems obvious now but was rather ahead of its time.
It is worth noting that both of these students were both members of the Students and Teachers Opposing Prejudice (STOP) program, an activist student group that formed in 1987 to tackle issues of prejudice and other forms of discrimination. A few dozen students and a handful of teacher advisors met weekly and planned events to raise awareness of social justice issues, and take steps to eliminate racism and hate in our school and community.
Now these students were pushing us beyond our comfort zones. They reminded us that, while we were speaking out against discrimination, we turned a blind eye to the forms of hostility and homophobia that some students experience on a daily basis.
Over the next year, we encouraged the student GSA members to talk to
the school’s administration team about our group’s plans. Our principal Barry Litun and vice-principal Mona Knudslein-Stock were impressed by the students’ sincerity, and they approved Alberta’s first GSA as a committee of the STOP program. The students were also invited to talk about the GSA directly with the school’s staff.
At a memorable staff meeting, a few brave young students stood in front of more than 100 adults. They talked candidly about growing up gay in Red Deer, about wishing to be like the cast members of the popular sitcom Friends, but knowing they were somehow different. Their stories, sharing their fears and experiences, were unscripted and compelling — and they touched the hearts of all who listened.
I remember witnessing the first standing ovation I had ever seen occur at a staff meeting, and as I looked around, I saw a few other teachers wiping tears from their eyes. We had been given a simple, powerful lesson on the need for GSAs.
These voluntary school clubs aren’t about "promoting a lifestyle" or "spreading immorality" as some extremists in the community would have us believe. They are simply safe spaces for students and staff to talk about ways to make any school a safer place to learn. Of course, this is a basic right of all students in all Alberta schools, but we needed a reminder.
The Red Deer GSA group lasted a few years and organized some fun activities to foster awareness and acceptance. There was a poster campaign with light-hearted messages for students, including "Closets are for clothes" and "I don’t care if you’re gay, straight, or Australian." Students spearheaded the signing of a public agreement whereby peers would promise they would not knowingly use phrases such as "that’s so gay" or any derogatory anti-gay insults.
The group showed positive LGBTQ-themed movies and invited guest speakers, including local clergy and community leaders, to share messages of acceptance. The students made our great school even better. More importantly, they ushered in a new era of promoting acceptance in schools, toward which the ATA has played a prominent and progressive role.
Many have tuned attentively into the current debates in the provincial legislature surrounding the PC government’s misguided efforts to address fairness in Alberta’s schools. The government’s forced defeat of Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s Bill 202, a reasonable bill that would have allowed GSAs in all schools, was an indication that it doesn’t yet understand that human rights are both crucial and universal.
Clearly, there was nothing dangerous about our Red Deer group, nor of any of the dozens of gay-straight alliances currently in Alberta schools. Nothing about such a voluntary club could make any reasonable parent want to remove it from the school. Nothing about GSAs promotes any agenda except creating a welcoming school.
Our students require protection from hatred and exclusion; our courageous students taught us a lesson that this can be accomplished through the collaborative and positive activities of a GSA. For that I’m eternally grateful, and I believe Alberta is a better place because of them. Here’s hoping that 2015 sees our government leaders finally catching up with their reasonable efforts toward safer schools. ❚
Darren E. Lund is a professor in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. He will be the keynote speaker at the ATA’s third annual Diversity, Equity and Human Rights Conference at Barnett House on March 13 and 14.