Doreen Fumia, Ryerson University
Guest Contributor This entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirited) peoples.
I would like to add to the Equity Matters discussions about queer equity in public education with some thoughts that have surfaced from an ethnographic study I recently conducted. The study is based on the Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB) Triangle Program, Canada’s only publicly funded secondary school classroom for LGBTIQ2S youth from grades 9 to 12. It documents some of the experiences and changes that have taken place over the last 16 years since Triangle opened its doors in 1995. There is much that can be learned about (queer) equity in education from the history and present day operation of Triangle. The student numbers have increased, they are younger, and trans and, increasingly, queer students of colour and two-spirited students demand instruction more inclusive of their identities, histories and experiences.
An examination of commitments or lack thereof to queer youth points to more than the need for caring education environments. Examining such commitments is also informative of the ways in which decision makers think about citizenship, rights and the future of our nation. That is, the ways in which structured interactions take place in the context of educational institutions is indicative of who we can even imagine as belonging or not belonging to our communities.
Triangle is a site where both successes and failures of equity in education can be observed. It has been a site for hundreds of students to make their way back to secondary school, take control of what they want to do after high school and for many, to become leaders in their communities. In line with Gloria Filax’s research findings in Queer Youth in the Province of the ‘Severely Normal’, students often arrive at Triangle because school administrators’ understanding of how to help queer students tends to focus on them as ‘problems.’ Once understood as a problem, an attempt is made to relocate a student to a different school.
One former Triangle student who identified as pansexual was asked twice if Triangle was an option. Initially the student turned down the offer because the gifted academic program in which the student was enrolled was preferred. The second time the student accepted because washrooms, among other issues, were becoming an issue, making the student more and more depressed to the point of missing classes on regular basis.
So I went with my mom and I fell in love with [Triangle] because I was like, oh my god, I can be myself and they have single bathrooms! I don’t have to worry about people beating me up. And that’s how I ended up going to the Triangle program. But yeah, I’m really happy that I went and when I chose to go there I kind of thought that I was never gonna graduate and never gonna go anywhere with my life, so it’s kind of a big deal that I did and actually got a lot more opportunities because … I wouldn’t have … if I had stayed at a random mainstream school.
The student describes what made it possible to return to school and ultimately to graduate with scholarship funding for higher education: gender neutral washrooms and an environment where there were no beatings. Surely, this is not an unreasonable wish list for a mainstream school setting.
This excerpt from my ethnographic study could be interpreted to mean that Triangle is successful and so too is the TDSB school system because it provides a different social and learning environment for some queer students. However, in many ways Triangle exists as a consequence and a witness to the failure and inaction of the Canadian school system and school administrators. In Race to equity: disrupting educational inequality, Tim McCaskell addresses the disjuncture between celebrating a program such as Triangle and lamenting the very limits of this program. He observes that Triangle is small in scope and rather than being classified as a school, became a program in an existing alternative school (Oasis Alternative Secondary School). Because it is small in scope, McCaskell argues, “it would never fundamentally change what was happening to gay students … in mainstream schools.”
The fact that Toronto has a school program for a small number of ‘at-risk’ queer youth or, for that matter, Africentric-focused schools for Black students stems from the hard work that education activists do to ensure inclusive schools. These efforts do not easily translate into easy ‘wins.’ Rather, they give rise, more often than not, to singular solutions that do not actually shift underpinning systemic queer phobias or racism. We might end up with programs where problems can be re-located, but the mainstream racist, heterosexist, and phobic systems remain intact.
So what does (queer) equity activism accomplish? Malinda S. Smith references the important work of Sara Ahmed in her post on, “The language of equity and diversity in the academy.” I, too, find Ahmed’s work compelling, particularly her 2007 article, “‘You end up doing the document rather than doing the doing’: Diversity, race equality and the politics of documentation.” This work is particularly apt when examining the gap between commitments to equity, diversity and inclusion and the practice of it.
In this article, Ahmed states that equity work is appealing to educational institutions as long as it conforms to the ideal image an institution has of itself. The equity policies that we spend hours developing stand as a representation of what it means for schools and universities to be caring, equitable and diverse, without even having to act on – engage in the doing of – the recommendations embedded in them. Too often, what well-written, even well-intended reports and policies do is help individual institutions to gain some equity credibility. And Triangle does just that for the Toronto District School Board.
This is not to say that policy recommendations are worthless. However, it is to say that too often what is acted on is controlled and managed by the prevailing economic and marketable priorities rather than by a consideration of the systemic inequities that might accentuate what an educational institution is not doing and needs to do. Such revelations of inequities are suppressed because in a marketing conscious academic environment they may make institutions look bad and because they require more accountability for results. Further, as Rosemary Deem and Jennifer Ozga argue in their work on “Women Managing for Diversity in a Post Modern World”, organizing around discourses of individualized equity ‘problems,’ identifies ‘difference’ but “does not necessarily evoke commitment to action or redistributive justice.”
While equity activists strive for systemic change, there is a slippery terrain to be negotiated. Without actually having to admit to racism, queer phobias or ableism or, indeed, to change much of anything or commit to actions or redistributive justice, we are left to celebrate ourselves as being more inclusive based on the potential for change. The written policies and reports themselves seem to represent a commitment to equity and diversity rather than to any form of social justice or social change.
The school board in Toronto did respond to equity activists when it allowed for the creation of the Triangle Program. These acts are important, but we must question what they enable, produce, and constrain. As McCaskell noted, as a small program, Triangle was never intended to fundamentally change the way that homo, bi, queer and trans phobias are structured into public education. And it is this point that reveals clearly how equity work, and in this instance Triangle, is located on a slippery terrain, caught between the rhetoric of the desire for equity and actually doing equity.
Concomitant with the gap between the desire for and the doing of equity is how Triangle functions as a school program. One of the strong findings of the ethnographic study is that the school program would not exist without community support, and from outside the school system. This questions the commitment of the TDSB to go beyond a desire for equity. Triangle is located off TDSB property in the basement of the queer-positive Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCCT). Despite the potential conflicts that cohabiting with a religious organization might create, these have not only been avoided but the partnership has allowed Triangle the freedom to operate separate from some of the constraints of mainstream schooling.
Triangle has flourished because MCCT has worked with the queer community to provide ongoing support and stability. McCaskell muses,
…having some place around that these kids could be taken care of, um, meant a lot less grief to a lot of other people, right? And as well it was a remarkably good deal for the Board because … the Board paid for the teachers and some admin support but it didn’t have to pay for the site. The site was operated by MCCT so you know [there] wasn’t heating and caretaking and maintaining a building that is a sizeable cost in running a school.
Fundraising efforts have meant that school supplies, furniture, school trips, guest speakers, scholarship money, lunch programs and a massive renovation effort that provides Triangle with three separate classroom spaces, all have come from the community. Each of these campaigns has been labour intensive and none can be assumed as given from year to year. During my research one TDSB Trustee brazenly admits that the Board underfunds Triangle.
A final aspect that emerged from the ethnographic study that I would like to touch on is the effect of the It Gets Better campaign. Contrary to popular belief, the IGB campaign was not beneficial for Triangle students, because they are not students who fit the ‘ideal’ queer subject of victimhood. They are students who find a place at Triangle where they ‘fit’ and who do not have to wait until they graduate until things gets better. In fact, in the Fall of 2010, when the campaign hit the cyber waves, it was a particularly difficult term for the Triangle students who felt oppressed by the dominant messages that a ‘better’ life was a respectable, bourgeois life (assimilating white heterosexuality). The students were angry that there were no commitments or messages that supported queer youth in the present. In fact, the number of self-harm incidents increased that Fall term and the teachers were convinced that it was the result of the students’ interpretation of the IGB message: one of hopelessness for youth living their lives in the present.
Other than the lucky few who gain access to safe(r), more inclusive schools, like Triangle, where they can find sustained support for their beautiful queer selves, students continue to be confronted with the fact that they must wait until they leave school in order for their life to get better. What a sad condemnation of our public school system. The celebration of the It Gets Better campaign, important as it may be for some queer youth, is the result of our collective failure to effectively move beyond individualizing equity problems and to actively commit to systemic change. And it is shameful for politicians to play off the IGB campaign, as typically happens when yet another youth commits suicide as a result of what the system likes to call bullying. Such utterances serve as quintessential examples of taking the rhetoric of the desire for equity as a replacement for doing equity.
Doreen Fumia is an associate professor in the Sociology Department at Ryerson University. She has been a member of the Triangle School Community Council for over 12 years. She is also the Co-Chair of the Equity and Diversity Council and a member of the LGBTIQ2S Working Group at CAUT.