Education Matters: Confronting Homophobia and Transphobia in Schools

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Brian Burtch, Simon Fraser 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.

Our awareness of homophobia and transphobia in high schools has been heightened by a growing body of research and media commentary that is beginning to take seriously the dynamics of exclusion and resistance experienced by LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirited, and questioning) students. As Rebecca Haskell and I wrote in our book, Get That Freak, “Sometimes the lessons are brutal, involving bullying that is so persistent and hateful that young people take their own lives, whether they have been targeted for their sexual orientation, gender identity or any other number of reasons.” For us, it is important that homophobia and transphobia are not dismissed as incidental but rather are seen as part-and-parcel of school contexts where LGBTQ people have always been, although not always well-represented in curricula and where resources, such as teacher-allies and gay-straight alliances, may not be available to some students.

We are not alone in this concern. Earlier Equity Matters postings by Malinda Smith, Kris Wells, Rebecca Haskell and me on this blog have provided ample evidence of ways in which homophobia and transphobia affect youth, including cyberbullying, suicide attempts, physical attacks, even murder. For example, a report authored by Catherine Taylor and Tracey Peter, Every Class in Every School, presented results from a survey of over 3000 Canadian teens. Briefly, the researchers found that 70% of students who participated in the survey heard derogatory expressions such as “that’s so gay” on a daily basis, and just over 20% of LGBTQ students declared that they had been “physically harassed or assaulted” because of their sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation.

This kind of vital research confirms that schools, for many students, can be a site where a wide range of shunning, threatening and even violent behaviours take place, often on a daily basis. At the same time, there is also evidence of more positive changes in media representations of LGBTQ people and some ongoing efforts to address HTP (homophobic and transphobic) bullying in school settings. There are efforts to establish safer school policies, including specifically anti-homophobia policies, and researchers such as Taylor and Peter in their report have outlined several recommendations for addressing HTP issues, including professional development for teachers, more inclusive curricula, and incorporating “anti-homophobia, anti-biphobia, and anti-transphobia and intersectionality measures.”

I wanted to reflect on a few examples of how HTP behavior can be confronted in Canadian schools. While I have the floor, I also wanted to consider the larger picture, to appreciate some examples from Canada and other countries of efforts to establish in schools and universities greater inclusiveness in terms of sexual orientation

By way of background, Rebecca Haskell and I continue to work together on her research based on interviews with recent high school graduates. In our book, Get That Freak: Homophobia and Transphobia in Schools (2010), we documented many instances of students coping with HTP bullying and exclusion in school settings. We also highlighted ways in which students and their allies worked to establish what we in our concluding remarks termed “A Better Place.” Some findings from the book are provided in our initial Equity Matters blog posting, “Making schools better for LGBT: Homophobia and Transphobia lessons” (November 9, 2010).

The interest in this area of research is growing. Other venues have been welcoming: Rebecca was present for a conversation and book launch of Get That Freak this past June in Toronto. Under the auspices of the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies (GSWS) at Simon Fraser University, I travelled to Nelson, B.C. in February to give a public talk on homophobia and transphobia in schools, followed by a talk to students at L.V. Rogers Secondary School in Nelson. I was alerted to the music video “it gets better” by Rebecca Drysdale. This video is posted under the “It Gets Better” heading on YouTube. Issues of safety and recognition in schools have also been championed by many organizations in Canada, including ‘Out in Schools,’ which works on several fronts to combat homophobia, including listing resources for queer youth.

Along with work on schools, I think it is important to consider the larger picture. There has been a rich legacy of LGBTQ work on many fronts in Canada. To begin with, Canada recognizes same-sex marriage.  I have shown documentaries by Canadian filmmaker David Adkin (“Out: Stories of Gay and Lesbian Youth” and “Jim Loves Jack: The James Egan Story”) in my university classes, for instance. At the risk of leaving out many other fine works, publications by Michel Dorais with Simon L. Lajeunesse’s Dead Boys Can’t Dance: Sexual Orientation, Masculinity and Suicide (McGill-Queen`s University Press, 2004), Douglas Victor Janoff’s accounts of gaybashing and other violence in Pink Blood: Homophobic Violence in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2005), and Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile`s detailed account of national security, The Canadian War on Queers (University of British Columbia  Press, 2010) – are part of this Canadian legacy of highlighting how LGBTQ people are treated and how the struggle for equity is ongoing.

The need for strong research has also been promoted by initiatives such as SVR (sexuality, vulnerability, resistance) at the Université du Québec à Montréal.  Here in Vancouver, the ‘We Demand’ conference was held in late August 2011, showcasing activist and academic (not that the two are necessarily separate) work over the past four decades. Activist work continues with print and online productions such as XTRA!, including updates on homophobic bullying and anti-homophobia policies in schools.

Clearly, the work continues. Again, locally in British Columbia, events leading up to the passage of an anti-homophobia policy by the Burnaby School Board this June confirmed the sharp divisions that can surface, with some favouring the policy and others seeing it as regressive. The continuing controversy over attempts to ban what are variously termed gay clubs or gay-straight alliances in Catholic Schools in Ontario, and the recent efforts by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to reinforce equity considerations have also garnered news headlines and countless online postings by those opposed to and in favour of LGBT-themed clubs and curricula in schools.

Other issues surfaced when I chaired a panel on LGBT issues at the British Society of Criminology annual conference in Newcastle, England in early July. I met Angela Dwyer from Australia and became familiar with her work documenting police dealings with LGBT youth in Brisbane and issues of risk for these youth.  At the BSC conference, during the presentation of work by Rebecca and myself, I posed the question that Rebecca and I have often been asked – “are things getting better?” One person in the audience responded that things are definitely getting better in some important ways. One example he gave was the repeal of section 28 of the Local Government Act of 1988 in the United Kingdom and the continuing efforts to break the taboo on discussing the wider spectrum of sexuality in school curricula and classrooms.

We can also see the continued efforts of groups such as Stonewall UK in fighting for protection of and recognition of LGBTQ people and work on homophobic bullying of students in Ireland (example, James O’Higgins-Norman’s book, Homophobic Bullying in Irish Secondary Education).  We look to other places where people are speaking up, including the very recent example of Krystl Assan protesting what she called “the last acceptable discrimination” in Bermuda. She has confronted stereotyping of LGBT people and argued for an extension of Bermuda’s Human Rights Act to include sexual orientation.

We need to pay greater attention to protection – and especially lack of protection – for LGBTQ youth in schools. What we aim for is to be part of a conversation about gender variance, sexuality, and strategies for making schools more welcoming and safer places for all students. The outlook is not entirely bleak. Consider the following comments from Catherine Taylor in the context of the possibility of common cause in the classroom: “It really surprised me that 58% of straight students report feeling upset when they hear homophobic comments. What that tells me is there is a great deal of untapped solidarity in students, and that the public school culture can change.”

With growing awareness, greater resources, ongoing research and, not least of all, this continuing conversation about sexuality and resistance, we may be at a turning point where traditional, oppressive practices are called into question and where people are called into account if they do not address bullying and other mistreatment of LGBTQ students.

Brian Burtch is a professor in the School of Criminology and an associate member in the Department of Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University. 


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