Rebecca Haskell, BC Society of Transition Houses and Brian Burtch, Simon Fraser University
In recent weeks there has been increasing media attention given to the suicides of young lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth in Canada and the United States. What has been framed as a recent rash of suicides is not really recent at all – a decade ago researchers at the McCreary Centre Society in British Columbia found that nearly half of the LGB youth they sampled had attempted to take their own lives and the average age at the time of attempt was only thirteen. As Kris Wells articulately stated in his Fedcan Equity Matters blog post, LGB youth may experience a multitude of stressors that put them at higher risk for suicide, including homophobia and transphobia in schools.
In contrast to the sensational experiences often reported by media, in a series of interviews and focus groups conducted with sixteen lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth for Get That Freak: Homophobia and Transphobia in High Schools, Brian Burtch and I heard of more subtle forms of harassment that flourished in the young people’s high schools precisely because these forms received so little attention. LGBT youth, and heterosexual youth who transgressed typical gender roles, were called names directly, witnessed others dealing with homophobic and transphobic slurs, saw hateful graffiti written on lockers and Gay-Straight Alliance posters and generally felt that their high schools failed to provide any (let alone positive) representation of LGBT people in the curriculum.
The young people we interviewed felt incredibly silenced, and said they attempted to camouflage themselves or to hide in areas of the school where they felt safe.
The homophobia and transphobia had effects on their self-esteem and their overall mental health. Years after the bullying some of the young people said they were still on edge when meeting new people fearing they too would be homophobic or transphobic. The stories would inspire anyone to ‘make it better’ but most inspiring for us was the resiliency of the young people we spoke with.
Facing homophobia and transphobia at the hands of their peers and sometimes their teachers, all but one of the sixteen youth we spoke with recounted more positive high school experiences – finding teachers, counselors or peers whose support helped to counter the impacts of the bullying they experienced, whether subtle or overt. With these supports, youth found ways to push back, to assert themselves and their sexual or gender identities and to share their experiences in hopes of supporting other youth. Drawing on their own experiences, the young people shared their ideas about how we can reduce homophobia and transphobia in high schools.
Some of their suggestions included:
• Formal training for teachers and administrators to learn how to recognize and effectively intervene when overt and subtle forms of homophobia and transphobia take place
• Positive examples of LGBT people should be integrated into the curriculum in a way that normalizes rather than sensationalizes the topic
• School counselors can do outreach to let queer youth know that they are LGBT friendly and are there to support youth who need to talk
• Anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia efforts need to be daily, not just part of an annual campaign or one-time guest speaker
As calls for a solution to homophobia and transphobia in schools mount, the young people we spoke with reminded us, as educators and researchers, to listen to and amplify the voices of young LGBT people who need now to be heard.
Rebecca Haskell works at the BC Society of Transition Houses. Brian Burtch is a Professor of Criminology and an Associate Member of the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University.