The suicide rates of LGBTQ youth are four times higher than those of their peers. Two-thirds of queer and trans teens feel unsafe at school. We keep telling them to tough it out, that it gets better down the road. It’s time to stop making future-rated promises. The system is failing and if we’re going to save kids’ lives, things need to get better right now.
It’s half an hour before lunch on Remembrance Day at North York’s Emery Collegiate Institute. Six kids—three girls, three boys—are alone in the corridor. They trade jokes in the whisper-shout cadence of kids who don’t want to get busted by a teacher while they methodically tear down the notices posted on a bulletin board in the hall. The signs, handwritten on neon paper, read “PEACE,” “HARMONY,” “NO PUT-DOWNS,” “RESPECT EVERYONE” and “UNITY.”
A casual observer might’ve put a stop to the seeming act of vandalism in progress. But this mob isn’t on a destructive rampage; rather, they’re engaged in an expression of pride. When the board is clear, they fastidiously erase the pencil scribbles and smudges on the coloured background and tack up the positive messages one by one in a more orderly display. The bulletin board welcomes students to room 109, the classroom that’s been designated as Emery’s official safe space for LGBTQQ2S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, two-spirited) students—and anyone else who needs a place to go where bullying is absolutely not tolerated. The door of room 109 is plastered on both sides with more pieces of paper; these ones are anti-bullying pledges, signed by members of the student body. At last count, according to teacher Erin Del Col, they’d collected over 400 signed pledges. “And there are only about 1,100 students in the school,” she adds, “so that’s something!”
Del Col is one of three staff supervisors of Emery’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). She and colleague Jane Alexander founded the group over two years ago. Both women say they were determined to start a GSA after being shocked by the insidious homophobia that was the norm when they first arrived at the school.
“I grew up in the dance community and I’ve lived at Church and Wellesley, and before I started here four years ago, I kind of assumed overt racism and homophobia were behind us. You know, ‘We’re done! We’re so modern!’” says Alexander, grinning ruefully. “It was literature that opened my eyes—I encountered a wall of hate from students [directed toward] a gay character in a book.”
Alexander wanted to change student attitudes, she says, but the prospect of tackling a GSA on her own was overwhelming. It wasn’t till Del Col joined the staff a year later—bringing stories of a successful GSA at her previous school, in Scarborough—that Alexander found a willing and tenacious supervisory “partner in crime,” as she puts it. They were surprised to discover that there was a great deal of support from kids at the school, who were eager for a place to discuss gender-based violence and other issues relevant to the group. The day I visit, about a dozen students—including the six who gave the hallway bulletin board a makeover—show up for the GSA’s weekly meeting. Unsurprisingly, more girls than boys are in attendance. Given the anxiety around masculinity and machismo that exists in high school, even just coming out as a gay allycan be tantamount to putting a target on your back.