GAY-STRAIGHT ALLIANCES KEY IN FIGHTING HATRED
LGBTQ students need to know they are accepted, Kristopher Wells says.
It may surprise people to know that gay-straight alliances, known as GSAs, have a long and storied history in Alberta and have been active in our schools and communities for almost 20 years.
Our province’s first gaystraight alliance was started in 2000 by a group of students at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School in Red Deer. These students were part of the highly acclaimed group called STOP, which stands for Students and Teachers Opposing Prejudice. STOP was active in organizing anti-racist and human rights events, which included an annual Holocaust Awareness Symposium and White Ribbon campaigns to raise awareness about violence against girls and women.
STOP’s student-led activities garnered international attention and won many awards for its commitment to diversity and human rights. The fact that these students were leading change shocked many as Red Deer was once known as a centre for far right-wing extremists in Canada, in large measure because of former politician and teacher Jim Keegstra, who was an avowed white supremacist and Holocaust denier. Central Alberta also had a long history of the Ku Klux Klan and cross burnings as recently as the 1990s.
For students at Lindsay Thurber, starting a GSA was a natural extension of their human rights work. After all, schools should be safe and supportive spaces for all students regardless of how they identify or whom they love. From these humble beginnings, GSAs started to gain provincial momentum when in 2005, the Alberta Teachers’ Association passed a resolution supporting GSAs in schools. It would take the Alberta government, with the passage of Bill 10 in 2015, 10 years to catch up to the leadership of teachers in recognizing the importance of GSAs as spaces of refuge and safety in schools. Unfortunately, even today, not all groups agree with our students and teachers about the importance of GSAs in schools.
Over the past several years, far-right fringe groups have gained renewed energy and now have GSAs and LGBTQ students as their targets, although the rhetoric has subtly shifted from outright hate speech to so-called “parental rights.” Underlying this rhetoric from the extreme fringe is a view of children as nothing more than property to be owned and controlled, and the tactics are the same — to keep LGBTQ issues out of schools and to render LGBTQ youth silent and invisible.
It seems that as LGBTQ individuals gain more rights and recognition, backlash intensifies. In Alberta, Pride flags have been burned, rainbow crosswalks vandalized, LGBTQ teachers fired from their jobs, and just recently Pride flags were compared to the Nazi swastika by the founder and leader of the group suing the Alberta government over Bill 24 and GSAs. We even have prominent political leaders who have been elected despite their lengthy records of actively opposing LGBTQ equality.
The result of this hate is that many LGBTQ people feel under constant threat of attack. Same-gender couples are afraid to walk down Main Street holding their partner’s hand. Youth are still being subjected to conversion therapy in an attempt to cure their “broken” sexual orientation or gender identity. Thanks to Bill 24, all schools are now required to have policies that support LGBTQ students and staff, yet many schools can’t or won’t even use the words lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender as though they were some kind of virus or contagion.
Even now in 2018, when such discredited intrusions as conversion therapy are still in play, young people need the right to keep their participation in GSAs private because GSAs may be the only place they are truly secure. Such privacy and protection for the most vulnerable are once again under assault by anti-LGBTQ extremists in Alberta.
Is this the kind of province we want to build?
We must fight hate with truth and love.
The fact is that GSAs not only create important spaces of safety in our schools, they also save lives by connecting vulnerable students to supportive peers and trusted teachers.
The research is undeniably clear. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among LGBTQ youth. Research estimates that up to 40 per cent of all homeless youth identify as non-heterosexual. One of the leading causes of LGBTQ youth homelessness is parental rejection.
The first-ever report on the experiences of transgender youth in Alberta found that over 75 per cent reported experiences of discrimination in the past year. These stats paint a troubling picture of the daily realities of many LGBTQ youth in our schools and communities.
But there is hope. Research also tells us that when schools have GSAs and LGBTQ -inclusive policies in place, students report more supportive teachers and adults who “made a real difference in their lives.” Students report more friendships across sexual and gender identities and have fewer physical, psychological and behavioural concerns. Conversely, in many schools without a GSA, students said the tenor of the school culture wasn’t just neutral, it was often homophobic and unsafe.
Perhaps, what is most hopeful about the protective power of GSAs is the life-changing impact these supportive environments can have on LGBTQ youth. Research shows this impact can have lasting benefits well into young adulthood. It is the experience of safety, acceptance and belonging that helps students move from being vulnerable and at-risk to developing the resilience to face adversity and future challenges in their lives. GSAs don’t just help students survive, they enable them to thrive.
Instead of fighting against GSAs, we should understand GSAs as the building blocks to an open, accepting and inclusive society. Perhaps, the greatest power of a GSA is the ability for students to know that they are not alone in a still too often hostile and uninviting world.
As the students in Red Deer taught us long ago, you get the communities you are willing to fight for and build. It is the hate, silence and invisibility that prevent our youth from hearing these important words: “You are unique, beautiful and loved. You don’t need to change. It’s society that does.”
Instead of fighting against GSAs, we should understand GSAs as the building blocks to an open, accepting and inclusive society.
Protesters gathered outside a courthouse in Medicine Hat last June as a court challenge was launched against an Alberta law barring schools from telling parents if their children join a gay-straight alliance.