GAY-STRAIGHT AL­LIANCES KEY IN FIGHT­ING HA­TRED

LGBTQ stu­dents need to know they are ac­cepted, Kristo­pher Wells says.

Calgary Herald - - OPINION - Kristo­pher Wells, a for­mer K-12 school teacher, cur­rently serves as co-ed­i­tor of the in­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of LGBT Youth and is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the fac­ulty of health and com­mu­nity stud­ies, MacEwan Univer­sity.

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.

THE CANA­DIAN PRESS/FILES

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.

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