Because Homophobia Kills: Making Schools Safer for LGBTQ Kids

This is a message for all my friends (and friends of friends, and LGBTQ allies, and anyone who cares about social justice). It is especially a message for those of you who are parents, because schools care about what you think. Your voice on this will be heard.

After the horrific hate crime last week- the mass shooting on Latin night at a gay night club in Orlando, in which over 100 people were shot, and 49 killed- no one can be unaware that homophobia kills. And it kills in more insidious ways as well. Queer youth are at increased risk of violence, of homelessness, of suicide. And queer kids in our Canadian schools are not safe. Many are afraid or isolated. Many are still getting horribly bullied.

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Pride Flag at Victoria’s City Hall at half-mast after the mass shooting at Pulse in Orlando.

One of them is Milan, a trans teen from Prince George. He’s now in Grade 8, and has missed and a year and a half of school because of severe bullying. He’s speaking up about his experience.

That’s courage.

Kids, in fact, seem to be the ones showing the most courage. Like 13 year old trans activists Harriette Cunningham and Tru Wilson, meeting with MPs and fighting for protection under the BC human rights code. Or Quinn Maloney-Tavares and Polly Hamilton: these two Ottawa 12 year olds have been trying to establish a gay-straight alliance club at a Catholic elementary school.

Last month, I took part in an incredible full day LGBTQ conference called Love is Love, which was organized by youth, for youth. I did a presentation about the history of Pride celebrations and the LGBTQ rights movement. One young attendee said she hadn’t known about any of this history, and asked, “Why do we have to come to a special event on our day off to learn this? This is so important! Why isn’t this taught in our schools? ” Answer: It should be.

Displaying IMG_0375.JPGSo why isn’t it? Well, on the whole, adults don’t seem to have the same courage that our youth have. Of course, some teachers and principals are stepping up and advocating for these kids. I met a number of them at the Love is Love event, because, in addition to five youth workshops, the students organized a fantastic gender and sexuality workshop for teachers. And some school boards are taking a strong stand: I just got a message from one school board letting me know they’d just ordered 25 copies of my Pride book to use in training to set up elementary school GSAs (Gay Straight Alliances, or Gender Sexuality Alliances) for next year. Which made me more happy than I can express. And check out this awesome Surrey school that’s ending the school year with a Pride Prom!

But far too many adults are not taking action. Some are uncomfortable with LGBTQ issues, or even frankly homophobic and transphobic. Some don’t understand the importance of the issue. And some are want to be supportive but are worried that parents will be upset and complain if they talk about LGBTQ issues in their classrooms. I recently spent two weeks in Ontario and Quebec, visiting schools and libraries and talking about my new book about Pride, and this issue came up several times. At one library visit, not a single child attended: classes were booked to come, but at the last minute, their principal refused to let their teacher bring them.

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Empty seats at a Pride presentation after a school principal cancelled a planned visit.

So if you care about kids— about all kids, including LGBTQ kids—please speak up. Please talk to your kids’ teachers and librarians and principals. Let them know that homophobia and transphobia are real problems, and ones that you are concerned about. Tell them that you want to see all kinds of families included in the classroom. Insist on it. Tell them that you want your kids to learn about diversity and social justice, and that you see LGBTQ issues as an important and necessary part of that.

The parents who oppose inclusiveness and LGBTQ content are very vocal– and all too often they are succeeding in keeping LGBTQ content out of the classroom. So we need to be equally clear and equally insistent. There are so many supportive, inclusive, progressive parents– but if we are silent, we’ll lose this battle. Our LGBTQ kids suffer the most, but all our kids are robbed of an opportunity to learn.

Right now, schools worry that parents will be upset if they talk about LGBTQ issues in the classroom. But in an ideal world, parents would complain when schools are NOT inclusive. Parents should be upset when their kids’ teachers AVOID this subject.

We can demand that these issues be addressed. And if we care about kids, we need to. Please make some noise. This school year is coming to an end. We need to do a lot better next year.

Let’s make the 2016-2017 school year a year of LGBTQ inclusion.

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I love this message, written on the arm of a young teen.