Illustration by Dave Cutler
This word is one of the anthems of a schoolyard bully; a variety of derogatory slurs, racial epithets, and the occasional violent encounter. Bullying is one of the most common problems of a school administrator and having been bullied is one of the most relatable stories of all. For the past five years I have worked closely with schools in British Columbia, primarily in School District #83 in the North Okanagan and in the Metro Vancouver area, on education of students and staff in the area of homophobia and discrimination.
Tackling Homophobic Bullying in Schools with Explicit Harassment Policies
Schools are currently faced with an incredible challenge in homophobic bullying. The nature of saying "that's so gay" or harassing a fellow student based on perceived sexual orientation is very commonplace. While as high as 58 per cent of heterosexually identified students find derogatory slurs based on sexual orientation upsetting, according to an article by the Toronto Egale Canada Human Rights Trust entitled, "Every class in every school: The first national climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools," it only takes a vocal few to make an environment unsafe. Add in that much of bullying occurs online, particularly in online interaction on multi-player games, it becomes very difficult for teachers to address.
An article by Xtra!, Canada's Gay and Lesbian News, reports that many schools in British Columbia have taken the step of instituting explicit policies around harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity in addition to their already existing policies. Despite the explicit policies of several school districts in British Columbia, almost every school district's lesbian, gay and bisexual youth reported even percentages of discrimination, feeling safe in schools, and abuse (Saewyc, et al., 2007; Taylor, et al., 2011). The consistent trend of rising reports of discrimination seems to run counter to the works of activists and policy-makers in British Columbia. Yet rates of attempted suicide, while considerably higher than heterosexual peers, are on the decline. This may imply that while policy does not seem to be cutting the hamstring of those who would discriminate, the victims of discrimination may feel they have places to turn to as oppose to taking their own life. This may also create an environment where students are more comfortable reporting issues when they occur, which allows for better tracking of incidents.
Alternative Methods For Preventing Homophobia
Some school districts have opted to bring in speakers of organizations to speak to students rather than create a separate policy. School District #83 Salmon Arm – North Okanagan, where I grew up, stated in their planning documents in social responsibility that they had "[a]nti homophobia workshops presented in all middle and high schools following request by students for separate policy and board's decision that education was what was needed, not a separate policy."
The success of these types of programs seems to be based on the idea of open discussion, positive role models and dispelling stereotypes. One of the greatest difficulties youth mention around sexuality is feelings of isolation and a lack of people to talk to or role models. According to the McCreary Centre Society's article, "Not Yet Equal: The Health of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Youth in BC", this also contributes greatly to perceptions that adults in a student's life care which makes them feel much safer in their environment. By administrators taking the lead and bringing in someone who can speak openly about homophobia, they demonstrate that issues around homophobia are significant and to be taken seriously.
Homophobic Literature and Bullying Workshops
In my own experience I have found teaching workshops to be a powerful way to engage students and staff. As students share their own experiences in schools, teachers get an opportunity to glimpse into what life is life for students when the teachers are not looking. Many teachers have approached me afterwards and mentioned that they were unaware of the problems faced by so many students in regards to homophobic language and bullying. From personal experience growing up as a gay youth in a small town, I feel discussions like these are what I was missing and what would have made me feel much less isolated and alone.
Schools also have an opportunity to show consistent support by publicly displaying images and messages that discourage homophobic behaviour, such as safe space posters, clearly labelled areas where discrimination is not tolerated, and literature that shows that a teacher is aware of issues and knowledgeable. An example of this would be prominently displaying pamphlets about coming out in a counsellor's office so a student would be able to see that counsellor is aware and appraised about issues.
While none of these suggestions end homophobia any more than similar projects have ended sexism or racism, they do offer the first steps needed to begin that process and may, in many ways, help students and youth currently working their way through the system until they are able to be successful on their own.
What happens next will likely come from legislation, policy, the efforts of passionate activists and strong advocates in the education system. The purpose will be simple: to save lives. In the end, the efforts of organizations and politicians need to be geared to reaching out to those most vulnerable and in need and hopefully preventing a tragedy. If even one life is saved, it will be worth it.