Being gay in Saskatchewan’s education system
“Diversity is not perceived as an obstacle, but rather as an opportunity to enrich school culture and provide students and adults with experiences to increase their knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of differences. Meeting the needs of all Saskatchewan children and youth is a shared responsibility for families, teachers, and community members.” –Saskatchewan Learning’s webpage for Respect for Diversity – Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Being gay in high school
High school is the most difficult time and place to be openly gay – at least, that’s what UR Pride Centre Executive Director Lisa Smith contends.
According to Smith, all high school students are in the process of discovering who they are and figuring out their sexuality and gender identity. “They are exploring what they like and, for the most part, are insecure about it,” said Smith, adding that “everyone is angsty and upset and full of hormones.”
When teenagers are defining their identities in high school, they do so in the context of everyone else developing their identities too. Being insecure can lead to students developing their identities in opposition to those of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students – the “others.” Homophobia and transphobia are prevalent concerns in Saskatchewan’s high schools, and lend themselves to LGBTQ students being harassed verbally, physically, and sometimes sexually. Smith said such attitudes regarding gender identity can lead to students dropping out of school, withdrawing from their peers, and in extreme cases taking their own lives.
To more fully appreciate what high school is like for LGBTQ young people, I interviewed an openly gay Regina high school student regarding his personal experiences. Unfortunately, and perhaps as a consequence of how difficult high school is for gay students, he asked that his name not be used in this article.
The student recounted some of the insults he has received: “faggot,” ”homo,” “the girl,” “the weird one.”
“I’ve been called a lot of names in my day, and the list is ongoing,” he said. He acknowledged that bullying and discrimination are major problems within high schools, and that such actions often create a fearful learning environment.
“I definitely feel unsafe sometimes if I’m with the wrong group of people at the wrong time, it can be quite a scary experience,” he said.
He believes that when other people call him a “fag” it is because they were brought up in a household that does not support open-minded people, and that they haven’t been educated about LGBTQ identities and issues.
“It sucks because I want to transfer the message that I’m just human like everyone else,” the student said. “It can be really hard at times to deal with because at that point when someone calls you a fag you’re hopeless.”
According to him, “fag” is a powerful word.
There are circumstances at school when LGBTQ students feel threatened or uncomfortable. These circumstances may be overlooked or taken for granted by heterosexual students, but something as simple as going to the washroom or changing for gym can be intensely stressful for LGBTQ people. “I don’t feel comfortable at times, and I think that really has to be changed in the school system as well as in the education system,” he said.
Stereotypes can act as a passive form of discrimination in high school for the reason that some LGBTQ young people feel the need to act or talk in a certain way. “If your girlfriends are going shopping you’re usually supposed to be the one who can give the most accurate expertise on what to wear,” the student said. “I do feel often that people might like me or find me funny or want to hang out with me just because I’m gay, and so they can say ‘I’m going out with my gay friend.’” He also expressed concerns about acquaintances only talking to him because he was the “gay boy” or “the fag.”
The student explained concerns that teachers are can also be guilty of applying stereotypes to individuals, “There’s definitely been times when teachers treated me differently,” he said.
“Maybe because they see I’m more feminine, maybe because they just assume that I’m gay,” he speculated. “Often male teachers would kind of joke around with me in … a slightly negative way or just hint around things that were just a little bit rude, saying things I didn’t appreciate being a young person in elementary school as well as in high school.”
The student asserted high school is “definitely not” an easy place to be gay. According to him, many people hide their sexual orientation for the duration of high school and commonly “come out” the summer after high school or during their first year of university. “People don’t want to come out in high school because the support is not there,” he said.
“They’re not going to live an easy life … people will look at you, people will laugh at you,” he added. The student concluded by saying most people just want to be surrounded by others who understand who they are, and said Regina doesn’t support its LGBTQ community.
Being gay in university
University is a time, place, and experience for people to further explore their gender identity, and become comfortable with who they are. Lisa Smith, the executive director of UR Pride Centre for Sexuality and Gender Diversity, believes that university students face special challenges, yet maintains that identifying as LGBTQ in university is far easier than in high school.
“When people get into university … most people have grown into their identities,” said Smith. “Although you are always going to have people who disagree with or are against someone’s sexuality and/or gender identity, as with many … other topics, people are nicer about it in university”
While the academic setting of a university certainly lends itself to more liberal views regarding gender issues, independence also influences how open people are about themselves.
“One other big difference is university students are generally living away from home. Therefore they do not have family pressures to conform to the heteronormative life their parents expect of them,” Smith explained.
Specific circumstances that LGBTQ students often encounter include courses with a closed view of what constitutes a family, and different forms of relationships. Disparaging remarks from classmates are also quite common.
“Some profs ignore or don’t address these comments,” said Smith, who encourages LGBTQ students and their allies to challenge “heteronormative” class material and misinformed assertions. Smith also cited offensive washroom or hallway graffiti as an issue for LGBTQ students, and singled out a seemingly passive attitude towards such homophobia.
Isolation, desperation, and discrimination can have severely adverse effects on LGBTQ people.
“There is a much higher risk of drug dependency, suicide, depression and other mental illnesses which all get in the way of learning and a high quality of life,” said Smith. The result of hearing other people, and in many ways society as a whole, constantly degrade non-heterosexuals is that students actually start believing what closed-minded individuals are saying. Smith noted, “LGBTQ people start living in a state of helplessness where they believe they are not equal to straight people and because of that they don’t deserve to be treated with respect.
“Or,” she added, “they live very defensively. They think everyone hates them and they are alone.”
If such self-hating attitudes develop, queer students can become exceedingly frustrated and angry individuals. They may, as Smith noted, become withdrawn from others and refuse to take any form of criticism, which means they “can’t grow as a person.”
According to Smith, it is important for universities, student groups, and other organizations to be visibly supportive of gender diversity. She said that queer-friendly events, queer-friendly information, and positive space stickers make a considerable difference in how welcome people feel. She included some in-class advice as well.
“When discussing a subject in class, introduce queer perspectives, especially when talking about relationships and family,” she suggested. All students, heterosexual and non-heterosexual alike, have a stake in ensuring all people feel included.
“It is important for anyone to feel comfortable and accepted because then they can positively contribute to other people’s learning experience,” said Smith. “When people don’t feel comfortable they either don’t talk or they are very defensive and don’t listen well to other opinions.”
However, in extreme cases, the consequences can be much worse than defensiveness and emotional pain.
“When anyone [feels] unwelcome at their school, at home, and in the community they will sometimes decide suicide is the only option. Suicide affects everyone,” said Smith, “In Regina, in the last two years, I personally know three queer people who did commit suicide and many others who attempted and were hospitalized because of it.”
Overall, Smith considered the University of Regina to be a safe place for LGBTQ students. “The general attitude on campus is to each their own,” she said. Smith went on to state that the major problem for LGBTQ students at the University of Regina is that the university is in the city of Regina.
“Regina is not a safe space for LGBT people.”
Tolerance and the curriculum
Tolerance of difference and respect for non-heterosexual people is a fundamental cornerstone of making life easier for many of Saskatchewan’s LGBTQ students. Yet, according to the dean of the University of Regina’s faculty of education, Dr. James McNinch, there is no obligatory program in the province’s high schools that would communicate those ideals.
“There is no curriculum in this province that mandates teachers to teach about sexual and gender minority issues, although all curricular materials are infused with the concept that respect for others is the beginning of self-respect,” he said.
McNinch upholds that it is detrimental to all students, irrespective of sexual orientation, when one group of their peers is disregarded.
“Unfortunately the discourse in our schools is overwhelmingly heterosexual and oppressive because of that ? for all students, not just queer students,” he explained. “We live in a society saturated with sex, but our schools are reluctant to discuss important issues.”
McNinch went on to cite an example in Ontario which saw parents of grade one students alarmed that their children would be exposed to sexual education, noting that “an entire K-12 sex education curriculum was shelved because of a perverse Puritanism that permeates our society.”
Making gender diversity courses mandatory may very well improve the situation for queer students in Saskatchewan.
“The use of real life and age-appropriate examples of sexual and gender minorities should begin as soon as children begin school,” said McNinch. “Straight kids have gay brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts.
“Some straight kids have two moms or two dads,” he added. “Their realities need to be recognized as much as anybody’s.”
There is a specific diversity curriculum approved for high schools in British Columbia, according to McNinch, but the course is an elective, not mandatory. The details of the course are also important, as ensuring the protection of teachers is a major issue.
“If the curricula is not specific, many teachers feel they will not be supported in discussing potentially controversial subjects,” he noted.
Despite its important and overarching status, the curriculum is not the only option in terms of making students, schools, and society at large more inclusive. McNinch noted that continued incidents of gay bashing and bullying imply that people need to be more tolerant of difference, whatever that difference may be.
“Understanding that sexuality and gender are not fixed or static or absolute categories is the beginning of a way to embrace and celebrate difference and understand we are all enhanced by such differences and we are all diminished by intolerance,” McNinch said. He provided the example of “the Rider Nation” and the often- extreme ways its fans show their pride as one way to perform gender, even though many people do not think of it in that context.
McNinch stated that Canadian laws and attitudes regarding same-sex relationships have changed drastically over the past decade, and schools have to balance the interests of students, parents, and taxpayers.
“Schools both reflect and replicate the values and attitudes of society at large,” he said. “Sexuality and gender will always be contested fields. Many, many minorities have been victimized by schools over the years. ‘Owning’ the problem is one way institutions can be made more accountable.”
McNinch added that changing the values in Saskatchewan’s educational institutions would require leadership from straight and gay members alike.
“As a gay man, I have to remind myself that the respectful university environment in which I work and play is not something everyone can take for granted,” he said. “There are still too many people leading double lives, staying closeted, lying to themselves and others because of fear. I sometimes think it would help if everyone in society just admitted that one way or another we are all ‘freaks,’ and I mean that in the best way possible.”