By Dean Velentzas
Social Connectedness Fellow 2018
Legendary drag queen and icon to the queer community, Rupaul Andre Charles, ends every episode of his reality TV show, Rupaul’s Drag Race with a profound and relatable mantra. He looks encouragingly towards his contestants and states: “if you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love somebody else?”
Rupaul’s quote speaks to thousands of students across Canada who find extreme difficulty in loving themselves due to the harassment and bullying they face in schools. The issue of bullying (and particularly, the bullying of those who identify as LGBTQ) is by no means resolved. In fact, it is what has influenced the contemporary statistic that 33% of Canadian lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth have attempted suicide, compared with seven percent of youth in general. The discrepancy between these numbers is not a coincidence, and is certainly not to be ignored.
In 2012, after the devastating suicide of Ottawa teen, Jamie Hubley (a 15-year old boy who attempted to initiate a ‘rainbow club’ for students struggling with their sexualities), lawmakers were shocked into action. This action plan took the form of the ‘Accepting Schools Act’ (Bill 13); an anti-bullying bill requiring all schools in Ontario to permit the formation of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs). The passing of this bill into law proved as greatly beneficial to a large majority of LGBTQ students: sexual minority students in schools with GSAs reported lower rates of victimization and suicide attempts, these students began feeling united and empowered, and the general attitudes of school officials changed from that of tolerance to acceptance. Unfortunately, however, even with the implementation of these efforts, the lives of LGBTQ students remain far from perfect: 59% of LGBTQ high school students reported being verbally harassed, 73% of LGBTQ students reported they felt unsafe at school, and oftentimes, these youth are dealing with these issues entirely alone.
The Accepting Schools Act is part of a comprehensive action plan requiring fluid coordination between all parts in order for it to function. This plan includes, but is not limited to: introducing more mental health workers in schools, expanding video counselling services with a psychiatrist for kids in remote communities, and including more bullying prevention strategies throughout the curriculum. By giving students the freedom to initiate their own GSAs, policymakers have taken the first step in offering power to marginalized students. This being said, the provision of power is much different from the act of empowerment, and right now LGBTQ students could use all the empowerment they can get.
Perhaps the best way to understand the importance of empowerment in schools is by trying to relate to the individuals who lack it. For example, imagine being the one, openly gay teenager in a class of exclusively straight-identifying students. In situations like these, the odds seem so stacked against the individual teenager that even when offered the freedom to start a GSA, it is highly unlikely that this student would be motivated to do so. Introducing that one, isolated student to a network of support, offering them sufficient knowledge and resources, and fostering a safe school environment are all examples of empowerment that would make a difference in the Accepting Schools Act.
In a study conducted by Russell T. Stephen, et al. fifteen young GSA leaders from different areas of California explained what ‘empowerment’ means to them, and how they have become empowered through their involvement with GSAs. One major conclusion derived from this study was that GSA leaders felt most empowered when they had used their acquired knowledge to motivate social change. According to the participants of the study: one must have knowledge to be empowered, and one must be empowered to challenge the status quo. Therefore, it is the responsibility of teachers to become mentors to students who feel lost in the majority; it is the responsibility of teachers to offer reliable knowledge and resources to those who are bullied; and it is the responsibility of teachers to help students realize their strength so that they may use that strength to inspire others.
As June 1st marked Toronto’s annual LGBTQ pride month, now is the perfect time for Canadians to re-examine the importance of LGBTQ students’ safety in schools. It is important for all of us not to forget where we came from, the people who shaped us, and the groups that made us feel important. We must remember the Jamie Hubleys; we must remember all students who continue to feel alienated and misunderstood by their peers. These are students of equal value, deserving of equal empowerment, and the equal opportunity to use their experience to develop a new system: one that is loving and accepting of all.