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Back to school

Back to school

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Students and activists are working together to make high school a safer space for queer kids
As we know from teen movies and TV shows, there are a handful of tidy archetypal characters associated with high school: the privileged jock or cheerleader, the nerdy sidekick, the subversive outsider. Coming-of-age stories are also usually filled with change – evolving characters and contexts make for interesting and relatable storylines.
 
But TV shows often compress the depth and complexity of high school to make it understandable and identifiable. And most students have anything but a tidy high school experience; many spend these formative years constantly striving for peer acceptance.
 
This is a task made doubly challenging for those who openly identify as gay, lesbian, trans or queer in high school but one that Mississauga student Claire Purdy is becoming comfortable with.
 
"When I came out people were shocked and acted a little strangely around me, but for the most part people were very accepting and proud of my courage."
 
Purdy, who came out last year at the start of Grade 11, says she encountered a mix of homophobia and support. "No matter what people say, think or do, it is important to do what I believe is right," she says.
 
Purdy is now in Grade 12 and the co-president of her school's gay-straight alliance (GSA). The fight for GSAs in Ontario schools has recently been a flash point across the province, dividing lawmakers and pitting religious groups against gay activists.
 
After much debate, Ontario passed anti-bullying Bill 13 on June 5. It mandates the creation of GSAs in all public schools if students request them.
 
While Purdy is confident to lead a GSA at her school, Queer Ontario’s Casey Oraa points out that the same cannot be said of all students. He remembers volunteering at an LGBTQ centre while at university, where many students were coming out for the first time. "They didn't come out in high school; they didn't feel they had the support,” Oraa says, noting that for many queer youth, high school is not a safe enough space, and this toll can add up.
 
Sadly, there are troubling statistics to back up such anecdotes: one study found that 73 percent of queer high school students feel unsafe in their schools and these students are 14 times more likely to commit suicide.
 
Purdy's main concern this year is about the volume of class work she’ll have in her senior year. It's a good problem to have, and she adds that for her, coming out relieved a burden, too: she could be herself at school, and that's always conducive to a healthier learning and social environment.
 
Whether Ontario school boards provide settings where students can feel secure and safe is an open question. Despite the passage of Bill 13, which allows students to choose the name of their own peer-support groups, some school trustees have made noises about flouting the law. There could soon also be a battle over the role homophobic pastoral guidelines play in the Catholic boards' curriculum
 
Oraa stresses that this highlights the need for ongoing vigilance to ensure the best outcomes for students.
 
GSAs have a positive track record elsewhere. A 2011 US study followed 245 students who participated in high school GSAs. Although it points to improved outcomes on depression and test scores, it also cautions that GSAs alone are not a cure-all for the myriad and complicated problems faced by gay teens.
 
Oraa says diverse tools have to be used to create a positive atmosphere, and he's hoping to see changes to Ontario’s sex education curriculum.
 
Ross Johnstone agrees. The director of education at Out in Schools, a Vancouver-based organization that teaches students about gay bullying through film, has helped teach 30,000 kids in workshops and presentations since 2004.
 
"Since the beginning of time, high school is influenced by, and influences, popular culture," he says. Studies show this element is important, too, particularly insofar as youth take their cues for self-perception from identifiable role models and media figures.
 
Johnstone tries to take this a step further by empowering youth by providing resources to make films. By telling their own stories, the program hopes to enable students to see themselves on screen and not be limited by the storylines offered by mainstream outlets. "Some students who are a bit more brave, they can create some positive images and know they're not alone."
 
Some graduates from the program continue in the field and Johnstone says some filmmakers have made submissions to the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.
 
Says Purdy, "My peers have definitely changed the way they view queer people. Before they may not have fully understood what being queer means, what the gay rights movement is, et cetera, but by talking about it they have a better idea of why it's important to help and support queer youth."
 
  
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Comments

two faced power and privilege
Some of us are sick of hetero ("bi") sex Janus people representing homosexuals. This person is obviously working both worlds with all the privilege that comes from woman with vagina dating man with a penis and vice versa. Bi when in its het phase enjoys heteropower and hegemonic privilege. Some of us find such power and privilege disgusting when its weilder pretends to represent (indeed wins awards for) something she or he is not.
personal ife of Houston not an issue; Egale bias?
I agree Egale has done & continues to do great work. And I am certainly not knocking fundraising galas. It is just that the comments about Houston's behaviour and personal life (boyfriend or straight) was not so much about her journalism as it was gossip. So you saw her a bit high. Big deal--it was a party. So she said she was with her boyfriend. So what? So she didn't write a story. Maybe there was no story in it after all? Is a media pass s bribe to make sure there are good stories? The fact is that Houston is one of the best reporters xtra has ever had. If she has a demonstrable bias against Egale than that is something to write about and document, not her personal life. Write on Andrea, our 2012 Grand Dyke!

PS I don't think Helen would stoop to such gossipy & mischievous comments as she is a stand-up lady.
Stick to the facts
I find the bickering about Helen Kennedy quite tacky. How many of you find yourself in a glass house right now?
The fact is 1) NGOs have to raise money. The gala, while successful, is just one avenue for that. 2) If the queer community can rally the support of liberals, conservatives, and ndp alike AND raise money for the very people this article is about why bash it? 3) from some of the past articles that Andrea has written, she clearly has a bias against Egale. If she was on a press ticket, she should have been more professional. I witnessed her being very drunk and she handed me her business card as a reporter. That isn't libelous in the slightest. It's the truth. I witnessed it too.

Egale does do great work and I've personally met the youth who are celebrated at the gala and are happy to take the funding. I support and cheer on Egale and you should too.

PS this isn't Helen Kennedy and nor do I work for her. Why must someone who is aligned with what she do automatically be her?
Egale is irrelevant
Um, Egale supporter (Helen Kennedy), bitter much?
I don't give a shit about reading some puff piece about Egale's boring gala, which, from where I sit, is really just a group for old white gay men. I'm glad Xtra isn't wasting time writing about drunk Liberals and gay conservatives, patting themselves on the back for writing a big fat cheque at a party.
There's real stories affecting LGBT people that Xtra should be writing about.
Egale as an advocacy org is irrelevant and has been pissing off real queer and trans activists for years > http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/blog/cosmictami/5486
The fact is, now that Canada has legal gay marriage, Egale has abandoned us. Helen is still happy to take your money though. And for what? My GSA? What a joke. As if any teenager would use that garbage website.
Here's your story
@Egale Supporter (Helen kennedy??). Is this not a story from the Egale gala?

http://www.xtra.ca/public/Toronto/Louise_Arbour_wins_Egale_leadership_award-10840.aspx

Stop your whining. Why does Egale need to be mentioned in every story about queer education initiatives in Canada. Egale is one of dozens of groups working on these issues.

If you want to save precious tickets for bigwig supporters and Conservative party strategists, then don't give them to the media. Full stop.
The Point Is...
Who Andrea is involved with is her business and certainly does not undermine her position at Xtra...I'm appalled by the previous bi phobic comment. Point is she attended an event on free tickets using 2 seats in a sold out event that would have been paid for by supporters...she didn't write an article. I also know she was on a free ticket because she kept reporting this to others and easily overheard. She attended an event for an organization she clearly criticizes...see above. That bugs me and when this article on GSAs didn't include even a passing reference to the MyGSA.ca website I thought I'd express my irritation.
wtf lol
hasn't she always been openly bisexual? what do you think the B in LGBTQ stands for?
Right?write on Andrea, the Honoured Dyke of 2012
I don't know the details of the Egale gsla Andrea Huston attended last year but she has been one of the finest reporters Xtra had ever had and espeically in her reporting on the GSA issue which she has followed from the very beginning. She always is meticulous and probing, often breaking stories (some would say she has created some of them too.) And I don't think the fact that she may have called someone or that someone actually is a boyfriend in any way disqualifies her in any way from writing on LGBT issue, as many have boyfriends in the LGBT world including many bisexuals, gay men & trans and even some lesbians. You don't have to be exclusively gay to be a member of the LGBT community of which Houston is a stellar member--most recently slected by Pride Toronto as the "honoured Dyke" ( I call her Grand Dykeness) and in fact proudly leading the"Dyke" march. These letters are not for telling gossipy and possibly libelous tales of people allegedly being or acting drunk at a party (I can think of a lot of politicos I could write about in that department, but in Canada we do not comment on such things unless it interferes with their duties in public life.) Attack her writings and her positions if you will, but not her personal life. Right/ write on Andrea!
Andrea on a free Egale ticket
Andrea maybe you can by editors note clarify but you were vocal at last years Egale Gala that you and your boyfriend were on a free ticket provided by Eagle to Xtra for a reporter. I saw no story. So why were you there? Or were you and your boyfriend, I heard him introduced as such, just sponging off a charity?
is hetero now channeling homosexual
You wrote "Andrea Huston and her boyfriend" -- why is a heterosexual woman writing for a non-heterosexual Xtra and what is she doing commenting on any gay or similar organization?

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