Article

In the Pink: Creating Awareness About Homophobic Bullying (Equity and Women's Services)

Sheri Birch

I n  September  2007,  two grade 12  students from Central Kings Rural High School in Cambridge,  Nova Scotia, heard about a male grade 9 student who was bullied for wearing a  pink shirt on the first day of school. David Shepherd and Travis Price decided to take action. They bought 50 pink t-shirts,  and handed them out at school a few days later. Other students  at the school wore their own pink  clothing creating a “sea of pink” that caught the attention of the local media, eventually gaining attention across  North America.

When I read the newspaper article about this event to my class in the fall of 2007, my students quickly identified with the victim as many of them had experienced incidents of bullying. Surprisingly, some were honest enough to also  admit they had bullied other classmates,  and many acknowledged  that they had also participated as bystanders.

During our conversation,  one student suggested that they all wear pink t-shirts  to show support for what  happened  in  Nova Scotia and to bring awareness  about bullying into  our school. It was a  student-driven initiative and, as educators  all know, one of the most effective strategies is to use those teachable  moments whenever  they blossom in a classroom.  Soon everyone was chattering about what clothing they might wear, the boys wondering if they could borrow something  from their older sisters, the girls offering to bring in extra t-shirts just in  case someone forgot.

A  week later,  I stood proudly in  front of  my class as they all  sat in their desks, giggling and grinning from  ear  to ear, all 28 of them wearing something  pink: shirts, sometimes  with matching skirt or pants, pink  hair ribbons, and even some boys with spray-painted hair. I took a photo and we hung it on the door of our classroom, to serve as a reminder throughout  the year of their generosity in embracing a new idea about anti-bullying.

BULLYING IS TO COMMON
An   incident  of   bullying  happens every  seven minutes in  an Ontario schoolyard and every 30 minutes in a classroom1. The most common form of  bullying is  to  attack someone’s  sexuality or perceived sexuality by  calling  them “gay” in  a derogatory and hurtful manner. One very common occurrence is students using the word “gay” when they really mean “stupid.” Elementary  educators know that  LGBT   issues  affect  students in  our school communities. Statistics show that one in 10 people is gay, which means that on average 10 percent of the students we teach are gay. Children who do not conform to gender stereotypes are often taunted for being different and sometimes  bullied. Name-calling  and  put-downs are  the  most  common form of homophobia: 97 percent of students have suffered from homophobic name-calling  by grade 7  and students are  exposed to  negative name-calling as early as kindergarten.2

These incidents have long-term consequences: American studies suggest that 28 percent of gay and lesbian students drop out of  school before they graduate,  most often because of harassment and discrimination in  the schoolyard, halls and classrooms.3   After race and ethnicity, sexual orientation is the most frequent motivation  for hate crimes in Canada.4  Homophobic bullying can lead to suicide. In 2009, an 11-year-old Massachusetts boy, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover,  hanged himself after enduring bullying at school, including daily taunts of being gay.

In  2009,  EGALE reported on its  Canada-wide survey of schools which found that three-quarters of LGBTQ students  feel unsafe in at least one place at school, such as change rooms, washrooms, and hallways.5 Half of  straight students agreed that at  least one part of their school was unsafe for LGBTQ students. Three-quarters  of  all  participating students reported hearing expressions such as “that’s so gay” every day in school. Six out of 10 LGBTQ  students reported  being verbally harassed about their sexual orientation. More than half of LGBTQ students  compared to a third of non-LGBTQ students reported hearing remarks  like  “faggot,” “queer,” “lezbo,” and “dyke” daily. LGBTQ students were more likely than non-LGBTQ  individuals to report that staff never intervened  when homophobic  comments were made. Over half of LGBTQ  students did not feel accepted at school, and almost half felt they could not be  themselves,  compared with one-fifth of straight students.

STUDENTS TAK ACTION
This year, after I once again read the newspaper article about the Nova Scotia students, my grade 7  class decided to  wear pink  every Wednesday because, they said, bullying happens more than just one day a year. They also decided to encourage  everyone in our school to participate in “Pink Day.” Students designed and produced colourful  post- ers and hung them around the school and they made weekly announcements reminding everyone to  participate. It is  a wonderfully rewarding sight  to see many of the 425  students,  both male and female, wearing pink every Wednesday at our school; in the staff room teachers  compliment  each other on their pink  apparel  and the male teachers have purchased  new pink ties to wear every week. Pink Day is beginning to spread in my board.  Hillcrest PS, also in Barrie, has begun Pink Days on Wednesdays  using resources  and posters that I’ve provided. Legislation recently passed in  Ontario has placed more responsibility on educators to  ensure that schools are a safe  learning environment for all students. Bringing awareness to homophobia  and the bullying of LGBTQ students  helps create a safe  learning environment for everyone.

There are many resources now available for educators.  ETFO  has a wide variety of materials available, including the Positive  Space pamphlet, and Equity and Women’s  Services offers “Free From Fear” workshops  that can be booked through provincial  office. EGALE Canada launched  a Safe Schools Campaign several years ago and has many resources  including the new “My Gay-Straight Alliance” program.6  I highly recommend the CAW brochure  “To Our Allies: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans  Issues.”7   The Canadian Labour Congress has also published a number of resources.8

On April 14 this year, the first International  Day of Pink was celebrated  in many Canadian schools and promoted in many workplaces. As a result of the activism of David Shepherd and Travis Price, Nova Scotia now officially recognizes the second Thursday of every  September as Stand Up Against Bullying Day. Many schools across Canada  also commemorate  Pink Triangle  Day by having staff and students  wear pink t-shirts on February 14. As I always tell my own students, one of the best things about Canada is that we  celebrate diversity and make all people feel welcome and included in our communities.

 

Notes
1   Craig, W. & and D Pepler, D. (1998)  “Observations of  Bullying and Victimization in the School Yard” Canadian Journal  ofSchool Psychology 13 (2),  41-59.
2  Ibid.
3   National Gay and Lesbian  Task Force.  Anti-Gay/Lesbian Victimization New York 1984;  Ramefedi,  G. ‘Male Homosexuality:  The Adolescent  perspective’ Pediatrics 1987.
4   Statistics Canada. The Daily. June , 2004. Available  at statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/040601/dq040601a-eng. htm.
5  Available at egale.ca Enewsroom.
6  Available at mygsa.ca.
7   Available at caw.ca/en/3678.htm.
8  Available at canadianlabour.ca/human-rights-equality>pride.

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