Feature

The Long Road to Safety at School

Ellen Chambers Picard

November 2003 seems like a long time ago, and I could never have predicted then where I would be now, or what has been accomplished.

Having a son who is gay has been one of my greatest joys, yet one of my greatest sorrows – sorrow because I know that because of my son's sexual orientation, there are people who hate him and there are places where he will never be safe. My journey began on the November day that my son Gabriel was suspended for fighting in high school. From that day forward I could no longer ignore that my son was not safe at school, and never really had been.

Gabe's journey began when he was a little boy of eight in public school. By the time he was in grade 12, he had been living with homophobia every day since he started high school. The day he had enough and physically fought back was the day I stopped hoping he would be okay in school.

I pictured myself as a teacher who tried to understand the circumstances of all of the children in my class. I knew that, statistically, one in three girls will be sexually abused, that one in six children live in poverty, and I always tried to reach out to those children who were having the most difficulty. But at the same time, I missed what was happening to my own son. At age eight he was already being targeted by some in his school and later was harassed every single day of his high school career. When he finally told me what was happening to him, it took another four years before the school system acknowledged it. He came forward knowing he would never benefit. But how could I have missed what he was going through?

Statistics from the First National Climate Survey on Homophobia in Canadian Schools, Phase I –January 2009  compiled by EGALE Canada, bear witness to the reality of being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, two-spirited, questioning, and queer students (LGBTQ) or being perceived as such in Canadian high schools. Three-quarters of all participating students reported hearing expressions such as “that’s so gay” every day in school. Half heard remarks like “faggot,” “queer,” “lezbo,” and ‘‘dyke” daily.

Six out of ten LGBTQ students reported being verbally harassed about their sexual orientation. Three-quarters of LGBTQ students and 95 percent of transgender students felt unsafe at school, compared with one-fifth of straight students.

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.

Most telling are the comments from students who responded to the survey, of which these two are typical:

The teachers know it's going on, but they rarely pipe up and protect me or others. I guess they figure it's a lost cause. It takes a lot of energy to defend yourself all the time."

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