What’s the part we don’t see in the everyday reality of a queer person at school?
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students or staff members may devote much of their energy to hiding their sexual orientation in an effort to appear straight. This identity-hiding is often exhausting and detracts from, for example, students’ ability to focus in class, take academic risks or feel confident in their own skin. LGBTQ students may disengage from the school community for fear that their sexuality will be discovered and revealed. In a heterosexist space, LGBTQ staff and students often see no representations of themselves in their environments, such as in the curriculum. In school, this can lead to further disengagement since it is difficult to find importance in something you cannot relate to.
The culture of schools tends to be defined by the dominant culture of society. These cultural ideals are messaged through the school’s language, curriculum and traditions. Four years ago, a group of teachers and students got into a discussion about inclusivity and Greenwood College School’s (GCS) culture. Specifically: In a school that strives to provide a safe space for learners to take academic and social risks and to be challenged to grow as people, did that include its LGBTQ learners?
The group wanted to enhance GCS’s existing level of inclusivity by closing the gap between the ideals of our mission statement and the realities of day-to-day school life. A few of us approached administration. They too saw this as an area where growth could occur, in line with the school’s mission to foster inclusivity and celebrate difference and uniqueness. With administration on board, Elanna Robson visited schools that had diversity coordinators in place and functioning Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs). It became clear that teacher education and curriculum development were integral to changing school culture.Committee Work Begins
After much discussion and further study, in 2010 administration created the position of diversity coordinator, now held by Robson. A five-year plan was developed, with the first step being formation of a staff-student diversity committee. Building on administration’s support, we now had motivated teachers and students to help move our school toward inclusivity and acceptance. We proposed that a diversity of teachers, learners, perspectives, experiences and curriculum is a precursor to academic excellence. Further, we recognized the importance of interrupting the dominant culture through a myriad of avenues like curriculum, tradition, language usage, defined safe spaces and education. Most importantly, we started to take careful and deliberate action to meet our goals.
Over the next two years, the committee, spearheaded by the students, turned ideas into action: a GSA that meets weekly during the school day, a safe-space awareness campaign, the annual Pride Week, a push toward a more inclusive curriculum, and continual education with the aim of transforming tolerance, which is simply an attitude, into staunch acctance, which is the action of inclusion of all despite differences.
Once we had our focus, we realized that there was an opportunity for a more diverse array of experiences and perspectives within our curriculum. As a result, one of the main thrusts of each staff-student diversity commitee meeting is to seek, find and encourage a culture of sharing practices among teachers to promote inclusivity and LGBTQ issues in the curriculum. This builds teacher and student knowledge and provides the tools that allow teachers and students to talk about these issues.
The Canadian and World Studies department openly discusses how to bring LGBTQ issues, experiences and perspectives into the classroom on a regular basis. In all of our humanities courses, inclusivity is now more central to the essential questions. For example, one humanities course investigates transgender lives, with students reflecting on the psychological, anthropological and sociological experience and perspectives of people whose gender identity differs from their sex at birth. Through reading articles about Michelle Dumaresq, a transgender Canadian cyclist, and watching the documentary Born in the Wrong Body, students uncover their assumptions and begin to build empathy. Their reflections reveal a connection between their own insecurities and fears with those whose insecurities and fears are amplified by their transgender identity.
As part of our school’s efforts to create a safe space where all students feel validated and empowered to be their authentic selves, the diversity committee worked to build awareness through public campaigns that spoke directly to our mission statement and to Ministry of Education standards. We showcased our work and challenged the community to grow even further with a school-wide Pride Week last spring.
‘My Greenwood Includes . . .’
Pride Week espoused the theme “My Greenwood Includes.” Adviser groups, made up of staff and students, were asked what their ideal Greenwood community would have or be. Some of the most notable and thoughtful entries included: “My Greenwood includes open closets and open minds,” “My Greenwood includes a diversity of opinions” and “My Greenwood includes you.”
The week included guest speakers, like Steven Solomon from the Toronto District School Board Human Sexuality Program, and a student-run workshop series covering topics like “Heterosexism and homophobia in the media” and “The history of the LGBTQ movement in Canada.” It culminated with a Pride Week coffee house where students performed pride-themed songs, and a Pride Parade where students carried their “My Greenwood Includes . . .” signs.Committee Work Continues
As we work to evolve from a school of tolerance into a school that wholeheartedly accepts and celebrates difference, the objective this year is action that infuses equity into all that GCS community members do and say. Most importantly, “My Greenwood Includes” has evolved into an “I Take the Pledge” action-based campaign. Staff and students are asked to commit to a pledge that they will work to honour throughout their time at GCS and beyond. Some inspiring pledges have included: “I pledge not to be a bystander,” “I pledge to turn great ideas into even better actions” and “I pledge to not make assumptions about a person’s sexuality.”
Over the past four years, we have all been a part of the professional and personal growth spearheaded by the staff-student diversity committee. Our individual understandings of tolerance vs. acceptance and the importance of having safe spaces have been broadened and enriched through guest speakers and, most importantly, through the voices of our students. This is one of the most valuable lessons about changing the school culture: The students must have a voice, and it must be loud and clear. It must cut through bureaucracy and dominant cultures, and it must demand that others listen and take time to understand.
To accomplish that, it is essential that we provide safe spaces like GSAs for LGBTQ students and allies to meet, talk and realize that like-minded colleagues and peers exist. Further, it is critical that we interrupt dominant cultures by questioning norms and injecting new, more inclusive traditions into school life and curriculum. Finally, it is important that we continually work to learn more (and ask more questions) about different perspectives in order to enrich our schools, staff and students.
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What makes a successful Gay-Straight Alliance? How does your school help promote acceptance among its diverse community? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.