Recently I was asked to speak at the Dare To Stand Out conference with Jer’s Vision (recently renamed the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity), an organization that works to stop bullying, discrimination and homophobia in schools and communities in Canada, and abroad. Through workshops, presentations, training conferences, and by supporting youth initiatives, they engage youth in celebrating diversity.
The organization uses a model that is youth led; looks at concepts such as diversity inclusively & intersectionally; works to customize programming for communities; and seeks to engage everyone in a dialogue of diversity. (Wiki)
Members and allies of the LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgendered & Queers) community came together to learn how to educate and be a part of the change in eradicating bullying.
As an ally and youth advocate I have seen some amazing things happen in the last few months when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights in Alberta. There was a lot of speculation on Bill 10, which although had some positive points, it unfortunately was not inclusive to the rights of the LGBTQ+ youth and the importance of a Gay Straight Alliance in schools.
Bill 10 would allow the province’s school boards to reject students’ requests to create a peer-support group known as a gay-straight alliance. Proponents say the groups reduce bullying and save lives.
The Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to protect our Children would have directed the province’s Education Minister to help create the clubs for school children if the clubs were rejected at the local level. (Globe&Mail, Dec. 04 2014)
Students across Alberta were outraged and they took action, presenting to their City Councils, sending letters to their MLA’s and the Minister of Education. Then the unthinkable happened; the government officials listened. They heard the youth and their stories of adversity, and the safe space the Gay Straight Alliances provided.
On March 11th, 2014 it was announced. Education Minister Gordon Dirks tabled a surprise amendment to the government’s Bill 10 on the first day of the spring session. The law, which passed third reading Tuesday evening, forces all schools in the province to allow gay-straight alliances (GSAs) on school property at a student’s request. It will apply to all public, private and charter schools when it takes effect June 1. (Edmonton Journal, March 11 2015)
It seems like this decision should be a no-brainer, but that fact that this was even an issue in the year 2015 showed me that there was still a long way to go for the equality of sexual minorities. On the positive side, it was the first time I was ever saw youth take action and change legislation. It empowered them, showed them they were being heard, and encouraged them to continue to be the voices of change.
Jeremy Dias, founder and executive director of Jer’s Vision was extremely supportive as we worked to fight this legislation. He had been through hell and back as a gay youth living in a rural community in Ontario. Jeremy had worked hard to create programing that educates on inclusion and diversity. I sat down to talk to him about his experiences and how he came to form such an inspiring organization.
What inspired Jer’s Vision?
Ten years ago I won a law suit against my high school. I experienced a lot of homophobia and racism and I challenged them in a human rights law suit and I won. Even though it was a small amount of money, only five thousand dollars, I wanted to invest it into a cause that was important so we create a scholarship for youth stopping bullying. After a couple months we were invited to speak in different schools and organizations and before you know it we are speaking at schools every day of the school year, running 30 conferences with anywhere from 20 children to 400 children. We are starting dialogues and we’re training kids so they can be more resilient and build strong initiatives in their schools; working with community members to address homophobia and different forms of discrimination and bullying. Really we are just making an effort to make schools and communities safer.
You talked a little bit about your own personal story. Can you reflect back on those experiences with me?
I grew up in Northern Ontario and I remember coming out and having this sense of being totally alone. When you come out and tell people you are gay, people often react as apposed to responding, and in my situation I had a friend who ended up telling everybody in the entire school overnight, and it magnified my presence in the school. I would be walking down the hall and someone would call me a fag. I would be in the library and someone would say, “That’s so gay.” I would be standing by my locker by myself and people would point and giggle. There is a sense of experiencing a thousand little paper cuts. One of those comments, one of those jokes, doesn’t really matter, but when they seemingly cut at you every morning, every afternoon, every lunch, every break, every class, online, it feels like you are being chopped into a thousand different pieces. You just fall apart.
A couple weeks after I came out I remember walking home and someone called me a fag, this guy punched me; I fell down and people started kicking me and they were all laughing. I remember passing out because….it just hurt so bad, then waking up in the hospital a few hours later. I think the hardest part of the whole experience, looking back, is that it became very normal. It became normal to hear remarks, it became normal to expect someone to punch you. There was a strong sense of disconnect from everyone else because I couldn’t relate my experience with anyone else. I don’t think anyone could really relate to me and I think for the most part people didn’t really know what they were doing. Like people were putting drops in a bucket, but they weren’t thinking their tiny little drop mattered. When you have the entire school seemingly emptying water into a bucket, it just overflowed and I was drowning in it.
How did you find the resilience within yourself to even deal with something like this?
I think a good chunk of my resilience at first came from it being so normal. It wasn’t even an unusual sensation, it was just, “Oh well, this is how life is!”, and I don’t have any choice in the matter. It was wake up, accept it, deal with it, move on or commit suicide, and I was just not there.
I think being ignorant to the idea that there could be anything else is in some ways comforting, and you just had to accept that this is how crappy things had to be. I think the other piece is in spite of feeling alone in that experience at that time, the more I learned about other LGBTQ+ kids in other schools, in other places, I learned that they were having the exact kinds of experiences. Even today when I meet kids from across the country, they tell me the exact same thing, and so there is this common thread between some people who have experienced this kind of violence or intimidation, or disrespect.
That all being said, I have to tell you I was very lucky; my family was very supportive. They made me see a therapist; I called kids help phone a lot. So I wasn’t completely alone.
How do you use your experience to empower kids now? I know that we want to believe that change is happening, and I do see change happening even if we don’t’ see it happening as fast as we would like it to; how do you empower and inflict that encouragement in them?
I am delighted to think that people see me as empowering others. It is such an honour to have people think that way. To be honest, I work, and Jer’s Vision works to start dialogues, share information, share research and best practices, bringing them into schools, into communities so that we are working together so that we are collaborating, so that we are bringing the best of the best in terms of practices. Whether it’s about taking care of yourself, whether it’s about making a difference in your school or making a difference in your community, I think it’s about building those bridges and those connections.
What would you like to see change the most over the next five years?
I think what really needs to change is our attitude towards these issues. These are really complex issues and require complex solutions. It’s not about a single action but more about our approach. For example, I think a solution here in Alberta, my home province, would be a strong legislative GSA bill. In addition to that bill, there needs to be funding attached to it, there needs to be training for educators, and there needs to be support for youth. I think that support needs to come from across the province.
Sometimes I think we lie to ourselves and say things like, “It gets better” we lie to youth and say, “It gets better!” We delude ourselves into thinking the social progress that we’ve seen over the last 46 years since the decriminalization of homosexuality has happened naturally, where in fact it has been the hard work of activists, politicians, community leaders, donors, and people who volunteer. It is naive to say, “Oh you know, things are better now, if we just wait a generation it will get better again,” and that is obviously not true.
In so many historical ways we have seen that things have actually gotten worse. I think we need to pay attention, be engaged and take advantage that this generation is more open to diversity. They are raising thousands of dollars for charity, and they are volunteering more than any other generation to date, then let’s celebrate and encourage. Let’s challenge and let’s not quit.
Let’s allow youth to take the lead by giving them the tools and resources they need to continue the work that we have started.