Marta, centre, discussing the Vaughan Road Academy GSA.
“My Italian grandparents don’t get it,” Marta announces. And, in truth, it might seem hard to understand why this group of students at Vaughan Road Academy devotes a great deal of time—every Thursday’s lunch, plus extra hours for programming, planning, and petitioning—to combat homophobia in their high school.
Meet the Vaughan Road Academy Gay-Straight Alliance.
As the GSA members note, none of the students who are “out” at their school even attend the meetings. But the club is not lacking interest: at ten core members, this new group has more active students than most other GSAs in the Toronto District School Board.
In trying to explain why the meetings are busy, a cynic might point to the fact that GSAs in Ontario have gotten a lot of press lately with the recent coverage of Halton Catholic District School Board GSA ban. Or that TDSB’s director of education, Chris Spence, announced a one thousand dollar award in early January for the three best gay-straight alliances in TDSB schools, which will be given to the clubs that “have demonstrated a committed effort in helping create a school climate that is safer and more positive for students and staff of all sexual orientations and gender identities” [PDF].
Or maybe a skeptic could note that all of the students in the group are part of the International Baccalaureate program, a highly competitive academic stream which makes up roughly one-third of the Vaughan Road Academy students, and that the majority are in grade eleven—a resumé-stuffing year for high school students looking to go to competitive universities.
Call us optimists, but we don’t think that’s the case.
As the members of the Vaughan Road GSA know, you don’t need to be queer to be worried about homophobia—and you don’t need to be queer to be affected by it, either.
Sometimes the connection is clear: Shari, for instance, explains that joining the GSA was an obvious choice for her because her moms are lesbians. And sometimes it’s the simple fact of being fed up with the pervasiveness of queer-bashing. Levi told us that he finds homophobia in high schools “has gotten to a critical level…it’s getting overbearing.”
While comments like “that’s so gay” are still ubiquitous in the school, the GSA students, with the help of teacher Jason Kunin, are taking action to affect change wherever they can. The point of the club is less to eradicate homophobia—which they realize is perhaps more than any group, no matter how dedicated, can do—than to make it socially unacceptable. Targetting language use the Vaughan Road GSA came out with a button campaign, a play on the throwaway “no homo” line they heard tossed out casually. Their button: “no homo”–phobia. And while there is the odd student who crosses out the ‘phobia’ line on the pin, leaving the phrase “no homo,” most of the students and staff have responded positively, wearing the pins around school.
Another recent program took place in the fall of 2010: to raise awareness of teen bullying surrounding homophobia, and to commemorate the recent slew of homophobia-related suicides, the GSA planned Purple Day, asking students to wear the colour and show their support. The students applaud both the pins and Purple Day as having been great successes.
GSA staff adviser Jason Kunin.
They are not stopping there. Newest on the students’ list is garnering signatures for a petition denouncing the spate of slushie throwing at openly gay residents near Jarvis Collegiate. They seem to be learning the tricks of the activist trade quickly—according to Marta, “the more obnoxious you are, the more signatures you have… It’s all about obnoxious status updates.”
Also on the agenda is the school library’s “Girl Reads” and “Guy Reads” sections, which categorize books in terms of what male and female readers are each apparently most likely to enjoy. When the students struggle with an effective way to challenge the idea that there are books that belong in these categories (chaining themselves to the desks in the library was vetoed), Kunin suggests a mini field trip to the library, to “perhaps discreetly switch the books. There is direct action.”
Back to front, left to right: Jackson, Ben, Marta; Dylan, Mardi, Levi, Shari; Jason Kunin.
These students may not identify as gay, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t passionate about minimizing homophobia. Dylan explains: “We are sort of human rights activists…without great funding.” More to the point, it’s tough to include gay students in the gay-straight alliance when there are so few out kids at Vaughan Road Academy.
“It’s a rare kid who comes out in high school,” says Kunin. But, he goes on: “the fact that some of the out students don’t join the GSA doesn’t worry me. I know it makes a difference just the fact that we are there—that they know that there are students who will speak up for them, a staff member who will speak up for them.” The GSA at Vaughan Road Academy just launched in the fall of 2010. In analyzing the impact they have made, Kunin notes that “prior to this year, there was nothing. [Being gay] was an unspoken topic except for in a derogatory way in the hallways.”
Queer or not, some students at Vaughan Road Academy are out to change that.
Photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.