It may come as a surprise that King George high school, just a stone’s throw from the vibrant Davie Gay Village, was without a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at the beginning of the 2012/2013 school year.
“I was shocked,” says student support worker Deona Zammit describing the atmosphere of homophobia when she first started at the school. She recounts how some kids yelled out “Yes it is!” while she was tacking up a series of school board sanctioned “Sexuality is a Not a Choice” posters.
“There used to be a lot of name calling in every classroom,” GSA Student leader Sienna St. Laurent says. “Someone asks a question and another turns around and say’s that’s so gay. They don’t think about how they use these words as part of their vocabulary.”
When Deona and Sienna teamed up to start the GSA in November 2012 they rectified the noticeable absence of King George on the school board’s list of GSA’s. Now every high school within the City of Vancouver has one.
Deona felt the casual use of homophobic language at King George also prompted her to be more vocal about her sexuality. To tackle stereotypes, “its important for kids to see a regular adult living their sexuality in an healthy way,” she says.
While the West End is home to many open members of the LBQTQ community, a high proportion of students at King George come from backgrounds that are less tolerant of alternate lifestyles. According to the Department of Education, all publicly-funded schools are required to provide a safe and supportive environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, two-spirit, queer and questioning people.
Their statistics affirm that schools with GSA’s have less incidents of bullying and students feel more comfortable talking about issues of sexuality in the classroom. At King George, respecting the cultural and religious values of the student body while trying to change attitudes about homosexuality has required a balancing act.
“I don’t feel like I need to parade it around,” says Sienna with regards to her sexual orientation. “But if someone asks me I won’t lie. Mostly I wish it didn’t matter.”
It appears that the GSA’s efforts to improve the general atmosphere at the school- painting garbage cans and postering postitive messages in the hallway-is proving contagious. The morning of our interview almost every locker was tagged with a post-it note scrawled with the words, “You are beautiful.”
“I really hate that it wasn’t my idea,” Deona laughs. “But it’s great to see this kind of school spirit emerging.”
In just half a year since the first GSA meeting, King George has experienced a seismic shift. “The entire vibe of the school has changed,” say Deona. “Even as a staff member I feel more comfortable coming to work.”
Among their successes they count: attracting the younger grades to meetings, a recent thousand dollar grant to partner with the Gordon Neighbourhood House and their most ‘liked’ event, ‘The KG Shake’ in which fifty students danced off to the viral You Tube ‘Harlem Shake’ video gyrating their hips bedecked in pink.
Pink has had a special status in the anti-bullying campaign ever since two Nova Scotia high school students took it upon themselves to distribute pink t-shirts to the school populace after they witnessed a boy being bullied for wearing that color.
When asked if Pink Shirt’s day focus on bullying obscures the link between violence and homophobia, the response is mixed.
Sienna notes that gender-based fashion stereotypes are waning. “V-necks are in and I mean, a lot of the guys wear pink everyday.”
Deona says. “Kids are very aware that gender is a social construction these days. At the same time whenever I go into the gym and see the guys lifting weights and the girls bouncing on balls, I think the gender stereotypes seem very much intact.”
The GSA has helped affirm a zero-tolerance policy when the insults “gay” or “fag” are used to pick-on kids stepping out of gender or other adolescent norms. Events such as Pink Shirt Day provide a platform from which to bring in speakers and discuss the various ways bullying takes form.
With ever-changing social media radicalizing the way teens communicate, tackling the way language can be used as a weapon is high on most educators agendas.
In response to the GSA’s initiatives, the teachers at King George have been hugely supportive and taken on more open discussion about sexuality in the classroom.
Sienna says the impact is palpable: “homophobic comments are way down.”
Sienna hopes to tackle engrained stereotypes by targeting elementary aged kids through GSA outreach. She says the six members who regulary meet at King George have a lot of work to do. “My old high school in Maple Ridge had things like Gender Swap Day and a Mini Pride Parade. They signed the wheel chair accessible bathroom as gender neutral.”
“I don’t see why we can’t do that here,” Deona intersects, “I’ll send the email today.” In a school of only 500 students, “where everyone knows each other’s business,” this DIY spirit has already made a world of difference.
“I used to come to this school and think ‘man I hate this school everything here sucks.’ says Sienna. “Now I come here and think, ‘wow I belong to a community.’”
-Written by Matea Kulic
Gordon Neighbourhood House provides the King George Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) with a safe and inclusive environment in which to meet on a weekly basis. The King George GSA welcomes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth, their straight allies and anyone else looking to be themselves. Find the King George Gay Straight Alliance on Facebook or contact Deona Zammit to get involved: firstname.lastname@example.org/