Students are pushing back against discrimination at Botwood Collegiate after posters for the newly formed GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) group at the school were torn down, sparking more significant incidents.
“We were talking about something we could do to include everybody, not just us,” said one student who spoke with The Central Voice on condition of anonymity. “So we put up a poster that said something like, ‘everyone is welcome,’ and it had a rainbow on it, so everyone freaked out about it.”
The GSA, she said, was formed about a month ago but only became active in the last weeks of November. The posters were an attempt to foster support and grow the group.
“People were going around, ripping them down and complaining about them. And then they were like, sticking straight pride posters to their shirts and saying that’s what belonged there,” she said.
But the reaction has not been limited to tearing down posters.
Students, she said, have been making death threats against members of the GSA, as well as barking at them.
These are also some of the allegations that parent Christina Sharron outlined in a post on Facebook last week that has since been shared more than 80 times.
“I know teachers have got their hands full, I can just imagine, dealing with what they have to deal with, but there’s no restriction here, there’s no consequences to these students that are going around barking,” she told The Central Voice.
While Sharron is concerned for her own child, she is also worried for members of the GSA who might not have the support of their families. She believes the group is a vital place for them to express themselves.
“Then they wonders why children go to suicide or drugs or all this stuff,” Sharron said. “I can’t imagine being in school now and dealing with that. It turns me.”
The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District did not agree to an interview before press time, but did provide a statement.
“The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District is committed to ensuring all schools are safe and inclusive learning environments for all students. As such, the District actively supports and promotes the acceptance of LGBTQ students, and the establishment of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) within our schools,” the statement read. “The incident you reference is reportedly related to some students reacting inappropriately to posters in the school which feature the rainbow flag and declare the school to be ‘a space that welcomes and supports everyone’.”
In a follow-up email, a spokesperson for the district wrote, in part:
“The issue you reference is being addressed by the school administration, with the students and families involved. The response has, to date, included the imposition of school-based discipline — the details of which we are not at liberty to disclose in accordance with the provisions of the Schools Act, 1997. The response will also involve ongoing education, training and District support around inclusion and diversity, including LGBTQ-related issues.”
Make things better
For members of the LGBTQ community, however, school culture is only the beginning. Director of external affairs for MUN SAGA (Sexual and Gender Advocacy), Derek Semerad said discrimination doesn’t end with graduation.
“Bullying is not something that stops when you leave junior high, or high school, or your place of work,” he wrote in an email to The Central Voice. “It’s an ongoing after-effect that follows you as grow older, influencing who you feel comfortable around and who you feel comfortable being.”
SAGA seeks to “provide a safer space for LBGTQQIAAP2S individuals and their supporters, and to raise awareness about Queer issues throughout Memorial University and in St. John's,” according to their Facebook page. They are also a point of contact for young people from rural parts of the province when they head to university, as well as for people from the city who have been enmeshed in their social groups that may not be supportive of their gender and sexual identities.
“It is through internally controlled spaces where people can be held accountable for their actions that people who have been hurt can recover,” Semerad said. “It is in GSAs and in unions and in HR where people who have had their lives affected and their days ruined are given the tools to change their surroundings, both in terms of social comfort and peer counselling, and in terms of legislative protection and community action.”
Semerad also noted that while incidents like parents pulling their children from class when an LGBTQ presenter was scheduled, or people damaging gender inclusive washrooms, get a lot of media attention, there are many more everyday occurrences that fly below the radar.
“We are still very much in a province that needs its community to care about its youth and the persons our youth wish to become,” he said, adding that young people in Springdale, those involved in the ACNL Youth League, and adults effecting change through PSAC, Egale, and Pride at Work are working hard every day to make things better for members of the 2SQUILTBAG+ community.
“Our provincial administrations have, nominally, the means to make our province safer for kids, and our province's people have the hearts and drives to do so.”
Meeting a need
In Botwood, the GSA is clearly meeting a need. Despite the controversy and issues with the poster, the group has gone from 12 members to 26. Moving forward, some students involved just want more support from the wider student body and the school itself.
“The kids in our school, they’re scared we’re going to turn them gay, but they’re telling us to be straight,” said the student who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A second student, who also wished to not be named, expressed frustration with other students and the school’s administration.
“I want the school to actually do something about it instead of just letting it all happen,” she said.
MUN Sexual and Gender Advocacy Resource Center
On Facebook: @munsagaresourcecenter
Ph: (709) 864-7619
For other resources, see www.bridgethegapp.ca/youth/
Mental Health Crisis Line: 1-888-737-4668