Is life getting better for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth?

Sub-title: 
Recent suicide of gay youth in Ottawa prompts questions

When Jamie Hubley, a 15 year old from Ottawa, committed suicide on Oct. 14, attention was turned again to bullying among young people.  Jamie was openly gay.  Taunting from others about his sexuality played a major role in his suicide. 

Professor David Rayside spoke with writer Paul Fraumeni about the challenges lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth face – and about the need to ensure well-intentioned public policy promoting tolerance of sexual diversity is actually implemented.  Rayside is a professor of political science and past director of U of T’s Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies.

Q. When you first heard about Jamie Hubley committing suicide, what did you think?

A. It reminded me of how much work has to be done in Canadian schools.  We think we have moved towards LGBT inclusivity in this country, but change has been extremely slow in the schools. In lots of schools there hasn’t been any change at all.  Bullying based on sexual diversity is about policing gender and sexuality, it’s about saying there are limits as to how you’re supposed to look and behave. A lot of kids who aren’t themselves queer or lesbian or gay get targeted, too.  It’s a ubiquitous form of taunting and belittling people and making them behave.  Some schools have done a huge amount but most haven’t really begun to scratch the surface. They don’t really know how to confront it and in a disturbing number of cases, don’t really think it’s a serious problem.

Q. It takes a variety of groups to come together, doesn’t it?  Schools, parents, police, the legal system, governments. 

A. Absolutely, but there are some jurisdictions, urban school boards in particular, that have managed to develop quite inclusive policies.  And as far as provincial governments are concerned, remember the controversy over the sex education curriculum in Ontario that exploded in the public more than a year ago and then surfaced briefly during the provincial election?  In fact, the Ontario government has moved to establish policies on bullying and bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  On the one hand the controversy illustrates that these are very contentious issues.  Most provinces haven’t actually moved very far on this.

Even in areas where school boards, including the Toronto District School Board, have moved substantially in the direction of recognizing sexual diversity among students and staff, implementation is very uneven. There are lots of schools that take these issues on and address them forthrightly and others that don’t.

The risk in anything like this is to focus exclusively on people in positions of authority. We forget that everyone down the line has to appreciate the significance of these issues and address them not just by adopting anti-bullying policies but by making sexual diversity more visible in everything that the school does, whether it’s the teaching of history or English or in phys ed classes or, obviously, sex ed classes.

Q. Is homophobia the same type of a phenomenon as racism?

A. Yes, in the sense that it is prejudice directed against that which is ‘other.’ People fear the other or feel that the other is just too categorically different—perhaps too different to be understood.  There is commonality among various forms of marginalization, whether it’s on based gender, disability, race, religion or sexuality.

On the other hand, each of these issues has its own dynamics.  Language that diminishes sexual minorities or diminishes gender variation is used to police gender. Saying “that’s so gay” has become so commonplace that a lot of people who use the language don’t think of it as negative. Most of those people would recognize that the language used to diminish or to target racial minorities or people with disabilities has bite, and is widely disapproved.

Q. I was watching a Hollywood movie recently, a film from 1997, and a gay joke is made between two characters.  I can’t see a major Hollywood film including this same joke today, only 14 years later.  We hear the phrase “It Gets Better.” Are things getting better?  It seems so. 

A. There’s no question things are better.  If you look at public attitudes, no matter how you measure them, in this country and in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world, including Latin America, attitudes have changed on virtually all issues and fronts related to sexual diversity.  Attitudes have been slower to change in relation to transgender issues and to some degree bisexual issues as well.  But, generally speaking, attitudes have shifted toward the positive.  Even, for example, among evangelical Christians. You simply can’t deny that and it makes a difference in the everyday lives of people.

There is also more visibility associated with sexual diversity today, especially in cities. And this visibility is also in the media. This means that people watching television in the farthest rural areas, where views tend to be more traditional, are being exposed to a visible presence that was unimaginable when I was growing up.  So there are role models.  They tend to be white, middle class, mostly male, but still they are role models that matter.

And public policy here and in parts of the US has changed, as has institutional practice.

But there are policy areas where change has been much slower.  Schooling is one.  In Ottawa, where Jamey Hubley lived, the school board is not particularly conservative.  As a city, Ottawa has a long history of LGBT visibility and activism, and yet students are finding it hard there, as Jamie did.  I ask my students every year what their schools were like and I get a variety of responses.  Some say their schools were not so bad on these issues.  But in many cases, there are huge limits to how much their schools have changed.

Q. How does a society become more tolerant?  Jamie Hubley was driven to commit suicide to a large extent because some students harassed him about his sexuality.  How do you dig down deep into the grass roots of society to get people to change?

A. There’s no easy answer to this.  Advocates of change—and this includes educators, students, and parents with kids in schools—need to press their boards and schools to ensure that policy is as good as can be. But they also need to make sure the policy is actually applied.

Also, you need supportive mechanisms, not just punishing mechanisms.  And you need to work with teachers.  I think a lot of teachers have done amazing things, with or without the backing of policy.  But I also think there are teachers who are waiting for someone else to do things and to take the lead and that’s just not good enough.

There is a serious problem that is made evident by this suicide. The burden of change can’t just be left to school administrators and ministries of education.  Everyone has a responsibility for this and part of a broader vehicle for change is for more people to be comfortably out about who they are.