Gay alliance formed at local high school
By MICHAEL PURVIS, THE SAULT STAR
Cameron Aitken has seen in his high school since a gay-straight alliance was formed in September is subtle, but it's there.
He said he has seen a change in attitude toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer (LGBTQ) students at Superior Heights, and been surprised by a show of solidarity against homophobia. To Aitken, it means the city's first high school gay-straight alliance is doing its job.
"It's not that the school wasn't an accepting place, it's just that more needs to be done," said the Grade 11 student.
In September, Aitken and two friends approached their music teacher about starting a gay-straight alliance.
Tuesday night, the group held a gala evening to mark International Day Against Homophobia and celebrate not only its accomplishments this year, but its very existence.
Jeremy Dias, a gay rights activist who, as a teenage student at Sir James Dunn, fought with the Algoma District School Board over bullying and discrimination at school, was one of the event's key speakers. He said to see a gay-straight alliance at the school he used to go to is "like a dream come true."
"They're doing all the things I wanted to do, like put up posters and raise awareness and create a safer space for people in the schools to be themselves, so it's fantastic," said Dias.
Sharon Dick, the teacher who acts as mentor to the group, said she was honoured when students approached her about helping them with the group.
The GSA's membership has fluctuated throughout the year between 10 and 25 students, encompassing males and females, ranging from Grade 9 to 12.
"It's a gay-straight alliance, so there are students who are definitely straight, there are students who are out, there are students who are definitely not comfortable with coming out," said Dick.
Dick said the GSA is "pretty ground-breaking," for the Sault and faced some "trepidation," at first, but is gaining traction.
"We know other high schools are interested in starting GSAs as well," said Dick.
Aitken, is "among other things," an out gay teen. He said having his school's straight population show their support is important.
In the fall, when the U.S. saw a troubling spate of suicides among gay teens, the Superior Heights GSA organized a Day of Purple where students and staff donned purple tie-dyed shirts to show their opposition to homophobia.
"I came to school that day and there was a sea of purple," said Aitken. "That was a bit shocking, because we felt we were going to have a few hundred, but most of the people in the school chose to support us and that was huge."
Dick said the GSA isn't about pressuring students to come out. That decision is left entirely up to each individual, she said.
"The whole premise is a safe, nurturing environment that they feel comfortable in," said Dick. "They don't have to talk about it at all, and some don't. They just meet people and talk normal teenager talk."
Dias said seeing more students who are out is a sign of a safe community, but it's not the only one.
"I think having students talk about LGBTQ history in Canadian history classes, and talking about gay cultures and gay communities internationally in geography, and having your gym teacher be sensitive to gender identity issues and talking about safer sex — not just straight sex but all types of sex, between gay couples and straight couples — in a respectful manner, those are all indications of a safer school community," he said.
"More than just out students, wouldn't it be amazing if a teacher felt comfortable coming out in Sault Ste. Marie, or the captain of the football team?"
Dias now, now based in Ottawa, runs Jer's Vision, a charity that fights homophobia and discrimination of all kinds in schools and youth communities. He spent Monday and Tuesday speaking to local elementary students.
In some respects, the Sault is catching up, Dias said.
Superior Heights is the first school in the city to have a gay-straight alliance. But Dias said the students at Superior Heights are also breaking new ground. He said they are the only ones he knows of in Canada to have organized their own celebration on the International Day Against Homophobia.
"In a way, we're playing catch-up at Superior Heights, and there are opportunities to grow at a lot of other schools, especially in the Catholic and French Catholic systems, (but) this school has not just caught up to other gay-straight alliances, but forged beyond what even they can imagine," he said.