By Karen Idzik
As if it wasn’t hard enough growing up the only non-white in his high school, Jeremy Dias was also gay and those facts made his high school years miserable. University wasn’t much better. But now Dias travels from high school to high school, all over Canada and the United States, telling his story with the hope that it will help other students prevent facing the trials he has.
Dias spoke to a group of Grade 10 students at Wellington Heights Secondary on Wednesday, May 2, remaining at the school for the day to visit with students and then giving another talk to school staff.
Dias told the students that on his first day in Grade 10 he walked into his new high school, and a bigger kid walked up to him and called him a derogatory name based on the colour of his skin. The other kids seemed concerned he might be carrying a gun. As the only non-white in his high school he was picked on throughout his high school. More than once he went to the teachers and principal but no action was taken. He was told “boys will be boys” or some other excuses.
He remembers, after one incident at school, his mom taking him to the mall to hang out. A small child came up to him and was pulled away with the admonishment, “Don’t talk to them. They’re bad.”
Dias finally started making friends in school but had issues with them saying stupid things like thinking he only ate curry and rice. He found the guts to speak up and the friend never made jokes about curry and rice again.
Dias had a close circle of six or seven friends. During a drama class he announced that he was gay and one of these friends ran to the office and announced it over the PA system.
Gay is not a choice, he said. Gay people are born that way. He said a person doesn’t get up one morning” and decide to eat the cereal that makes you gay, or the cereal that makes you not gay.”
He discovered he was gay in Grade 7 when he and his best friend started holding hands.
Someone saw them and asked if they were gay. They both said ‘no’ but when they looked up the meaning of the word discovered that they were, in fact, gay. His friend thought they were just in love and was upset when he discovered what gay meant, Dias said, and never spoke to Jeremy again.
While in Grade 10 Dias got beaten up very badly and ended up in the hospital. The nurse wanted to talk to his parents but he was afraid to call them so snuck out while she wasn’t looking. The next day, the principal called him in to ask what happened. He told him who had beaten him up, and what had happened at the hospital. The principal said it would “toughen him up” and maybe he wouldn’t complain so much. Dias told the principal he just wanted to be left alone.
He said his mother found out he was gay by accident. He had a friend over to watch a movie and they were holding hands when his mother walked in with a plate of cookies, and caught them. She went for a very long walk, after which she told him it was okay and that she loved him. The next morning his brother teased him, offering him “homo” milk but in a good-natured way.
Dias explained his that mother is from Pakistan, with beautiful long black hair, and his father, a tall Scot from eastern Canada, is a hunter and camper. The two have very little in common but his dad told him he was okay with his son being gay. In fact everyone in his family is okay with him being gay except for one aunt, who is also his godmother. Their relationship is cordial and polite but they don’t talk.
“I miss her, and I can’t tell her how much,” Dias said.
While a Grade 12 student he was in the hospital twice and had his locker defaced with graffiti. The principal told him about the issue, but Dias said the custodian refused to clean it up because he was afraid of “catching gay.”
All through school he was discriminated against by teachers, staff and in a number of ways including having his work torn up and his desk blown up. The people perpetrating them considered many of these things little jokes but, to him, they last forever.
At one point, he figured the only way out was suicide. He said he was sitting in science class wanting to die when one guy started teasing him. A complete stranger, a female classmate, defended him, and that made a huge difference in his life. They became good friends and when he wasn’t allowed to take his boyfriend to prom, she rented a pink convertible, dressed up as a “dude” and went to prom with him.
At 17, he started a lawsuit against the school board and, by the age of 21, had won the second largest settlement for a human rights case in Canada at 21. He has used that money to set up a foundation – Jer’s Vision. Also part of the settlement was the firing of several teachers, the principal and a director. While there was no official apology from the board, he did receive a very public one from the director who was hired to replace the one fired.
Through the foundation, Dias and others visit schools to talk about bullying, diversity, and discrimination.
“I can’t stop bullying. I’m just one person, but you guys can,” Dias told the Wellington Heights students. He answered a number of questions from the audience, and remained afterwards to speak with students on a one-on-one basis.
He also asked the students to sign a petition to support Bill 13, The Accepting Schools Act, which would work to prevent gender-based violence and incidents based on homophobia and transphobia, provide better support for students who are impacted by inappropriate behaviors. It would require schools to provide a safe learning environment, and support student led initiatives to stop all forms of bullying, discrimination, homophobia and transphobia.