Toronto Decides Whether It Needs Separate Gay High Schools, Or Just Gay Equality

Last Wednesday, University of Toronto student Fan Wu hosted a community forum to discuss his proposal for a queer-centric high school in Toronto. Although his idea was ultimately voted down, his proposal has generated discussion on how best to address the problems LGBT students face in school.

Fan Wu, via Xtra.ca

Already way ahead of Edmonton, where the passing of  Alberta’s Bill 44 prevents educators from speaking about gay issues without first sending students home with consent forms, Toronto already has a program in which LGBT students and allies can earn high school credits in a safe, queer-positive classroom setting. Called the Triangle Program, it was started in Toronto 15 years ago. Still, Wu was hoping to expand the program into an entire high school, similar to the Harvey Milk school in New York.

Founded in 2003, Harvey Milk is designed as a refuge for, and to meet the specific needs of LGBT youth and even their teachers. In an interesting New York Magazine piece about the controversy surrounding the gay-centric high school, an English teacher spoke of how, at Harvey Milk, he felt comfortable addressing gay issues with more frankness. Orville Bell, who, like many of his students, is both black and gay, has 29 years of experience as an educator, but was ready to retire before he heard about Harvey Milk. He thought the school “sounded wonderful.” There, he is able to teach plays such as Bent, which is about homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps and includes a sex scene between two men.

The silencing of gay teachers is an issue with which Wu has first-hand experience, and it’s a problem he feels could be solved with a queer-centric high school. In an interview on CBC radio’s The Current, he explained how, as a teen, queer teachers would give him gay books, but only “under the desk,” so to speak. Though he didn’t experience outright discrimination, he calls the silence surrounding gay issues a kind of covert bullying. Covert bullying is bad enough, but unfortunately for many students it is not the only kind of bullying. As Dan Savage told The Current, the bullying of LGBT students is a serious issue that can lead to suicide, and the existence of queer-centric high schools can save lives. Michael Erickson, a teacher and gay advocate, reminded listeners that people who have experienced trauma need a place of healing; and for many, that can’t be the place where the trauma occurred in the first place. For queer students who have been bullied, returning to school not only makes them vulnerable to more bullying, but it’s also triggering. No wonder many opt to drop out instead. A large percentage of Harvey Milk’s students come to the school behind in their studies. Many don’t graduate until age 21 because they’ve been left behind by the mainstream school system and have a lot of academic catching up to do. There’s also the fact that “20 percent [of students] qualify as homeless or living with someone other than their immediate parent or guardian.” I don’t need to say that getting kicked out of the family home is an unfortunate reality for many queer teens and that the bullying of those who are different is still commonplace in school’s everywhere. It’s undeniable that Harvey Milk fills a very real need.

But in Toronto, which already has the Triangle Program, does the same need exist? At Wu’s forum, Triangle Program graduates expressed concern that a queer-centric high school would put the program at risk. This is a concern echoed by Michael Erickson, who says there’s only so  much money that can go around. The Ontario school system is still dealing with the severe cuts made by Premier Harris in the 90s. Creating a queer-centric high school will not only take away from the already thriving Triangle Program, but it will also pull resources away from city-wide educational programs that benefit everybody – gay students and straight students alike. “Building a queer-centric school doesn’t address all the problems we see across the city,” he told The Current. In New York, Democratic State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister from the Bronx,had a similar criticism: large amounts of money should not be spent on a single school for LGBT students when across New York, there are many inner-city schools in gross need of funding. Diaz Sr.’s views were dismissed because he is a known homophobe, but he and Erickson raise a valid point: when it comes to education, which group gets priority on the money?

via beyond-school.org

Of course, these arguments divide students into groups – gay and straight, inner-city and affluent. In an ideal world, shouldn’t the point of education be to lessen the divisions between groups? To learn together about one another? Jonathan Turley, an associate professor at George Washington University, says queer-centric schools “promote a ‘separate but equal’ educational system uncomfortably reminiscent of one of the most shameful episodes in American history, when black students were placed in separate schools from their white peers – supposedly for their own good.” Turley goes on to say that “to simply remove the object [of a] prejudice does not deal with the underlying prejudice.”

This is why, as one of the students interviewed on the Current believes, Toronto’s Triangle Program is only a band-aid solution and the idea of a queer-centric school only moves people further from the goal of LGBT acceptance in mainstream schools. Yes, it’s good for there to be a safe refuge where gay students can learn and thrive in safety, but the goal should be to create this kind of safe environment in mainstream schools. This is important for openly gay kids, but also for closeted gay kids, and kids who don’t even really know they’re gay yet. As a 14-year-old, I knew I kinda-maybe-sorta liked girls, but there was no way I would have wanted to have a discussion with my mom about attending a queer-centric high school. There was also no way I was going to go to a Gay/Straight alliance meeting. What helped me love and accept my sexuality was seeing everyday gay people in everyday environments.

For openly gay and bullied teens, queer-centric schools fill a need, that’s true: students shouldn’t have to suffer while they wait around for the mainstream school system to get its act together. But it’s important to realize that the end goal is to have queer role models as well as discussions of queers in history and in literature in all schools. I don’t want a situation in which confident gay students and teachers are drawn to queer-centric high schools, leaving all the little queermos-to-be without any good role models. You shouldn’t have to go to a gay high school to read Bent or to learn about people like you. Part of the Harvey Milk school’s mission is to help students “in the process of coming to grips with their sexuality and the emotional trauma associated with it.” But  straight  students also have to learn to come to grips with, and deal with the emotional implications of realizing that there are students whose sexuality differs from theirs, and that one day, their sexuality, too, might differ from their current definition or understanding of it.  As the Toronto student who views separate but equal’ as a band-aid solution says, “A permanent solution is making sure that when you’re in a Sex Ed. class, you’re hearing about your relationships, when you’re learning about families, you’re learning about all types of families, when you’re learning about sexuality, it’s not just assumed that everybody is straight.”

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Malaika likes books, drinking tea, long conversations, dinner parties, making funny faces, bike rides, and dogs. Originally from Edmonton, she now lives in Montreal where she edits, runs, and writes about the Alberta Tar Sands for The Media Co-op. You can follow her on twitter @Malaika_Aleba.

Malaika has written 84 articles for us.

21 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    Full disclosure: I went to public high school in Toronto. To an awesome, LGBT friendly school.

    I don’t know… a separate gay high school just doesn’t seem like it should be a priority. In Toronto at least, there is already infrastructure in the public system to address many of the concerns a separate gay school would. The triangle program works well and there are scads of alternative schools as options. And students in TO can attend any school anywhere in the city, meaning going to a school that’s a-ok with gay is just a subway ride away.

    Also, Toronto’s current attempt at separate schooling (the afro-centric high school) has had some pretty big problems….

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      CK, I don’t know how you personally identify, but can you admit there are some high school kids who might have an even more complex and difficult situation than your own? It’s nice to say certain schools are okay with the gay, but does that mean they’re also okay with trans girl students? Does that also acknowledge that some gay kids are more gender ‘non-normative’ than other gay kids and that it’s this aspect to them and not their sexuality which places them at risk? Yes, the ultimate goal of any school should be complete integration of LGBTQ kids in a safe and supportive environment… but that’s a goal and very likely, not a current reality. Kids have one shot at high school and it’s hard enough. They should have an alternative if the general school population doesn’t feel like a place they can thrive and express who they are.

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    So a few years ago when I was a freshman in college I had an argument at the Thanksgiving dinner table (which is a milestone to say the least) with my Uncle about integration and how I believe it has provided me with great opportunity. His position was that when the schools were seperated (in his case until sophomore year of high school) what developed was an environment where black people were comfortable and united, but things weren’t seperate and equal which prompted the change to integrate. He fully believes that if the government had found a way to make it fair, being seperate would have prevented a lot of urban social ills facing the black
    community. There were black officers that patroled the neighborhood, neighbors were good neighbors, it was black Mayberry if you will. We agreed to disagree and he passed the mashed potatoes.
    What I’ve carried away from that discussion is that while a seperate society sounds awesome and I support gay education the way I support historically black education and same sex education, there is no way for all that to be maintained on a real world level, nor would anybody benefit. I think a change is needed because bullying is a serious problem for queer children who will hopefully grow up to be queer adults, but I have never believed that if the shoes doesn’t fit you ought to remove the foot. Equality has to come from engaging the oppressor, not avoiding them.

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    I attended a Toronto high school which was very friendly and very supportive of the LGBT community, but I know not ever high school in Toronto is that accepting. I had friends attending schools across the GTA where being openly gay was just not an option. More resources should definitely be put into making schools safer for everyone, but the school boards reasoning for quashing the idea of a queercentric school is absolutely ridiculous. They’ve very recently opened an afrocentric school catering to a group that much like the LGBT community experiences high drop out rates. Why should one minority group be held above another?

    (To be clear I don’t support the afrocentric school nor the opening a queercentric school, but rather making the TDSB a more inclusive place on the whole.)

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    Admittedly I spent as little time as possible in high school in my jail-bait years, but I had absolutely no idea that the Triangle Program was in place at the time. Perhaps my memory fails me, but I do not recall any GSAs, covering of queer issues or anything beyond coded references/silence during my years of schooling in the Peel Region. In fact, the closest thing was a very hush-hush invitation for students to attend a school board-wide conference geared toward LGBT students. I know that what it comes down to is the safety of these students and facilitating their healthy growth and development, but I cannot help feel that corralling all of the “openly LGBTQ-identified” students into a single school is the solution. I mean when thinking long-term, shouldn’t efforts be dedicated to making ALL educational institutions more accommodating to LGBTQ students rather than reacting in the short-term? Regardless of how this progresses, I am interested in whether this potential Toronto school will follow the exact same model as the one in New York.

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      Who said anything about “corralling?” No one is required or automatically assigned to attend this school if they come out or appear queer or trans. Nor does having this school automatically excuse larger mainstream schools from improving their diversity and safety programs. Why does it have to be either/or? And as I understand it, it’s very much on the model of NYC’s Harvey Milk High.

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        I certainly apologise if my language seemed insensitive. My point was merely that if the school is intended to be a response to the absence of safe spaces and resources for LGBTQ-identified students, it seems like a more apt course of action to work at changing the existing institutions. While I realise that this is a complex situation, it is just that the idea of responding with a separate school does not sit right with me.

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          I just want to know what this safety and equality at mainstream schools actually looks like and how it’s actually achieved? A large percentage of transfeminine persons are bullied out of high school and I honestly don’t think Toronto is all that different (from what I’ve read by people who’ve worked in Toronto’s trans women sex worker population). I’m happy some of you have had good experiences at your schools in that city, but that doesn’t mean you get to speak for other youth who have more complex coming out situations than you do. Don’t they get a choice in this matter?

          What is the mainstream school going to do in the next year or two that’s going to make the new batch of visibly queer/trans kids feel as if they’re really in a supportive and safe environment that’s conducive to learning? Give a diversity class? Have an assembly where a queer/trans speaker talks to them? Have a lifescience teacher lecture them about the school’s supposed no-tolerance policy towards bullying? Make a spiffy poster about how wonderful LGBT is? Maybe those have an impact over a decade but what about the kids who are being marginalized now?

          This is obviously not a long term policy by the district… the separate school is a stop gap measure but one that can profoundly impact the life of a kid who’s hearing their mainstream school talk the talk about real diversity, but knows it’s mostly bs and window dressing. And yes, I am focusing this on MAAB transfeminine and feminine gay students (especially those of color) because, in my experience, they’re the ones who get the worst beatings, crap from teachers and are on the front line of marginalized youth.

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    Great post Malaika!

    I’m inclined to think that resources should go to making all schools LGBTQ-friendly environments, rather than seperating the LGBTQ kids into a seperate school. We do need our own spaces sometimes (I’m a firm believer in the need for women or queer-only centres and events, for example) but we also need to address the root problems that make certain spaces/events unsafe for women, for LGBTQ folks, for folks of colour, etc. And high school is a great place to teach students about homo/transphobia before it’s been too solidly entrenched in their belief systems.

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    The comparison I often hear in these situations is to historical racial segregation in U.S. schools, with all its obviously bad effects. But what if we compared a gay-centric high school to women’s schools instead? Before women’s education was taken seriously elsewhere, women-only schools were often really positive places where women could take their education seriously and learn to develop a voice without being shot down and overtalked by the men in the classroom. They weren’t perfect, but they were definitely a very useful stepping stone.

    I think there’s no reason a gay-centric school couldn’t mirror women’s schools more. One of the problems with race-segregated schools–on top of how they encouraged racism to continue and didn’t have equal resources–is that they tended to serve communities that struggled more with poverty than their white counterparts. Like women students, queer students would come from a variety of families–supportive and awful, rich and poor–albeit probably with more problems than your average women’s school student. That mix of backgrounds might even be a benefit, since most city schools are still de facto segregated by race and class.

    I don’t think anyone would disagree with the argument that we need to make gay be okay in all schools, and that’s best. But a pro-gay school seems like a pretty practical resource to have too for the here and now, when so many gay teens are ending up homeless! The question of limited resources is really the only important sticking point here. And it’s a shame that such a school could only thoroughly serve the two extreme ends of the spectrum–students whose parents are very supportive, and students who’ve been estranged from their parents–while those in the middle who haven’t come out or don’t know they’re gay or were just told ‘no’ by their parents can’t attend.

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      I meant to note that there were/are of course lots of good Black schools too, especially at the college level! So I’d also argue that it’s more the SYSTEMATIC segregation that made segregated schools so bad, whereas if it’s just one small option amongst many schools, it can be a refuge and place for growth. Requiring all gay students to go to the gay school is very different from having a safe space for those who want to use it.

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      Yeah, I thought about comparing it to a all-girls’ school too, but that would’ve made the scope of the article a little too big. Still, it’s interesting to think about how a gay-centric school could mirror a women’s one.

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    Thank you so much for this article and all the comments. Particularly thanks to Darcyoh-> You said what I was thinking.

    There is no question that across the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) all efforts should be made to create inclusive learning environments where people who identify within the Queer rainbow feel safe and comfortable-and especially for those with intersecting points of ‘marginalization’.

    At the same time I think it a poor argument to say that the queer teens who are bulled in high school are ‘responsible to make safe places/be role models for others’ and therefore there shouldn’t be queer-centric schools. These students deserve the same right to a safe high school environment where they will thrive as much as any other high school student. And if creating a Queer-centric high school allows them that space [while the rest of TDSB works towards more inclusion] then that argument alone should suffice. This is especially true for queer people who have intersecting points of ‘marginalization’. Otherwise if you identify as a gay black man – you might hear about being gay in one course, being black in another – but what about being gay and black and having a learning disability? [Sidenote: Everyone should watch Our Compass, Directed by Tess Vo]

    Its up to the rest of us to continue working towards inclusion and being role models and challenging TDSB policies etc. [That being said having moved to Toronto from West Michigan I am continually impressed with the work that is being done in this regard]. There is always more work to be done.

    Also – Shout out to Planned Parenthood Toronto for working on creating a Queering Sex Ed Resource to be used in schools/community groups etc!!

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      I hate that I used the word ‘marginalization’. During the moment I could not think of a better phrase. I hope that the wording does not offend.

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    “As a 14-year-old, I knew I kinda-maybe-sorta liked girls, but there was no way I would have wanted to have a discussion with my mom about attending a queer-centric high school. There was also no way I was going to go to a Gay/Straight alliance meeting. What helped me love and accept my sexuality was seeing everyday gay people in everyday environments.”

    ^ This. I agree with the sentiment in your article, Malaika. I don’t think it’s very practical to have a queer-centric school mainly because Toronto is a very large city, and I can see it being very difficult for most of the ‘targeted’ demographic living too far away for it to be a practical selection. Yes, I know NYC is a large city and Harvey Milk School is a thing, but the Triangle Program is city-wide and ultimately reaches a broader audience in not only reaching more queer students, but also introducing the concept of a Safe Space to students who aren’t queer (i.e. introducing the notion that being queer is normal).

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    I think it’s important to note that there are straight kids who leaps dont perform 100% according to their gender who are bullied via accusations of being gay, and I don’t think a separate gay high school will help those kids at all. I can only imagine the pressure these kids will get from their bullies to transfer… I honestly believe that the only way to address these issues is for the public school system to embrace what the author of this article suggests at the close of this article. I feel it is also important to mention that there are kids (myself included) who have no choice but to go through the Catholic school system because of the religious beliefs of our parents. I do not regret my catholic school education, but there is something to be said for the fact that our in-school sexual education was extremely limited. Depending on how accepting the kids parents are, gay students nay or may not be permitted to attend such an alternative school. Religious beliefs add a very tricky layer on top of that as well…

    There are no role models because our teachers are not allowed to be gay, at least not openly. Even in high school –I was lucky to know the only two gay teachers at my high school just because one happned to be dating the other and that other one was mybest friends mother. Everyone would ask me whether they were gay (especially the more masculine performing/looking one of the two) and I wasn’t allowed to confirm or deny or else risk termination of their employment.

    Bottom line: taking gay students and teachers out of mainstream schools only helps openly gay students get through high school. After that, there will be no special treatment.

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    As a GTA high school student, I believe that we should not create a queer-centric school. Instead, learning about sexual diversity and gender should be mandatory in schools.

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    I am in my senior year of high school (51 days left tomorrow)in Suburban Massachusetts USA. As I look back on high school I realize my time would have gone a lot differently in a gay high school.

    It would have been nice to have had other gay friends, had a date to school dances, had teachers talk more openly about homosexuality, not have friends that treat you as the “gay friend”.

    Essentially, it would have been nice to have a school that had other people like me and was focused on helping gay students instead of just pretending they didn’t exist.

    Basically even in the absence of bullying there is still a lot of social isolation that comes from being gay.

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