On Oct 27, students from 12 Ottawa high schools teamed up with Jer's Vision for a field trip. The day was an opportunity for students from different GSAs and diversity alliances to get together, exchange ideas and learn about queer culture.
Rose (who did not want her last name used), a Grade 11 co-op student at Jer's Vision, organized the field trip as part of her semester project. She says that she originally had 40 students lined up, but after the suicide of gay teen Jamie Hubley, various guidance counsellors contacted her, and the number quickly jumped to 100.
Instead of poring over books, students talked to MP Randall Garrison about being an out politician and his backing of Bill C-389, which if passed, would add gender identity and gender expression to the Canadian Human Rights Act. During lunch, the students were entertained by drag performances, followed by a question-and-answer period about drag history. The day ended with a tour of queer-specific art at the National Gallery.
Rose says that the field trip stresses the importance of diversity and that not everyone identifies as queer.
"I am straight," says Rose. "It's probably split in half, and that's the way we like it. We like the diversity."
Rose got involved with Jer's Vision three years ago, after hearing Jeremy Dias, the executive director, talk at her school. She says she has always been interested in queer issues, and because she has been a victim of bullying herself, she was keen to stop it from happening to others.
"I am adopted because I was severely abused in my birth home, and I know the mentality of being pushed down, that you are not wanted and are unloved. My parents adopted me when I was eight, and they are the most supportive and have opened me to the fact that everyone is equal," says Rose.
This is the fourth field trip put on by Jer's Vision. Like Rose, many of the kids have participated in more than one outing, but for Zoe Easton, this was her first.
Easton is a volunteer at Jer's Vision and a Grade 11 student at Nepean High School in Westboro. Easton, who describes herself as "culturally queer," restarted the school's GSA with a friend this year. According to her, there had been GSAs in the past, but the club has lapsed over the past four years.
She says that the club meets weekly and that, on average, there are 15 kids who show up. Easton stresses that the key to the club is creating a safe space.
"Our school is very cliquey, as is our neighbourhood, " says Easton. "If you are not in the conservative majority of people, you are not necessarily going to feel comfortable, because there is quite a lot of bullying and [social] isolation. So we just wanted to have a place for people to go even if they weren't really sure [of their sexual orientation]."
Easton says that the club’s guidance counsellor encouraged them to go on the field trip.
"It sounded like a great opportunity to meet other kids from GSAs and get out there and see some cool stuff," says Easton. "What's great about the queer community is that everyone is accepting. They are willing to meet other people from the same community as them, talk and just reach out about the same issues. I think there is a real sense of family, which is something you don't find in many places . . . I think it is pretty great that we can all get together and that we have a common interest -- and that is equality."
One of the highlights for Easton was meeting Garrison. She says it was encouraging to see an MP who was open about his sexual orientation.
"It makes a huge difference in having a positive role model who is a bit more real than the things you see on TV. It's eye-opening and really encouraging," says Easton.
Easton says that bullying is prevalent in schools. She says that the students at Nepean High School are lucky, as the school's administration and staff are supportive of diversity and proactive in tackling bullying, but, she says, there is "only so much a school can do."
"A lot of it involves an attitude change and an education. One of the things we were working on at Jer's Vision was a list that could make things better for kids at school," Easton says. "A lot of it [bullying] has to do with derogatory terms being made okay and validated. If you use the word faggot, a lot of people don't know where it comes from -- it's like calling someone a dyke. There is a rainbow of slurs, no pun intended, that can be used."
How to deal with slurs and name-calling came up in the question-and-answer period with the drag performers.
"I think the It Gets Better message is overtired. It doesn't get better, but you just have to believe in yourself," says drag diva Crystal, who finished the show with a stellar impersonation of Dolly Parton. "My message is to believe in yourself and move forward; don't dwell in the negative."