Gay Canada is a feisty, energetic, aggressive, wide-ranging herd of activists and citizens who don’t take discrimination lightly. They are not overwhelmed by a stampede of right-wing moralists hell-bent on a homophobic agenda to preserve the ‘sanctity’ of marriage. Nor are they living in fear of brutal police tactics to beat them into submission.
Mostly free of repressive political and religious history over the past hundred years, both gay and straight Canadian citizens have a strong sense of fairness and equality toward all. The most outstanding and progressive issue in recent Canadian civil life is gay marriage, which has been approved in a majority of the country’s provinces and will likely be approved by the national government on 2005 or 2006. The first report here, although written in 2003, is a good analysis of the current political and social milieu.
There are of course willful opponents of gay rights but fortunately they are outnumbered by governmental and judicial laws and rulings in clear favor of equal justice for all. Nevertheless, in the second report, below, we read about the front line experiences of young LGBT people vulnerable to homophobia and prejudice.
Canadian activist and Olympic swimmer Mark Tewksbury
Revised May 2005
News Analysis: Canada’s Gay Marriage Plan
From: New York Times, June 19, 2003
By Clifford Krauss, Toronto
Canada’s decision to allow marriage between same-sex couples is only one of many signs that this once tradition-bound society is undergoing social change at an astonishing rate.
Increasingly, Canada has been on a social policy course pursued by many Western European and Scandinavian countries, and over the last few decades it has been moving gradually more out of step with the United States.
Even as the government announced on Tuesday that it would rewrite the definition of marriage, it was also in the process of transforming its drug policies by decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana and, to combat disease, permitting "safe-injection" clinics in Vancouver, British Columbia, for heroin addicts.
The large Indian population remains impoverished, but there are signs that native peoples are taking greater control of their destinies; their leaders now govern two territories, occupying more than a third of Canada’s land mass.
As far as the ease with which society changes, Canada is virtually in a category by itself. Canada is a country that has never had a revolution or civil war, and little social turbulence aside from sporadic rebellions in the 19th century and a splash of terrorism in Quebec in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
The country’s demographics have changed dramatically since then, when the government of Pierre Trudeau opened wide the country’s doors to Africans, Asians and West Indians as part of an attempt to fill Canada’s huge, underpopulated hinterland. Eighteen percent of the population is now foreign-born compared with about 11 percent in the United States, with little or no debate over whether the effects of such change in culture, demographics and national identity is good or bad. Only in the last generation have Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, with one third of the population, become multicultural polyglots, with the towers of Sikh temples and mosques becoming mainstays of the skylines and cuisines and fashion becoming concoctions of spices and patterns that are in the vanguard of globalization. Toronto, once a homogeneous city of staid British tradition, now counts more than 40 percent of the people as foreign born.
There are nearly 2,000 ethnic restaurants, and local radio and television stations broadcast in more than 30 languages. "Everything from marriage laws to marijuana laws, we are going through a period of accelerated social change," said Neil Bissoondath, an immigrant from Trinidad who is a leading novelist. "There is a general approach to life here that is both evolutionary and revolutionary." Mr. Bissoondath said the balance went back to the ideals of the Tory founders of Canada, who remained loyal to the British crown and who instilled a laissez-faire conservatism "that says people have a right to live their lives as they like."
That philosophy was a practical necessity in a colony that was bilingual after the British conquered French Quebec, creating relative social peace by allowing greater religious freedoms than even Catholics in England had at the time. The live-and-let-live approach was codified by the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada’s Bill of Rights. Being as young as it is, the charter occupies a vivid corner of the Canadian psyche. So when three senior provincial courts ruled recently that federal marriage law discriminated against same-sex couples, the Liberal Party cabinet decided to go along and not appeal.
While the new law will have to be passed by the House of Commons, little organized resistance has developed. Few have complained that a national policy pertaining to something as intimate as marriage would be set by courts in Quebec, British Columbia and Ontario rather than a federal body. In part, that reflects the great relative political strength that regional governments have developed in what is known as the Canadian Confederation, where the federal government is weaker than most central governments in the West. But it also reflects poll results that show a majority of Canadians support expanding marriage to gay couples.
Last year, the Quebec provincial assembly enacted unanimously a law giving sweeping parental rights to same-sex couples, with even the most conservative members voting in favor despite lobbying by the Roman Catholic Church. "Canada has always been in the vanguard in relation to many societies in the world," Prime Minister Jean ChrÈtien said Tuesday, speaking in French to reporters after he announced the cabinet’s decision. "We have met our responsibilities."
Nowhere has the social change been more dramatic than in Mr. ChrÈtien’s home province of Quebec, which as recently as the 1960’s was deeply conservative and where the church dominated education and social life. Since the baby-boomer generation started the "quiet revolution" in favor of separatism, big government social programs and secularism, abortion and divorce rates there rose to among the highest in Canada. Meanwhile, church attendance plummeted. Now the pendulum is moving in the other direction, ever so slightly.
"There is a centrist mentality in Canada that translates into the political system not tolerating the Pat Buchanans nor the leftist equivalent," Michel C. Auger, a political columnist for Le Journal de MontrÈal, said. "There is a unified fabric here that is a lot stronger on social issues than it seems to be in the United States."
Welcome to Canada’s gay high school:
Toronto’s Triangle program offers an educational refuge
From: The Globe & Mail, Toronto, Ontario, Canada May 29, 2004
( http://www.globeandmail.com )
Despite this country’s reputation for tolerance, young people still face discrimination for being gay, writes Alanna Mitchell. When school life becomes so hostile they can’t face it any more, Toronto’s Triangle program offers an educational refuge
By Alanna Mitchell
The classroom is makeshift, constructed by members of the congregation of this Toronto church in a building bee one weekend.
And it’s cramped. About a dozen high-school students, ranging across all grades, bundle their legs underneath tables that have been pushed together in two facing rows.
A bookshelf beside them holds the Concise Oxford Dictionary, Webster’s New World Thesaurus and The Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video. The clock at the front of the room wears a feather boa in four colours.
This is the only high school in Canada for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual students. It’s an outpost of the city’s public school system called the Triangle program, a nod to the pink triangle badges gays were forced to wear during Hitler’s rule in Germany. While lots of gay students do fine in schools across Canada, the kids who have enrolled in the Triangle program don’t. They have found their way here from all over Ontario – and even from other provinces – because they felt alienated by school environments they say didn’t allow them to thrive and also acknowledge being gay.
Alex Rafferty, one of the refugees from the mainstream school system, is typical. She still can’t get over how an American friend reacted when she complained that it was hard to be 15 and lesbian. "You live in Canada!" the friend said, aghast. "You don’t know homophobia!" Alex says she does. With a horseshoe-shaped ring hanging between her nostrils, and goth-influenced clothes and makeup, she may look tough. But she shakes her head gently as she recalls the stream of hostile e-mail she got after telling a friend at her Catholic girls school she thought she might be lesbian.
"I don’t understand it," she says, looking a bit shaky as she talks about it. "They were friends of mine when they thought I was straight."
Yes, this country has become famous for its gay-friendly laws, especially last year’s ruling in Ontario that allowed same-sex marriages. That alone catapulted Canada to the top rung as a tolerant nation, setting a precedent that cities such as San Francisco are trying to follow and prompting the stodgy Economist magazine to dub Canada "rather cool."
But as Alex and the other teens crammed into this basement classroom at the Metropolitan Community Church can attest, the fabled gay-friendliness sometimes has an element of masquerade about it. Just look at the protests that took place this month in London, Ont., where some groups vociferously opposed a school-board proposal to pass policies aimed at stanching the flood of bullying directed at gay students. The protesters said they didn’t want kids to get the idea that it was "okay" to be gay. (In the end, the proposed changes – which included educating teachers and students about sexual diversity and having a contact person at each school to connect students with gay-friendly experts – passed.)
And in B.C., there was outrage over a play written and performed by drama students at the Vancouver-area Handsworth Secondary School that featured two young women kissing. After one performance, the school board demanded the kiss be dropped. Four parents had complained, and three teachers. The kiss vanished.
It’s hard to tell just from looking at them how much these kids had been through before they arrived in the Triangle program. Everyone knows that the journey toward adulthood is perilous. How different could their stories be? In some ways, they are the same tales of courage, despair, joy and painful self-discovery that every teen goes through. But for these kids, being gay or bisexual or lesbian or transgendered – often without the support of friends and family – has upped the ante.
Several have attempted suicide. At least two have arrived fresh from psychiatric wards (Alex is one of them). Several have been kicked out of the family home for being gay and now try to make ends meet on welfare while going to school. This is their school of last resort. If they can’t make a go of it here, they won’t be able to go anywhere else. There is a trace of desperation in this room, but mostly it’s acceptance and relief. This is their place. Patty Barclay, the program’s only full-time teacher, is preparing for the afternoon group work, known in the school’s lingo as the "queer curriculum," that sets it apart from other schools.
Ms. Barclay and other staff members over the years have created a tightly focused curriculum designed to appeal to these students. Mornings are devoted to individual learning, which means that someone doing Grade 10 math can be working beside a Grade 9 science student. The teachers move through the group, helping each in turn. The afternoon sessions represent Triangle’s heart and soul, a course of study on issues, literature and history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people that can be grafted to the different abilities of students, who could be anywhere from 14 to 23. Ms. Barclay begins to read aloud. It’s a passage from ‘The PowerBook’ by Jeanette Winterson, the British novelist who has been called both a "holy terror" and a "lesbian desperado."
This section is about a girl born in 17th-century Turkey to a family that didn’t want any more girls. The father wanted to drown her at birth, but the mother persuaded him to let her live as a boy. She ends up a spy who smuggles the first tulip bulbs to England, bulbs strapped to her groin like testicles. The room is silent. The students are taking in the language, which is lyrical, hopeful and wildly suggestive.
Then, abruptly, Ms. Barclay stops. The task for the next few minutes, she tells them, is to use the tulip tale as the jumping-off point for their own stories. The ones who have been here longer immediately take up pen and paper. But a few others look shocked. They don’t have a clue how to continue. But they must, Ms. Barclay tells them firmly. "Trust where you’re going," she says.
Eventually, each student begins to write, some in loopy lines and others in sophisticated prose. Later, when they take turns reading their writing aloud, the room falls silent again, a sign of respect for even having attempted this task. Translated into curriculum credits, the work they produce during these classes will count toward English, history, social studies, personal life management and interdisciplinary studies.
As in some of Toronto’s other alternative schools, a new term starts every three weeks, offering a quarter-credit for each subject. It’s education in small, manageable bites that has a better chance of keeping students coming to class than the year-long or semester-long version at other schools.
So far, nearly 250 students have gone through the unusual program, which began in September, 1996, after people at the Toronto school board realized that the dropout rate among lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgendered students – known collectively as lesbigay/trans – was higher than for other students. The board had tried to make schools friendly to all. In 1988, after five high-school kids killed Kenneth Zeller, a librarian teacher, in a gay-bashing in High Park, the board put in place a program designed to eliminate discrimination based on sexual orientation.
But although the vast majority of gay students do fine in mainstream schools or at least bide their time there by hiding their orientation, gay students still report being abused in high numbers, and studies suggest that their suicide rates are higher than those of other young people. They also show greater rates of drug and alcohol use and incidence of depression.
Jeffrey White, who teaches at the program part-time, says the first task when students are admitted into Triangle is simply to try to put them back together as human beings. Only later do staff start teaching them academic skills. "I don’t think you end up at Triangle if you’ve been able to get by," says Mr. White, showing the barest hint of a smile.
An awareness of gay issues and gay-related current affairs permeates much of the curriculum. For example, a timeline stretching across one long wall catalogues some of the victories and tragedies of gay life over the past centuries. Among them is the Second World War, when gays were gassed alongside Jews at Hitler’s behest.
Many of the high points identified on the timeline have happened in Canada in recent years, a source of pride here in this classroom.
There was last year’s same-sex marriage ruling in Ontario. And there was the legal victory of Marc Hall, the Ontario teenager who fought through the courts to be allowed to take his boyfriend to his high-school prom. He won.
On June 23, when these students attend their Pride Prom (the theme is Through the Looking Glass), they will remember that fight.
On the other hand, challenges remain. The offices of a film company in Toronto making a movie of Mr. Hall’s battle were broken into this week in the wake of an Internet campaign reviling the film. "It’s still not safe to be queer," Ms. Barclay says. It’s not that things are getting worse for Canada’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender minority. By almost any measure, they are getting better.
But Ms. Barclay says she longs for the day when the values of younger, more tolerant Canadians begin to colour the Zeitgeist even more. Her goal is for the Triangle program to die the death of obsolescence, for all schools to be welcoming to all comers, for principals to stop telling her that if her students weren’t so darn flamboyant, they would do fine in the mainstream. She doesn’t see it happening in her lifetime.
• Alanna Mitchell is a senior feature writer at The Globe and Mail.
Tall, beefy and 18, Jordan LeMesurier has been enrolled in the Triangle program since January. His repartee comes quick and precise, underscored with crisp wit.
Life has handed him more than his share of challenges. Born premature, he also suffers from Asberger’s syndrome (a form of autism) and an attention-deficit disorder that has required him to be in special-education classes throughout his school life.
He managed to cope with the help of a tight group of friends in Oshawa, Ont., and his mother, who holds conservative values. But when he announced last June that he was gay, the friends dropped him like a stone. "It was classic denial," he says, shrugging. "I can’t really blame them. I blame it on their setting. The diversity in Oshawa consists of rednecks and mullets."
He seems nonchalant now, but back then, "I pretty much felt like garbage," he confesses. He crashed his car in an attempt to end it all.
Eventually, he ended up in a psychiatric ward in Toronto, four credits short of graduating. Then a nurse told him about Triangle.
He still remembers the first question he answered in class: Name a publication in Toronto. Too easy, he thought impatiently. "The Toronto Star." The class looked at him as the teacher said, "No – a queer publication." He’d never heard of one.
He’s still baffled by how Oshawa, a bedroom community of Toronto, can feel so much less safe for him than the big city. If he didn’t have the Triangle program, he’s not sure where he’d be.
The goth with the nose ring seems a lot more fragile than some of the other students. Alex Rafferty arrived here on Halloween via a psychiatric ward, in flight from the girls Catholic high school she had been attending. She wasn’t out as a lesbian then. She wasn’t even certain herself.
But the loud, frequent anti-queer comments from students and teachers made her feel highly vulnerable.
She remembers a religion teacher at school saying former prime minister Jean Chrétien should be excommunicated for refusing to ban same-sex marriages.
"It was pretty hard to take," she says.
Even more difficult was her friends’ reaction when word got out she might be lesbian and was attending the Triangle program. Alex suddenly faced mass rejection.
Her father, who works in the media, is cheeringly supportive. But her mother, a teacher in the Catholic system, has struggled mightily with her daughter’s sexual orientation.
"You can tell she’s not comfortable with it," Alex says. "It’s okay to tell her about heterosexual relationships. But if I tell her about kissing a girl, she says: ‘Can we talk about something else?’ She makes an effort, though, and I appreciate it."
Alex is the only gay or lesbian in her family, as far as she knows. She was the only lesbian patient at the hospital. It’s scary feeling that alone, she says.
Within 20 minutes of arriving at the Triangle classroom, another kid came up and asked, "Do you want to join our posse?" Alex’s reply: "Yes!"
Tall and gangly, Nathan Smith, 17, writes in a big, self-confident hand. He is the class clown, the one who is quick with a joke and a funny sexual reference. He has just arrived at Triangle and is trying to figure out how to be a student again after living on the streets and shelter-hopping in downtown Toronto for the past year and a half.
He was 15 and living with his family in Sudbury when his parents found out he was gay. He had already been through routine beatings at school and had even reported the abuse to police. When his parents found out, they called him a disgrace to the family and threw him out on the street.
He now wishes he had stood up for himself. Instead, he said goodbye to Sudbury and his family and vowed to start a new life. He made his way to Toronto and crashed at shelter after shelter, turning tricks and panhandling for spending money. A counsellor he ran into at one of the shelters told him about the Triangle program.
He is on welfare now. He lives by himself in a rented room downtown and works a few hours a week at a Starbucks in the heart of Toronto’s gay community near Church Street.
Last Christmas, he phoned home to Sudbury. The conversations with his parents, brother and sister were stilted and brief. Nathan tries to look brisk about it, but then says: "I don’t plan on calling them again, ever, ever." Then he regains his swagger. "Look at me now. I’m in school; I have a part-time job . . . I have everything right now."
The quietest student in the class, Adam DaSilva, 17, is slight, motionless and dignified.
His parents found out he was gay two Christmases ago – shortly after he came unwillingly to the realization himself – after they came across something he had written. They confronted the youngest of their three children with the evidence. He admitted it. His father spat in his face and kicked him out.
He fled to a friend’s house and didn’t see his parents again for seven months.
He had grown up in a strongly Roman Catholic family, and attended Catholic schools. When he finally came to terms with the fact that he was gay, he was terrified.
"It made me hate myself," he says in his soft voice. "I didn’t want to become gay. Finally, I realized it wasn’t a choice."
He talked to the social worker at his high school, where he was clearly not thriving, and she suggested Triangle. He wasn’t convinced.
There was a bit of dabbling in drugs, he says, eyes downcast, fiddling with the diamond stud in his ear, and a lot of despair. Finally, he arrived at the program and realized he was just like everybody else. Now, he dreams of becoming an actor or dancer. He has been accepted at one of Toronto’s performing-arts high schools for next year.
Recently, he moved back home, and says he’s grateful for the shelter, but he notices his parents welcome news of his sister’s romance while he is asked to avoid mentioning his own love life.
Adrian Daniels, better known as Junior, was just 15 when he ended up at Triangle, anorexic, clinically depressed, suicidal and with a bleeding duodenal ulcer.
Now, at 17, his eyes are bright and mischievous. He is the class’s elder statesman, the role model, the stunningly good writer whose plays have already been performed to the paying public, and the one who has come to peace.
The change has been dramatic. His old school in Mississauga was not a welcoming place. He was hit, beaten and thrown against the lockers regularly. On his 15th birthday, he was punched in the stomach in front of a teacher. The attacker was sent to sit in the corner.
Back then, Junior was known as a girl and labelled a lesbian. But at Triangle he has come to see himself as transgendered – a man trapped in a woman’s body. "Now, for the first time in my life, it feels right."
Junior often declines to use pronouns to describe himself. Sometimes, he uses the genderless "ze," meaning she or he, and "hir," meaning him, her, his. He’s grateful for the fact that the bathroom at Triangle has no gender label.
Now that he’s stopped worrying about gender, he has tons of creative energy. He has written a screenplay that he’s pitching to HBO and Showcase in the United States. Some of his writing has been published. The next step, he says with a dazzling smile, is to move to Los Angeles to go to film school.