Gay-straight alliances are a hot topic throughout Alberta, but a Red Deer high school was the first in the province to permit one of these organizations to form.
It’s been 14 years since Alberta’s first school-based gay-straight alliance was formed at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School.
Founding student member Rachel Evans and her old high school teacher Darren Lund recalled the early days of the group.
Evans and a friend approached Lund, now a professor at the University of Calgary, about starting the group in 2000. They decided the group would run under the STOP (Students and Teachers Opposing Prejudice) banner. STOP was started in 1987 and won several awards, including a 2001 award of distinction from the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.
“Our motivations were some kids were getting bullied because they were either openly gay or perceived to be gay,” said Evans. “We thought that those students needed some kind of official support.”
Evans and a friend pushed the subject. But Lund was hesitant at first to form the first gay-straight alliance in an Alberta school.
The two students wanted to talk with the principal at the time, Barry Litun. It was practice for students looking to start a club to give a presentation to staff.
“We wanted some official support because we felt it was a safety issue,” said Evans. “People needed to know their teachers supported them and students had somewhere to go if they were being bullied.”
Lund said the two students got up in front of more than 100 staff and laid bare their struggle and their belief in the importance of an alliance.
“They really insisted. It was really the courage of a couple of 16- and 17-year-olds who made it happen,” said Lund.
“These courageous kids got up in front of the staff and came out to them. They talked about their life growing up in Red Deer, what they fear when they come to school and how they wanted the staff to help make it a better school.”
The staff at Lindsay Thurber responded with a standing ovation.
“It wasn’t about a lifestyle choice, it wasn’t about morals or religious beliefs,” said Lund. “It was about how can we make our school and all schools safe for all kids.”
The safety that Lund and Evans talk about is the same argument being made about the proposed Alberta Bill 10.
The legislation would allow school boards to reject the creation of gay-straight alliances in schools, but give students the power to petition Alberta Education to sanction an alliance. However, the legislation was unclear on where the alliance would be allowed to meet, potentially pushing them out of the schools.
Premier Jim Prentice put the legislation on hold earlier in December, to further discussions on the issue. It will return to the legislature floor in the new year.
A study by the University of British Columbia in 2008 showed that the odds of teens having suicidal thoughts were reduced by half in schools that have such groups in place.
“We were looking for support from the teachers and the administration,” said Evans.
She tells a story of the first openly gay student she met in Red Deer. He was new to town and the reaction he got was very threatening.
“People really seemed to take an affront to that,” said Evans.
“They were freaking out. He was getting bugged a lot, he is a confident guy and handled it pretty well, but he experienced harassment and a general lack of understanding.”
He also got the common taunt: “If you’re going to be gay that’s fine, but why do you have to be in our face about it?”
The first gay-straight alliance meeting had about 20 students.
“They didn’t really stick around, but I think it was more a show of solidarity,” said Evans.
“That was great for us, it showed the majority of students actually do support their queer peers and don’t think it’s a big deal or a moral abomination.”
The alliance met every week and would discuss issues or watch “PG queer movies,” which were few and far between at the time. A poster campaign was launched to raise awareness of gay issues in the school.
“The students ran the meeting and they really did it in a respectful and inclusive way, I think,” said Lund.
Ground rules were set at the beginning saying nobody was allowed to judge anybody, people who attended didn’t have to declare their identity, they were just there because they wanted to make the school a better place, and that it was a safe place to talk about how they could make the school a better place.
“It’s neat how far we have come in some ways, but still there is lots of resistance to creating safe schools for all kids,” said Lund.
The alliance became a place for some students at the school to feel safe, when so much of their lives didn’t feel that way.
“It’s probably one of the most important things our STOP group did over those 20 years,” said Lund. “Other kids who have come out to me afterwards, years and decades later, said they were so grateful for that group being there even though they never went to a single meeting.
“They felt at least the school was trying. That we were sincere about trying to be more equitable.”