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Alliances push forward on tolerance

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Stupid dyke. Dumb lesbian.

If you don’t think those words are particularly bad, ask Taylor Crawley how she feels about them — and she’s not even gay.

Still, those were the words hurled at her when she walked into her Grade 7 class one day with her hair cut shorter than the norm.

"I was 12, which was very shocking to me," said Taylor, now a Grade 11 student at John Taylor Collegiate.

Crawley is straight and considers herself an ally with the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community. She helps co-ordinate the gay-straight alliance (GSA) at John Taylor, which formed in 2011 and has grown to about 25 students.

As debate and controversy continue to swirl around the province’s proposed Bill 18 — which outlines provisions that schools accommodate any student who asks to form a GSA — Crawley believes there’s no better time to begin seriously teaching and promoting acceptance of sexual diversity in school hallways across the province.

"People should not be targeted for something they cannot control," Crawley said, noting she has many transgendered friends.

There are GSAs in every high school in the St. James-Assiniboia School Division, which form a broader division-wide GSA that meets twice a year to share ideas on bolstering their presence and impact in their respective schools.

Westwood teacher Catherine Teichrow said the groups offer as much supports for teachers as they do for students. They also give school administrators an accurate gauge of how safe their hallways are for students.

"They help out teachers who didn’t feel safe or supported before there was a GSA," said Teichrow, who helped form the group at Westwood.

"Once it was established, the reaction helped us have more of a feel of how safe of an environment (the school) was," she said.

In 2011, Westwood’s GSA won a YMCA-YWCA peace medal recipient for its work advocating gay rights and promoting tolerance in the school.

SJSD superintendent Ron Weston said Bill 18 is a "step in the right direction."

"It certainly brings bullying into the spotlight, where it needs to be," Weston said.

While the formation of GSAs in division schools is up to individual principals, the division has supported schools following the lead of Westwood in forming their own.

"It’s a positive thing for kids to know they can build positive relationships with people in the school and that it’s a safe place to be," he said.

Ian Milejszo, an openly gay Grade 12 student at Westwood, said joining the GSA three years ago helped connect him with a supportive group of new friends.

"It’s helped me be more confident in who I am," he said.

Since forming, John Taylor’s GSA has been blazing its own trail,  bringing in popular anti-homophobia speaker Jeremy Dias, who founded Jer’s Vision after taking his school board to the Ontario Human Rights Commission after he was not permitted to form a GSA in his school, to speak to GSAs in the division.

The group has also held numerous outreach fundraisers, and has lined the school’s hallways with posters targeting offensive language and phrases like "faggot" and "that’s so gay," Crawley said.

Though phrases like "that’s so gay" are still commonly heard in the class and the hallway, Milejszo hasn’t been victim to homophobic bullying in school.

However, he has been hit by random insults while walking down the road, strangers and unknowns calling him "faggot" as they drive past.

A lot of teens need to be more careful with how they use their language, Milejszo said.
"I can think of five words that mean the same thing," he said.

"The English language is so large. You’re choosing to be ignorant, but I’m not choosing to be gay."

 

matt.preprost@canstarnews.com

Facebook.com/TheMetroWPG
Twitter: @metroWPG

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