Shauna Hunter McLean your typical teenager, in the midst of her Grade 12 year. She’s new to school, but is outspoken and active, not to mention very intelligent and observant. She stands out with a style of her own, wearing a blue striped shirt with jewelry and headphones dangling around her neck as she catches up on homework on her laptop, around friends at Mountain Eagle Books.
All in all, there’s only one thing that might make her stand out from the 800-or-so other students at Smithers Secondary; she’s an out of the closet lesbian.
And she’s not afraid to talk about it.
She is one student out of the five which makes up the Gay Straight Alliance at the high school, run under the guidance of teacher-sponsor Perry Rath.
The group has no mission statement, but it provides a centre for activism and reform — namely, trying to get new policies drafted for the school regarding homophobia — and is a safe haven for students who might be gay, straight, bisexual or transgendered to meet and socialize.
“The GSA is, on a short term role, meant to be a safe haven for someone to have a place, even if it’s among people they don’t know, where they can genuinely just feel safe, relaxed, for a short while and say what’s one their mind in a room where it’s no one else’s business,” said Shauna.
She said that speaking among your circle of friends won’t even provide that same level of trust with the amount of gossip that can come from it.
Shauna, with the GSA and Rath, are trying to get more comprehensive policies established for homophobia in the school. The high school does have tolerance policies in place but they don’t deal specifically with homophobia.
Rath said that he’s working on getting a meeting with the principal and a member of the school district office to hash out a draft policy. He said they are aiming for as comprehensive a policy as possible.
He said only 15 school districts in B.C. have policies that specifically address homophobia.
Setting a policy will provide a starting point to dealing with people who act homophobic in the school, said Shauna.
“It really has to revolve around educating the teachers and the students about what it is before really cracking down on homophobia,” she said. Without that policy, homophobic behaviour has a strong defence; ‘I didn’t know.’
Shauna first came out of the closet at the end of her Grade 10 year while she attended school at Langley Fine Arts in Fort Langley, a tourist town just outside of the main city of Langley. Her school there was very tolerant of homosexuality.
“I’d never witnessed the kind of tension that can come up because of that,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve ever experienced homophobia.”
Other members of the group have seen homophobia in action as well. Another member of the GSA, who wished to remain anonymous for this article, said that most of the actions they see from other students are immature name calling, referring to homosexuality as “unmanly,” or, he said, “people who actually don’t have a problem with gay people but simply use ‘gay, ‘fag,’ ‘queer,’ etc, as insults simply out of habit.”
Whether or not people are aware that what they’re saying is homophobic, the words can sting and the student said that saying those things might keep people from coming out of the closet or even just talking against homophobia in general.
“I think one of the major challenges we have is trying to get it through people’s heads and stay in their heads that simply doing something as simple as saying ‘fag’ or calling something ‘gay’ as an insult does actually really offend a lot of people,” the student said.
For Shauna, her defence is her low profile being a new student.
“I really feel no danger around people, even though I have faced some homophobic comments and criticism from people I don’t know,” she said.
Rath said that over the years posters for the GSA have been torn down and vandalized but the level of homophobia he sees in the school is roughly what he saw when he was a student. (Rath did not go to school here, rather to a high school in Ontario.)
“We’re certainly not at a 100 per cent level of tolerance in the school,” he said.
Shauna and Rath both credit the faculty at large who they say have been very supportive of homosexual and transgender discussion in the school.
“All my teachers, personally, have been very open to conversation about the GSA’s plans and hopes,” said Shauna.
There is still work to do. Shauna said that some of the people who have come out of the closet within the GSA circle haven’t even done so to their friends or even their parents.
“That speaks a lot about the state of the school’s tolerance,” she said.
The Gay Straight Alliance, as its name implies, is open to people of all sexual identity, and there are ‘allies’ of the group who don’t identify as homosexual or transgender but participate in group activities.
Shauna said she is happy to be in touch with people with questions through e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org