Since 2007, students in the Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) at Smithers Secondary School have been sharing LGBTQ news on a bulletin board in one of the corridors.
The notice board was defaced several times in the first couple of years after it was erected, but then the vandalism died down, and SSS teacher Perry Rath noticed attitudes at the school becoming more accepting.
The board remained in place without issue for several years until last November, when Smithers town council agreed to paint a rainbow crosswalk on Main Street.
The decision led to heated debate, polarizing groups for and against the public symbol of diversity and LGBTQ pride.
Since the crosswalk controversy began last year, the GSA bulletin board had been defaced a number of times.
Rath said the issue was affecting SSS students, particularly members of the GSA.
“They felt like they were being talked about in a sense, because they were part of the rainbow community, in a way, why the crosswalk was happening, but they felt intimidated to be able to contribute to it,” he said.
Rath and the Bulkley Valley School District decided it was time to bring the Out In Schools program back to Smithers and surrounding communities.
Presenters from the Vancouver-based organization tour schools to show films that teach young people about the impacts of homophobia and discrimination.
Their goal is to promote diversity and acceptance to stop discrimination and bullying.
Facilitators Joanne Tsung and Meghan Brady travelled to the Bulkley Valley last week to hold presentations at high schools and elementary schools in Smithers, Hazelton, Houston and Telkwa.
They said the types of films they shared and the topics they discussed with the students depended on their age group.
Their presentation to a group of SSS Grade 12 students last week included films that highlighted the concept of heteronormativity, a worldview which considers relationships between men and women as the “norm.”
Another film explained the meaning of intersex, which describes a person born with physical anatomy that does not fit the typical definition of being male or female.
Brady, who is originally from the Hazeltons and identifies as being pansexual, also shared her experiences as a teenager at Hazelton Secondary School.
She told the students that she did not come out until after high school when she moved away and heard somebody use the term “sexually fluid.”
“I thought ‘Ooh, that might work,’ because it is very dependant on people,” said Brady.
“It wasn’t that I was attracted to women, it was that I was attracted to one woman, that one person.
“And I was also attracted to men at the same time, and then this term pansexual came to me and I was like ‘Yes, it fits for me.’ ”
She said she wished a program like Out In Schools had been around when she was at school.
Tsung said she hoped students left their presentations with a better understanding of language and terminology, and that students who were not part of the LGBTQ community would become stronger allies with those who were.
“We don’t know who is queer or questioning,” she said.
“When we come to this presentation and we do this for them, we hope that we would catch people who would be like ‘We need this information, I didn’t know this, I didn’t know that I was OK or I didn’t know that these feelings or these thoughts I have are totally not unnatural.’ ”
She also hopes educating youths in schools will help normalize diversity in the long-term.
Rath believes the more education and awareness, the better for SSS students.
“I get so many students coming to talk to me who are fearful of bringing these [issues] up to their parents or anyone else, but they’re confused and they’re not sure what they should be feeling and if what they’re feeling is valid,” he said.
“I think as teachers our main goal is to help people really reach their potential and find out who they really are.”