As the decision to paint a rainbow crosswalk, a symbol of LGBTQ pride, continues to spark passionate debate in Smithers, a group of local high school students are working to promote acceptance in their community.
The Gender Sexuality Alliance is a group of Smithers Secondary School students and teachers who want to promote diversity, equal rights and acceptance of the LGBTQ community.
Led by SSS teacher Perry Rath, the group has implemented a series of initiatives at the school since it started in 2007.
Rath said its first goal was to reduce derogatory language in the school halls, which it did by issuing paper slips known as “slurring tickets”.
“It basically described why people’s language was offensive if they used derogatory terms like ‘don’t be a fag’ or ‘that’s gay’ so that students who disliked hearing that, but didn’t feel comfortable confronting the situation, … they could still hand that out,” he said.
The group also initiated a change in the school district’s anti-bullying policy to include a section dedicated to gender equality, non-discrimination and diversity.
The GSA meets weekly to discuss its work at the school, which includes maintaining a bulletin board with news and information from the LGBTQ community.
The board was originally posted under security cameras to prevent vandalism, which did happen, but the group said it had slowed.
At their last meeting they created a list of GSA-friendly books available at the school library to post on the board.
Members of the Alliance do not have to disclose how they identify and the group is open to both allies and members of the LGBTQ community.
“We’re just all on the same page of supporting equal rights and making people aware that that’s important,” said Rath.
“It can’t just be a quiet movement, it has to be visible.”
On Sept. 8 the Town of Smithers adopted a suggestion from Smithers resident Anna Zeigler to paint a rainbow crosswalk on a prominent Main Street intersection.
Residents at the time took to social media to express their opinions, leading to passionate debate for and against the decision.
Although there was a lot of support for the crosswalk, many were unhappy with the decision.
“Might as well put up a billboard saying this town supports it. How about the tax payers who don’t? I’m not against anyone being gay but why make people have to look at a gay pride rainbow?” wrote Levi Kroeker in a Facebook comment responding to the news.
“I pay taxes too, can I get a ‘straight pride’ or ‘male pride’ crosswalk installed? If not, I’m being discriminated against for not being different,” said Steve Bavalis in another comment on social media.
One argument against the crosswalk was that it favoured one section of the community over another.
Town council has since received a letter urging it to approve a crosswalk that represents the pro-life movement, or reconsider the rainbow one.
The request from Karin Doornbos was presented at the Oct. 13 council meeting but the Town has not acted on it.
GSA members have been watching the debate over the crosswalk unfold.
Grade 10 student Cole Jennings said he was taken aback by the response.
“I was pretty surprised by the subtle air of disapproval once the whole rainbow crosswalk thing was brought up,” he said.
“Once you notice it, you just kind of start noticing from then on.”
Matt Peeters, who is in Grade 12, said he had been aware of opposition to the LGBTQ community before the debate over the crosswalk.
“I would like to see Smithers as a community be more accepting of LGBTQ people because there is a backlash against the LGBTQ community in Smithers,” he said.
“It’s kind of something you pick up, day to day, you just realize there is somewhat a non-acceptance of it but it’s a little taboo to talk about it.”
Rolanda Lavallee, a GSA member and Muheim Elementary School custodian, said the group gave students a safe place to be open about their views.
“There are some negative Nancys in the world and I feel like our little community, our little group here, I feel like this is a safe place to be an ally or to be a part of the LGBTQ community,” she said.
Grade 12 student Jake Harder said that was the reason he had joined the GSA, although he noted he had never experienced any problems with other students.
“I joined because as part of the LGBTQ community I felt like I was being more open with myself if I joined GSA,” said Harder.
Rath agreed the group gave its members a sense of solidarity and empowerment, however he said students were not pressured to be public about their sexuality or gender identity.
“The process of coming out is an incredibly intensely personal and private process and there’s no reason why we want to rush anyone or force anyone to be public about their identity if they are not ready,” he said.
“Especially in a small town with parents that might think certain things, or grandparents, so we try to provide support for anyone at whatever stage that they are.
“There are some members of our group that are very out and … so the advocacy part of our group is also an important component, to make sure that it’s visible.”
Grade 12 student Shelby Ayers thought the group was achieving its goal of supporting students.
“It’s just really hard to live in a world where everyone is not accepted as they are,” she said.
“I just can’t imagine being afraid to be who I am and who I love and who I decide I want to be.
She hopes the GSA’s message will spread outside the school and into the wider community.
“Especially when the crosswalk came out, the response that a lot of people had was super negative and it just shows how close-minded some people in Smithers would be,” she said.
“It would be great, I guess you can’t change everyone, but to have everyone open their mind just a little bit more every day.”