Taking homophobia out of homeroom

Brian Burtch has been a queer ally since the 1970s. The Simon Fraser University professor has always included some transgender studies in his curriculum.

Brian Burtch has been a queer ally since the 1970s.

The Simon Fraser University professor has always included some transgender studies in his curriculum.

But he’s not gay.

“I’m married and straight,” said Burtch.

Still, it just made sense to the criminology and women’s studies prof to include queer studies, alongside his more traditional teaching.

So when one of his MA students, Rebecca Haskell, approached Burtch about co-writing a book about homophobia in B.C. high schools, it was a no-brainer.

What the pair discovered is that while bullying is taking a beating in schools with numerous anti-bullying programs and campaigns, gay bashing continues.

“There has been a campaign in Burnaby schools to try and introduce a homophobia policy, much like their anti-bullying policy,” said Burtch.

But it hasn’t been an easy sell.

Researching the book, Haskell interviewed 16 recent high school grads and uncovered some troubling history.

One student remembered the topic of gay men coming up in class. Another student responded with, “I hate all gay people, I wish they would all die.”

And the teacher basically ignored it.

“We shouldn’t really say things like that in class,” said the teacher, with a big smile on her face.

This anecdote made it into Burtch’s and Haskell’s new book, Get That Freak: Homophobia and Transphobia in High Schools.

The name comes from another story Haskell heard from a student she interviewed.

“I hated snow days,” said the male student.

Walking home from school, he’d end up being followed by a growing group of classmates chucking snowballs at the gay “freak” in the pink shirt.

“It feels like we’re talking about 19th-century battles that have already been fought and won, but still exist,” said Burtch.

The recent spate of suicides by gay teens, who were bullied mercilessly, have brought these issues to the fore again, he said.

And it all starts with little things, like kids saying, “That’s so gay.”

“If teachers hear that, they should stand up and not let that slide,” said Burtch.

Since their book came out, Burtch and Haskell have been touring the country talking about homophobia.

“There are only a few school boards that have gone through with anti-homophobia mandates,” he said.

“I’m not sure about the Yukon,” added Burtch, who’s coming to Whitehorse next week.

Burtch is talking at three local schools in Whitehorse and giving a public talk.

“It’s meant to be more of a conversation about homophobia,” he said. “We’re trying to understand levels of homophobia and how it plays out in schools.

“It’s not meant to be a pity party,” added Burtch. “It’s a forum.”

Things have improved significantly since Burtch was a little boy.

“I had very limited experience of gays till I was 20 because I grew up as an air force brat in the 1950s and 1960s,” he said.

More than 50 years later, terms like bi-curious, two-spirited, transgender and gender variant are part of everyday conversation, he said.

But this doesn’t mean that homophobia is on the decline.

“We’re still having debates about retaining same-sex marriage,” said Burtch.

“I mean this is ‘sit-at-the-back-of-the-bus’ stuff.”

Burtch doesn’t see himself as a queer crusader.

“I just think it’s important to talk about homophobia and for people to talk about their experiences,” he said.

Burtch is hosting a public conversation about homophobia and transphobia on Monday at 7 p.m. at the Association franco-yukonnaisse.

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com

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