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The Hidden Battle: Violence and Oppression Faced by LGBTQ+ Students in Secondary Schools

“Oh look she’s a man”, “Freaks are meant to be in the circus, not in our schools”, “Did you transition just so you can be in the boys bathroom to watch us pee?”, “Just kill yourself and do the world a favour”, “You’re still here? I thought you would have off-ed yourself already”.


These are the softcore things that are said by fellow students daily in the hallways of our secondary schools in Ontario Canada in 2023, to LGBTQ+ youth that come to school so they can get an education. This is only the tip of the iceberg of the true horrid things that are happening within our establishments. There is a disturbing level of outrage and overt displays of violence, bigotry and harm done in our schools. I wish I could tell you that adults are protecting these youth, but I’d be lying. All some can say are “Well just don’t be around them when they say these things”, “Ignore them, don’t react”, “Do you have proof of what they did or said to you?”, “I can’t do anything about someone’s beliefs”. These are the comforting words that adult educators care to tell these kids when they come forward about the abuse, violence and oppression they are victims of on a daily basis.


What saddens me is that secondary schools are meant to be safe havens for young minds to grow, learn, and flourish. However, for many LGBTQ+ students, this ideal is far from reality. Instead, they often face a distressing reality of discrimination, and abuse within the educational system. Today, I want to shed light on the harrowing experiences endured by LGBTQ+ youth in Canadian secondary schools, examine the detrimental impact on their mental health, academic achievements, and discuss the urgent need for improved protection and support.


The State of LGBTQ+ Youth in Canada & Mental Health Outcomes

Canada is widely regarded as a progressive nation that champions LGBTQ+ rights. However, the journey for LGBTQ+ youth in secondary schools is far from equitable. According to a national survey conducted by Egale Canada, 64% of LGBTQ+ students reported feeling unsafe at school due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. This statistic alone is a stark reminder of the immense challenges faced by these students. More so, LGBTQ+ people experience stigma and discrimination across their life spans, and are targets of sexual and physical assault, harassment and hate crimes:


  • Hates crimes motivated by sexual orientation more than doubled in Canada from 2007 to 2008, and were the most violent of all hate crimes

  • An Ontario-based study of trans people found that 20 per cent had experienced physical or sexual assault due to their identity, and that 34 per cent were subjected to verbal threats or harassment

  • Trans people in both Canada and the US report high levels of violence, harassment, and discrimination when seeking stable housing, employment, health or social services (CMHA, 2023)


Here are the facts and figures about LGBT+ people (CMHA, 2023)

  • Higher rates of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and phobic disorders, suicidality, self-harm, and substance use among LGBT people

  • Double the risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than heterosexual people

  • LGBTQ youth face approximately 14 times the risk of suicide and substance abuse than heterosexual peers

  • 77% of trans respondents in an Ontario-based survey had seriously considered suicide and 45% had attempted suicide - Trans youth and those who had experienced physical or sexual assault were found to be at greatest risk


Whatever you believe or have in your heart about people that are different from you, nobody deserves to be disrespected, treated unfairly, threatened, abused and violated, just because you don’t like who they are. You can dislike someone and still treat them like a decent human being. Nobody deserves to die of a preventable cause. Nobody. The rate at which this population is losing their lives is just unacceptable.


The consequences of violence, discrimination, and abuse on the mental health of LGBTQ+ students cannot be overstated. Studies consistently show that these students are at a significantly higher risk of experiencing anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicidal ideation compared to their heterosexual and cisgender peers. Canadian research indicates that LGBTQ+ youth are three times more likely to experience mental health issues, which is a distressing reality that demands immediate attention and action. These children need to be protected and advocated for, that’s what they need. Not for organizations to change their logo colors and hang a flag for 30 days just bring it back down.


Impact on Academic Outcomes and Achievements

The violence, discrimination, and abuse experienced by LGBTQ+ students have a profound impact on their academic outcomes and achievements. Many of these students face immense difficulty focusing on their studies, as they are constantly preoccupied with concerns about their safety and well-being. The fear of bullying and harassment leads to increased absenteeism, which directly affects their educational progress. LGBTQ+ students often face isolation, exclusion, and a lack of support from their peers and educators. This hostile environment fosters a sense of unworthiness and negatively impacts their self-esteem. Consequently, many LGBTQ+ students are more likely to drop out of school, limiting their future prospects and perpetuating a cycle of inequality.


Lack of Protection in the Educational Context

Despite progress in LGBTQ+ rights, a significant lack of protection persists within the educational context. In many Canadian provinces, there is a lack of comprehensive policies that explicitly address LGBTQ+ issues, leaving schools ill-equipped to handle instances of discrimination and violence. This lack of guidance and oversight contributes to a culture of silence, allowing systemic violence and oppression to persist. For example, I know a trans student that has been getting verbally and at times physically attacked on the school bus transportation to and from school. When she brings her concerns forward to the “mature adult” bus driver, he remains silent and does nothing about it. Which wouldn’t be the case if she was to blame for an incident if the situation was the other way around. The student lodged a complaint with the school principals, which again went nowhere, and the reason given was “well there’s no proof of what happened so I can’t do anything about it”. Later to find out that the bus company has installed cameras on all the school buses for safety reasons, but I guess this student wasn’t deserving of feeling safe and protected. As I write this, it is an ongoing issue.


Furthermore, inadequate teacher training on LGBTQ+ issues perpetuates ignorance and a lack of empathy among educators, especially in catholic education context. This knowledge gap hinders their ability to create inclusive classroom environments and provide the necessary support and affirmation that LGBTQ+ students require.


The Path Forward: Towards a Safer and Inclusive Educational System

To create a safer and more inclusive educational system for LGBTQ+ students, several steps must be taken:

  1. Comprehensive Policies: Education authorities must implement comprehensive policies that explicitly address LGBTQ+ issues, ensuring the protection of these students from violence, discrimination, and abuse. These policies should include clear guidelines on disciplinary actions and support mechanisms for victims.

  2. Teacher Training: It is crucial to invest in comprehensive and ongoing teacher training programs that provide educators with the knowledge and skills to create inclusive classroom environments. This training should encompass LGBTQ+ history, terminology, and awareness of the challenges faced by these students. This is a dire need in catholic education systems, stop hiding behind God and religion to support violence.

  3. Supportive Resources: Educational institutions must provide access to support resources for LGBTQ+ students, including counselors, LGBTQ+ support groups, and safe spaces. These resources are vital in fostering a sense of belonging and providing the necessary emotional support.

  4. Awareness Campaigns: Awareness campaigns should be conducted to challenge stereotypes, promote empathy, and encourage acceptance within the school community. These campaigns can help break down barriers and foster a culture of understanding and inclusivity.


Conclusion

The violence and oppression experienced by LGBTQ+ students in Canadian secondary schools is a distressing reality that demands immediate attention and action. The detrimental impact on their mental health and academic achievements cannot be ignored. By implementing comprehensive policies, providing teacher training, and offering support resources, we can create a safer and more inclusive educational system for LGBTQ+ youth. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that every student, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, can thrive academically, emotionally, and socially in their secondary school years and beyond. When presented with an opportunity to make a difference, stop turning a blind eye and do what right.


Resources

It Gets Better Campaign – In response to publicized suicides by LGBT youth, author Dan Savage initiated the It Gets Better campaign (http://www.itgetsbetter.org) through which supportive LGBT people and allies share supportive messages through online videos.

Kids Help Phone – Children and youth ages 5 to 20 can speak with trained cousellors at Kids Health Phone (1-800-668-6868).

Lesbian, Gay, Bi & Trans Youthline – The Lesbian, Gay, Bi & Trans Youthline offers free peer support for youth aged 26 and under (1-800-268-9688).

Parents, Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) – PFLAG (www.pflagcanada.ca) is a resource for LGBT people and their families.


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