A former Walnut Grove Secondary student who experienced homophobic bullying is urging the board of education and the school district to make it more safe for LGBTQ students.
Erik Denison, who graduated from Langley Fine Arts School in 1996, was shocked and saddened after hearing about an Aldergrove Secondary teacher taping an “I’m Gay” sign to the back of an unsuspecting student last September.
The teacher stood by while students laughed at the boy and took pictures. The teacher was disciplined by the district and suspended without pay by the teachers’ regulation branch for one month. (He ended up taking a teaching job in Alberta instead.)
“It saddens me greatly that this kind of culture continues and that students still think homophobia is funny. I have talked with younger people in Walnut Grove and they say gay people are still bullied,” said Denison, a former award-winning reporter who worked for the CBC before moving to Australia.
His experiences in Langley schools, which included dropping out of sports because of harassment, has recently led him to create the first world-wide study to look at how prevalent homophobia is in sports and how it impacts young people from getting involved.
Already more than 5,000 people have filled out the survey at outonthefields.com. The research has the support of six prestigious universities.
“I went to Walnut Grove Secondary and experienced many of the same things that the kid at Aldergrove did. The homophobia drove me to go to Langley Fine Arts where I didn’t have to fear for my safety every day and teachers took homophobia seriously,” he said.
The main area where he experienced homophobia was around sports and PE class, at Walnut Grove. Though his social studies teacher was also ‘pretty brutal,’ he said.
“PE class is such a closed environment and you have to change in the change room which is a huge issue. I was slammed into lockers. People would write homo or faggot on my stuff,” he said. “I had come out and I was loud and proud about it but that caused me problems.”
In PE, they asked him not to attend anymore because they couldn’t keep him safe. Instead, he was given alternative courses.
On the field, players from other schools like Brookswood, would go after him, hearing rumours he was gay, he said.
“When you’re young, school and friends is everything,” he said. “It is a fact that gay kids have a much higher rate of suicide and so school boards need to take this seriously.”
While Denison didn’t ever contemplate suicide himself, he felt helpless and was in a pretty dark place for some time.
The only group he felt accepted in was the party crowd. It’s a common crowd for gay kids to fall into. But for some, it can mean entering the drug scene too, he said.
“But I wanted to play sports. I really feel like I missed out on that,” said Denison.
That’s why he joined a rugby club for gay men and volunteered to do PR for the Bingham Cup, which is the world cup of gay rugby. His team from Sydney ended up winning the cup this August.
“I’m loving being back in sports and there are so many on my team who were in the same spot as me,” he said.
His experiences in Langley schools spurred him to get involved in addressing homophobia in sports around the world and in Canada, in particular.
But since hearing about the Aldergrove incident, it has prompted Denison to seek change in his home town.
On a recent visit back to Langley, he contacted the Langley School District to find out where their anti-harrassment, anti-discrimination policy stands.
The LGBTQ community, with support from the Langley Teachers’ Association, has been pushing for a policy for three years.
The LTA has complained about how slow the policy was taking and that it had been watered down. Originally, the LTA was asking for a separate policy just for LGBTQ discrimination. The board wanted the policy to include all forms of discrimination.
A final draft will go in front of trustees at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I don’t sense there is an urgency from the board to implement this policy,” said Denison. “Does it take a kid to very publicly commit suicide for this issue to be taken seriously?”
The policy, if approved, asks for swift discipline for any staff or student caught discriminating against someone who is LGBTQ. It does not indicate in the policy what kind of discipline would take place.
Assistant superintendent Claire Guy has overseen the creation of the policy.
“This policy won’t stop harassment and discrimination altogether but I think it goes along way on creating awareness. This policy is a way of saying discrimination is never OK. This is not about tolerance. It is about acceptance,” said Guy.
Guy believes that Langley schools are safe for LGBTQ students.
“Education around acceptance is the number one priority,” she said. “I compare it to how drunk driving was seen 30 years ago and through education and work from MADD — society now sees it as unacceptable,” she said.
The policy is the statement indicating to staff and to students that there will be consequences.
To get to where they are now, staff did 22 school visits to help understand the issues, a LBGTQ committee was formed and the policy was sent out in June to the public for feedback. Public input was extended into early October because of the strike.
Nobody provided input, said Guy.
“But my belief and what I’m hearing is positive about the policy,” she said.
The board will vote on approving the policy on Oct. 28.
People who are gay and straight are asked to fill out the survey or find out more about it at www.outonthefields.com