Reaching out to LGBT youth

Tara Bradbury
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Workshops, posters and pamphlets deal with sexual diversity

Ailsa Craig, founder of Make It Better on the Rock, will host workshops for youth this summer to deal with sexual diversity issues. — Submitted photo

Last September, syndicated columnist Dan Savage created a YouTube video with his partner in response to reports of two gay teenagers in the United States who committed suicide after being bullied in school. No matter how hard it might be in high school for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) youth, it gets better, was Savage’s message.

Just a couple months later, Savage’s It Gets Better project had turned into a worldwide movement, with celebrities, politicians, organizations and others — including U.S. President Barack Obama, Colin Farrell, Ellen DeGeneres and Facebook staff — making videos of themselves, telling LGBT youth that life does, indeed, get better.

Memorial University sociology professor Ailsa Craig, thanks to an award from Fulbright Canada, is leading a local project that takes the worldwide initiative a step further. Instead of waiting for things to get better in the future, Craig said, we can make them better now.

“(The It Gets Better campaign) is important in a whole bunch of different ways, but some people criticize it, saying it’s telling youth to just wait until you grow up and then it will get better,” Craig explained.

“Sometimes, unfortunately, it doesn’t get better. It’s not just a matter of hoping that things are going to improve or thinking people will grow out of their homophobia, because often they don’t, so we’ve got to do more than just hope. People are having a hard time now. We don’t have to just wait until it gets better — in fact, part of making it better later is making it better now.”

In 2000-2001, Craig was awarded a Canadian Fulbright scholarship, and spent a year studying at New York University. She was recently awarded a Community Leadership Program Award and, working with the province’s three other Fulbright alumni — MUN’s Jennifer Selby, Yolanda Wiersma and Angela Carter — is organizing an outreach and education initiative for LGBT youth in this province called Make It Better on the Rock.

Inspired by and in partnership with the San Fransisco-based Make it Better campaign, Make it Better on the Rock will consist of two day-long workshops for youth this summer, one in the St. John’s area and one in Corner Brook, in peer advocacy and issues surrounding gender and sexual diversity. The hope, Craig said, is that the participants will take what they’ve learned back to their schools and home communities, and share it.

“If we can help students put together really active and productive gay-straight alliances in their high schools, then that’s the kind of advocacy that’s going to extend into change in the future that you know will happen, because the structure and the work has been put into place,” Craig said.

In addition to the workshops, Make it Better on the Rock will produce posters and pamphlets to be distributed across the province, allowing doctors and other who have had training in gender and sexuality issues to identify themselves to youth.

“If you go into a doctor’s office and you have something you want to talk about, how do you know that’s one of the doctors who is comfortable talking about sexual diversity issues?” Craig asked. “That’s one of the things that’s been identified as being important in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

It’s not about the visibility of the person seeking the information, Craig stressed — it’s about identifying supports for them.

Planned Parenthood Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Health Centre is also a partner in Craig’s project, helping to connect organizers with youth, and helping with the workshops.

Homophobia is alive in Newfoundland and Labrador high schools the same as it is in the States, said executive director Costa Kasimos.

“What we’re hearing varies from school to school, but the things we hear from rural areas, we also hear here in St. John’s,” he said.

“There are some schools that are doing wonderful things, such as gay-strait alliances — clubs where youth can get together, whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered or straight, and talk about the issues — but we do acknowledge the fact that there are also schools that are the complete opposite, where discrimination is tolerated, homophobia is tolerated, teachers make homophobic remarks and students do experience violence, verbally, physically and psychologically.”

Kasimos said he is pleased that the provincial Department of Education recently established an action plan to address the issue, and is encouraged that the Make it Better on the Rock project will extend to areas of the province outside St. John’s and Corner Brook, too.

“Ailsa’s project is important because here at Planned Parenthood we’re focusing on empowering youth to become agents of change, so we feel that in order to help end homophobia, we need to start with the youth. This project will bring skills and knowledge to an area that tends to be unserved when it comes to this topic.”

Make it Better on the Rock is also working with the national association Equality for

Gays and Lesbians Everywhere (EGALE) to establish an online video presence through Similar to It Gets Better, interested people can make their own Make it Better videos and upload them. A Make it Better on the Rock Facebook group is also in the works, Craig said, as a way to keep the project going once the workshops are complete.

“It’s about visibility and awareness of the issues, and making people more aware of the ways they become issues,” Craig said. “It’s all fine and good for people to understand that there are people who are discriminated against because they don’t identify as straight or because their gender presentation isn’t what people expect it to be, but what does it actually mean for the quality of people’s lives? What are the actual issues there? It’s not always as simple as it may seem.”

Organizations: New York University, Parenthood Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Health Centre, Department of Education

Geographic location: United States, Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Anon
    February 28, 2011 - 18:18

    Yeah, tolerance, equality, etc. I get it. Here's what I don't get. WHAT THE HELL IS HOMOPHOBIA? If I call someone a derogatory F-word, it means that I am an ignorant C-word not a homophobe. If I crawl under a table in fear, huddled in the fetal position while screaming "MAKE IT GO AWAY, MAKE IT GO AWAY..." I am likely a homophobe as it would be clear that I suffer from some irrational fear of Homosexuals. We don't call Anti-Semites Semetiphobes, we don't call Sexists, heterogenderphobes. and we certainly don't call Racists well... I could go on but I'd allude to some things that don't get past the filteres but you get me. So while we're out there telling our gay youth not to kill themselves. Can we stop rationalizing bullies with labels like Homophobe? Can't we just call them what they are; A-- holes!

  • Reid
    February 27, 2011 - 12:06

    Having grown up in Newfoundland I can only speak of my large group of friends and acquaintances when I say I never experienced any homophobia, slurs etc., once they knew I was gay. My friends' parents are very accepting and some of them are in their 60s. I moved to Toronto when I was 25, about 6 years ago. While Newfoundland still has traditional roots and a strong heritage, I think there is a true sense of welcoming and an 'it makes no difference to me' attitude. I grew up in a very small rural town. I think high school may be the worst time in an individual's life for such things and without a doubt, after high-school, it definitely gets better. That being said, the majority of my closest friends are from that small town. I've never encountered any problems in university or the work environment and I am fully out to everyone. However, bullying is a tough subject. Whether it's because you're gay, a geek, or you dress differently, there is no one solution that will stop the bullying. Some bullies back off for good when they are confronted with force, sometimes a conversation works, and sometimes showing they have no effect on you does the trick. Bullies don't care what is different about a person, they'll just find any reason to bully someone they see as 'bully-able' because they need to bully someone, anyone. Typically a bully has issues with him/herself, family at home, and/or feels popular and superior when they beat other people down. I think it's important to form gay-straight alliances in high-schools so confused, bullied, and gay kids can have somewhere to go and feel they have backup. But there also needs to be positive teaching in the classroom. Kids need to be taught to embrace diversity. Privileges need to be taken away from kids who cause trouble (no gym class, no computer class, no recess etc..) and like on TV behavioural shows, they need to be sat down and told why they are being punished. School counsellors need to take their jobs seriously and figure out what the true issues are behind a bully's actions and attempt to help the bully deal with those issues.

  • Herb Morrison
    February 26, 2011 - 14:57

    Newfoundlanders are a society steeped in tradition and folklore.. However, there is a downside to being a society steeped in tradition. The idea that to be homosexual is unacceptable socially and morally, and even a sin against God; has resulted in the nurturing of homophobia within Newfoundland society. I recall that when the federal Government was poised to legalize same-sex marriage, members of one fundamentalist denomination here in NL, actually went to court, in a futile effort to prevent the legislation from being approved. This example clearly indicates that discrimination against gays and lesbians is, unfortunately, alive and well here on the rock. It is particularly disheartening for me as a Christian to know that the seeds of homophobia are being spread, like a cancer, by persons who profess to believe in the same God of universal love in whom I believe. The fact that there is no Biblical basis for any condemnation of homosexuality, doesn’t seem to deter those afflicted by homophobia. Consequently, I applaud the efforts being made by people like Ailsa Craig and those who support her, as they attempt to offer support to young Gays, lesbians and transgendered persons, who should not be required to go through life being bullied and berated. I believe that the same God who created them man and woman, also created people gay and straight. Best of luck to Ailsa and those who support her in her work.

  • Zena
    February 26, 2011 - 08:45

    I'm a heterosexual female, but I think it's wonderful that steps are being taken to support young LGBTs. Best of luck with it!