“What if I’m gay?”

This was a fearful question that preoccupied my mind quite often when I was 13 years old and in the middle of (what is for many) a turbulent high school career. When asked by fellow friends if I thought another girl was attractive I would respond quickly and aggressively with “Well I can’t really judge if she’s pretty or not because I don’t think that way, I really can’t tell.  She’s okay, I guess”.

When I turned 14, my best friend accidentally gave me a bad haircut and all of my long red hair had to go. My cut was so short that when I wore a hat there wasn’t even any hair peaking out. I went snowboarding the following weekend with a group of friends and one boy asked me, “Are you a boy or are you a girl? You look like both. I can’t tell.” I rode the chairlift alone.

“That’s so gay!”or “You’re so gay!” were hurtful words that were casually slung around the hallways to underline something that was unpleasant, stupid or boring. We paid no attention in calculus because we were too busy questioning our math teacher’s sexuality because he wore khaki pants and watched the Gilmour Girls.

I remember waking up sick in the middle of the night at a friend’s house and creeping downstairs for a glass of water. Her Mom was watching a music video starring K.D. Lang and before she knew I was there, she muttered to a friend, “Stupid lesbians”. I didn’t even know what the word lesbian meant, but the way that she spat these words out gave me a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. I knew that it wasn’t good.

I’ll never forget the boy who read our school’s morning announcements who was tortured by fellow students for his love of musical theatre and the cheerful way he delivered our school’s news. When walking down the hallway students would laugh, snicker or spit. Students refused to work with him on group assignments, drew on his photo in our school yearbook and refused to sit near him in class.

These are anecdotes of the transphobic, lesbophobic and homophobic environment that I lived in while growing up. It wasn’t until my early 20’s that I had the opportunity to reflect and truly understand that these behaviors were violent, hurtful and wrong. It took me many years to detox, unlearn and understand the world in a different way.

Positive conversations about sexual orientation, gender identity and healthy sexual relationships were not modelled by any of the adults in my day-to-day life. Being anything other than a heterosexual, cis-gendered female wasn’t on the table. Growing up I knew for certain that if I fell in love with another woman or decided that I wanted to identify differently, I would not be allowed a good life. I would be outcast, tortured and judged. I was raised and conditioned to be straight by the community around me and I often wonder how differently myself and my peers would’ve developed had we known that we had the right to love freely. 

In her speech to open World Pride in Toronto this week, Premier Kathleen Wynne, told a story about a 78 year-old woman who told her that she still didn’t feel safe to come out to her friends, family and community. In response to this, Premier Wynne stated that she wanted no child growing up having to wait until they’re 78 to make a statement about who they really are to their own loved ones. I would like to expand further on this and express that I feel like no person should have to wait to know what their rights and options are when it comes to defining who they are and choosing who they love.

The importance of equity and inclusive education in our classrooms is critical for children’s development, mental health, well-being and academic success. Celebrating that there is a spectrum of ways to identify and express our sexuality is essential to put a stop to a culture of hate and fear. Premier Wynne has said that we are so lucky to live in a beautiful and inclusive province and that we can be “beacons of hope” for places that still criminalize gender identity and sexuality. And I agree, here in Canada we have made much progress because of a cross-section of individual and collective efforts, and yet many children (and adults) still struggle with internalized hate and shame. Strong, beautiful advocacy pride work is happening all around the world that we can look to for further inspiration as well. Please watch this video poem from India which celebrates love.

My cousin who finished high school a few years ago, wasn’t able to come out to his friends or community until he graduated, for fear of being ostracized by his peers. He eventually found the community of support that he should’ve had from the beginning when he went off to university. Currently he is an organizer of his university’s pride week and is a great support and advocate to students struggling to come out in their own communities. He has the words Stand Tall tattooed on his back, which form a giraffe.

To celebrate World Pride this week I would like to propose a call to action. In the spirit of the movement for LGBTQ rights, I propose that those of us who identify as heterosexual and/or cis-gendered can consider our privilege, to unlearn and challenge trans and homophobic/lesbophobic/biphobic comments/behaviors made by family members, friends, co-workers and even strangers. Instead of congratulating our children on having the courage to overcome adversity and stand tall on their own, let’s find the courage to model positive behaviors so that we can stand tall together and live in a world where we can all love our selves and each other freely.  

Everyone has the right to be safe, strong and free. This message is at the core of all COPA’s programs and resources and crystallizes a vision of pride and joy in being fully our selves. Through COPA’s work, children, teens, parents, caregivers, educators and  school and board staff are supported to ensure schools are places where our human diversity is celebrated.

For more on COPA’s equity and inclusion resources please check out Safe@School.

And to see how young people imagine a safe, strong and free world through artistic expressions, be inspired at Change Our World.

- Written by Sofia Bohdanowicz, COPA Communications Liaison