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The 1991 Gay and Lesbian Youth Status(1)

Published as Appendix E in The Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Factor in the Youth Suicide Problem.

1998 Update Notes: Calgarys' suicide prevention professionals continued to avoid/ignore GLBT youth issues, and they had solicited the help of PFLAG so that they could continue only serving heterosexual youth. PFLAG also had a history of doing nothing to educate Calgary's youth problem professionals about GLBT issues. All is not well in LA County (the home of PROJECT !0), nor in Massachusetts (the home of the only Governor's Commission on GLBT youth) for GLBT adolescents in schools.

Part 1

Adolescent suicide and the high dropout rate have become major concerns for educators in Alberta. Homosexuality is a factor in both these problems but this fact has not yet been recognized by educators and education authorities.

Studies published since 1978 reveal that gay youth are two to four times more likely to attempt suicide. By 1989, the three-volume "Report of the Secretary General's Task Force on Youth Suicide" was published in the United States. The third volume, "Gay Male and Lesbian Youth Suicide", explains why 10 percent of the youth population would account for 20 to 40 percent of the suicides and attempted suicides.

Suicide is the ultimate form of dropping out and homosexuality could therefore be a significant factor in the school dropout rate. By 1985, the Harvey Milk School in New York City was established so that lesbian and gay youth could complete their high school in a gay-positive environment, as opposed to the anti-gay school environments which had caused them to drop out.

In Canada, the level of hatred-related attitudes was revealed in the Canada Youth and AIDS Study. From a sample of 38,000 youth, it was revealed that Grade 7 to 11 students have learned very negative attitudes regarding homosexuals. Only 33 to 41 percent of them believed that "homosexuals should be teachers" and a lesser number (18 - 29 percent) felt that they "would be comfortable talking with a homosexual person." If such negative feelings existed toward any other minority in our schools, a major hate crisis would be declared.

This information was presented to many professionals in Alberta Education and in Calgary school systems, and they were asked if anything was being done to help gay and lesbian youth. None of them had any awareness that homosexuality was a factor in the problems they sought to solve, although some of them knew it was a factor.

Joe North, Alberta Education's health consultant in Calgary, stated that I was "the first person to ever raise the topic." Craig Roxburgh, the Director of Policy and Evaluation Branch for Alberta Education, who is the one concerned about the dropout problem, was unaware of the homosexual factor. Homosexuality was not even a concern at the Guidance and Counselling level in Alberta Education. Dick Kranz, the coordinator of the department stated that "the word homosexuality does not show up in any of our literature."

At the Calgary Board of Education, Phyllis Day, the Executive Assistant to the Chief Superintendent, challenged the idea. She was acting on the basis of the information available to her. The existence of a report on youth suicide was noted, and a "massive study" on dropouts had been done. In both cases, homosexuality had not been noted as being of any importance. How could this have happened?

Dr. Joan Jeary, an expert who worked on the youth suicide report for the public schools, revealed that the report had been done with the assistance of the Canadian Mental Health Association (C.M.H.A.) and that homosexuality had not been seen as being a factor in youth suicide. Dr. Jeary was not aware of the research available on gay and lesbian youth suicide.

Janet Arnold (4), the coordinator for the CMHA's Suicide Intervention Program in Calgary, reported that, to her knowledge, directives had not been issued by the Canadian Mental Health Association with respect to homosexuality being an important factor in youth suicides. She noted, however, that adolescents would occasionally mention homosexuality as being a cause for suicide.

Arnold dealt with this issue in a very gay-positive manner, both to elevate the self-esteem of gay teens and to lessen the hatred others may have for gays and lesbians. Unfortunately, discussing homosexuality had not been a regular part of her presentations, but the information she was given has caused her to now address the issue in every discussion with teens (4).

Gays and lesbians have repeatedly written about their teen self-esteem problems, the learned self-hatred, and their feelings of being hated by almost everyone, including teachers, parents, peers, religious authorities, etc.. There's also no doubt that, in schools, lesbian and gay youth still feel hated by almost everyone. In fact, Nick Greckol, the former junior high principal who did the dropout study in the public schools, had detected that the more visibly gay youth were in trouble. "Kids who I suspect are gay, or homosexual, have a very difficult time fitting into the... teenage culture. With it go a lot of adjustment problems.., I know they are under an awful lot of pressure because of the kind of things society does to them.... to gay and lesbian [kids]."

The remarkable phenomenon was to see that, in spite of having seen gay kids in serious trouble, and even understanding why this is so, he did not consider homosexuality as possibly being a factor in the dropout rate. The reason for homosexuality not appearing as a cause in the dropout study was explained. "I just deliberately stay away from these kinds of topics with kids... I know it's very sensitive.... I can't tell you if any of them [in the study] were gay or lesbian. That was not one of my focuses."

Greckol was given an example of a Calgary public school dropout case from the mid-1980's. A gay male student had been assaulted by three male students only because he did not deny he was gay. He then carried a knife to school but the stress was too much. He quit school without completing his Grade 11. Other cases would not be as blatant as this one. Gay/lesbian students who feel intensely hated may, in greater percentages, opt out of such environments.

Over and over again, the message was the same, whether it came from Gina Vivone who is in charge of the C.A.L.M (Career and Life Management) program in Alberta, Joanne Hunt who is the Supervisor of Education Services in the Calgary Public Schools, or Tom Norris who is the Supervisor of the Religious Education Curriculum in the Calgary Catholic Schools. Nothing is being done to help gay and lesbian youth.

The only positive item was discovered to exist in the Calgary Catholic schools where Norris explained that a formal directive to teachers existed with respect to homosexuality. Gays and lesbians are not to be condemned, but this has limited value. They are unreasonably expected to be celibate for life!

It would be easy to blame professionals for not knowing, which is not the first time this has happened in gay history. It must be remembered, however, that educators would be more uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality than most of us were before we "came out." Yet, all professionals interviewed were quite willing to discuss homosexuality and related problems, and did so with great honesty.

Some even requested having gays and lesbians talk to educators about the problems gay and lesbian youth experience. They were also supportive of the idea that lesbians and gays form an organization dedicated to supplying information and support to educators in Alberta. Such an organization does not exist in Alberta, and it is needed(2) ,(3) .

Part 2

The professionals contacted in Alberta Education, in the two major Calgary school systems, and at the Canadian Mental Health Association, were not aware of the gay and lesbian over-representation in youth suicides. They also had not recognized that homosexuality plays a causal role in the school dropout rate. This lack of knowledge, and other unknowns, can only have negative consequences for lesbian and gay youth.

Gays and lesbians commonly report having had major self-esteem problems when they were young, feelings that they were hated by almost everyone, including parents, and various degrees of inner turmoil during the period preceding the full acceptance of their gay natures. Major problems related to learned self-hatred often persist after coming out.

In schools, lesbian and gay youth face a hostile environment characterized by 60 to 80 percent of students who have anti-gay attitudes. They also can expect little from educators in terms of help to lessen their acquired self-hatred, or to lessen the negative feelings other students have about homosexuality.

According to Vicki Brown, a Calgary Public School specialist in Education Services/Health, teachers would have a major problem just being comfortable talking about homosexuality. They would know little to nothing about the subject, or about the meaning of being gay. Some professionals interviewed noted that homosexuality is a very "sensitive" topic in education. It rates in the "hot potato" category, as Mayor Duerr discovered it to be.

Homosexuality is usually not a topic teachers will even initiate. This fact was implicit in Tom Norris' report of the Calgary Catholic School situation. Teachers are told that "if the topic comes up - and kids do ask - [they] are not to avoid it." Although they are not to make "value judgments", a judgment was imbedded in Norris' explanation that students are told to have "compassion" for both people with AIDS and for homosexuals. The message is clear. Students would never be told to have compassion for heterosexuals because heterosexuals are not perceived to be suffering from something abnormal.

Even Janet Arnold from the Canadian Mental Health Association had followed a policy of only talking about homosexuality if a youth brought up the subject (4), almost as if a law existed against educators bringing up the topic for discussion. The reason may be that teachers seek to avoid problems. If a student mentions it, a reason is then created to discuss the subject, but with great caution. It is expected that teachers would never say anything positive about homosexuality, as in saying that loving a member of the same sex is a wonderful experience.

According to Gina Vivone, the Coordinator for Health/Physical Education in Alberta Education, most teachers would have a major problem saying anything positive about homosexuality. If they did, the great problems would come from some parents hearing about it. A teacher could be accused of not only "condoning" homosexuality, but of "promoting" it! The teacher could also be accused of being homosexual and of "recruiting" children into a lifestyle considered by some to be the most evil on earth.

Given that gay and lesbian youth in schools will probably never hear anything positive about their identity, their self-esteem problems will not be lessened, and they are also deprived of having openly gay teachers to serve as positive role models. There are great pressures exerted on lesbian and gay teachers to stay in the closet, especially because they know how negatively so many students feel about homosexuals. If their secret was known, teaching could become an almost impossible job.

There are pressures also exerted by administrators who don't want to have problems with parents, who think that openly gay teachers would be a bad influence on children, and even think that this would "promote" homosexuality. The case against having such teachers, however, is argued at another level, as it was done by Phyllis Day, the Executive Assistant to the Chief Superintendent for Calgary Public Schools.

"I guess I have a bit of trouble with that because a heterosexual teacher doesn't come out to his class and say 'Ole! I'm heterosexual.' So I don't see any reason why it's important for a teacher to announce to a class what his sexual preference is. It's nobody's business.... I could never understand that issue."

Day does not realize that heterosexuals do use an infinite number of ways to reveal their sexual orientation. Ways also used by closeted gays all the time. One of their gay teachers, for example, takes a female to high school dances, and also projects a heterosexual identity to his students.

The issue of openly gay teachers was discussed with Dr. Joan Jeary within the context of concern about the self-esteem of gay and lesbian youth, and the role it plays in youth suicide. She recognized that positive role models are especially needed by all youth belonging to hated minorities. Her response to opponents of openly gay teachers was: "It's depressing that our tolerance for other people is so poor that we can't allow them to be, and to contribute in their own ways. We want to make them be all LIKE US."

The closeted situation also has serious effects on gay and lesbian teachers. For example, one gay teacher who quit teaching stated: "I could not live with myself. On a daily basis, my responses to many situations were altered, or completely censored. By not being openly gay, I was denying gay kids the positive role models they so desperately needed. I was doing to them what my teachers had done to me."

"Only male-female relationships could be discussed, which sent a deadly message to these kids. The gay relationships they would want didn't exist. That they shouldn't exist was implied. I completely avoided saying anything positive about homosexuality because it was forbidden. Yet, gay kids desperately needed such comments to elevate their self-esteem. I was not only betraying them. I was also betraying my own humanity. So I quit and no one ever knew why."

It is a morbid practice to never saying anything positive about homosexuality, given that lesbian and gay youth would have self-esteem problems. The unspoken 'law' exists, however, and it has created another problem for gay youth, discovered during an interview with Susan Hutton, the Coordinator at AIDS Calgary.

Educators from AIDS Calgary go to schools and teach "safer sex" to students. They know that, of all youth, it's the sexually active gay and bisexual male youth who would traditionally be the most at risk of becoming HIV positive. It is also known that there's only one proven effective method ever developed to teach "safer sex". It is explicit, sex-positive, and gay-positive when teaching gays, as in celebrating gay sexuality. The World Health Organization has recognized it's effectiveness, and the method is made mandatory in the recommendations of the Still Loving study done by AIDS Calgary.

Hutton has nonetheless abided by the unwritten 'law'. In schools, she will never say anything positive about homosexuality, and certainly not say anything to celebrate gay sexuality. She feels that, if this was ever done, AIDS Calgary would be banned from ever entering a school again.

At the teaching of "safer sex" level, much less is therefore being done than what is possible, with expected negative consequences. Higher rates of HIV infection for gay and bisexual male youth, and for the females they have sex with, can be expected.

Other problems are also created because nothing is done to elevate the self-esteem of these boys. It is known that low self-esteem, or wanting to die, may not result in gay and bisexual boys practicing "safer sex" to save their lives. Low self-esteem is also linked to drug and alcohol use or abuse. All "safer sex" studies do report that unsafe sex practices by gay and bisexual males are intimately linked to using drugs and alcohol.

Given the evidence, it's tempting to conclude that our schools are set up to destroy the maximum number of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth. But why have adult gays and lesbians done nothing about this? The answers are all to familiar. Like the situation existing at AIDS Calgary, the feeling is that nothing can be done.

Maybe this is not true. Education can solve problems.

[Ending request was the same as for PART 1 (3), and published articles were edited.]

The above two articles represent the only account of the situation existing in 1991 for gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth in Alberta Schools; and the results are similar to what Uribe (1991) reported to exist in American schools on the basis of her Ph.D. study. Both studies reveal that essentially nothing is done in schools to help gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth - who desperately need help.

Yet, one school official in Calgary - who probably went to the same "PR" school most people in authority go to - responded to the articles by stating: "You quoted people out of context." The objective was to discredit the author, dismiss the findings, and avoid doing anything to help these youth.

I explained that I have taken great pains to be accurate and fair, and that it was difficult to quote people out of context - given that they had all reported that nothing was being done to help gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth. Furthermore, I offered to supply the tapes of the interviews - which had lasted a total of about 5 hours - to prove that I had not quoted anyone supposedly "out of context." The education authority became furious - as they do when their discrediting tactics are circumvented - and challengingly asked if our conversation was being taped.

This was not being done because I had not formally told her that she was being interviewed, which means that I will be quoting the individual. Recently, it was discovered that "the powers that be" have issued "muzzling" rules on educators who would again speak in ways which would reveal the truth about what education in Alberta really is. It is difficult to get the truth from any official designated - and trained - to speak to the public.

On the basis of my five years of teaching in Alberta, on on the basis of talking with many professionals in education, it has always been evident that politics governs the world of public education throughout North America, and especially in Alberta. This means that the important information needed to understand major problems in education will probably not be revealed, mostly because such knowledge would place existing authorities in a bad light. In the end, however, it's our youth who pay the price for this - sometimes with their lives.

See: Update Notes


1. Non-edited version submitted for publication in the 1991 July & August issues A.G.L.P. (The Alberta Gay and Lesbian Press).

2. At the end of the article, the following was written: "In the next issue of A.G.L.P., Part II will explore the many facets of homophobia in education and its negative consequences for gay and lesbian youth."  and: 3. "Anyone interested in forming a lesbian and gay organization focused on helping educators deal with the gay and lesbian youth situation can call A.G.L.P.. Leave you name and phone number and you will be contacted as soon as possible."

The response was general indifference. It was still felt that, in Alberta, doing anything to help GLBT youth (and especially tackling the highly homophobic public school system) would be a waste of time and energy. The situation therefore meant that I would be doing the needed education work myself, with the help of a few concerned individuals.

Update Notes (1998):

4. My experiences with Janet Arnold were quite positive; she had helped with the editing of the first edition of The Gay, lesbian, and Bisexual Factor in the Youth Suicide Problem. From 1991 to 1995, all published information accessed about GLBT youth suicide problems were made available to her and photocopied. This situation lasted until I requested help from her superiors after publishing the second edition of The Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Factor in the Youth Suicide Problem. The resistance to having these issues addressed was monumental, which lasted at least until early in 1996 when, as a (short-lived) member of PFLAG Calgary, the President, Bill Rutherford, requested that I go to a "suicide prevention" training session given by the Canadian Mentla Health Association.

When, however, I discovered how this development had occurred, I was quite angry. Mr. Rutherford thought it was a positive outcome, but the opposite was more likely. The director of Suicide Services, Sheena Meurin, had made the offer to him after reporting that they knew nothing about this issue (more like they did not want to know anything, and Janet Arnold had recently left the organization), and they apparently also did not have money (due to cutbacks) to acquire the education needed to effectively address GLBT suicide issues.  In other words, PFLAG was being told to start doing this desperately need "suicide prevention" work on their own, without "suicide prevention" funds; the available funds would therefore continue to be used in Calgary only to addres the problems of heterosexual adolescents and youth.

In a 1995 letter to Calgary's Canadian Mental Health Association, I had strongly suggested that the name be changed to  The Canadian Heterosexual Mental Health Association because people should know who they are serving. In the summer of 1997, I solicited information from a volunteer (for the past two years) in their suicide education/prevention program. She had voiced concerned about GLB adolescent suicide issues but was told not to focus on this issue. At the suicide prevention training I attended, only a token mention had been made of "homosexuality" being a factor in suicide problems, and we were separated from the group to again be subjected to more - far from insightful - tokenism about GLB youth suicide issues.

My anger in this respect also extended to PFLAG which had been manifesting a desperate need to be accepted in the general community, and was willing to behave in such ways even it meant that "at risk" GLB kids would continue to be ignored. Furthermore, as I explained to Mr. Rutherford, GLB kids distressed about their sexual orientation - as in not wanting to be homosexually oriented - would certainly not be contacting GLB identified groups to talk about their distress. Therefore, PFLAG was certainly not working to help "at risk" GLB youth. Up to this time in Calgary, Calgary's GLB organizations had not been working to educate youth problems prevention groups and professionals about GLB issues, nor had they been working to effectively change the situation at the root cause of GLBT child/adolescent/youth problems. Repeatedly, Mr. Rutherford had suggested that I not mention issues related to suicide or AIDS with most PFLAG members because they could not deal with such issues.

This event was soon followed by a representative of PFLAG who went to a major 1996 annual meeting of Alberta GLB groups in Red Deer and emphatically asserted that all gay males wanted to be women, possibly because his teenage son had been doing drag and the family (now highly placed in PFLAG) was maybe hoping this was normal for a gay male. Soon after hearing this, I told Mr. Rutherford, and the former president of PFLAG, Tom Rast, that I will certainly not be a member of a group which is perpetrating ignorance about gay and bisexual males. Up to this time, as noted by a number of PFLAG members, the group had generally been "a tea and sympathy" group;  it had also done anything about educating Calgary professionals about the "at risk" status of GLB adolescents. A major split was also occurring between the "tea & sympathy" majority and a small group who, as a result of my work and successes (which inherently did not make Calgary's GLB organizations look good), wanted to be more proactive. Unfortunately, they fell into the mode of playing the ongoing dirty politics which have been a tradition in Calgary's GLB community.

I had often stated that belonging to any GLB organization, given their history, would be to comprise my integrity, and such an outcome was happening as the result of being a member of PFLAG. The story related to the event which caused the Calgary Board of Education to officially decide to help GLBT adolescents in June 1996 remains to be written. This involved the discovery of highly unethical behavior on the part of the School Board which would certainly make it liable in a court case involving a GLB student committing suicide. At the June 1996 school board meeting, however, more information surfaced which indicated that the CBE could certainly not be trusted - as I reported the situation to be in a letter to the School Board. An alliance of the ethically comprised (the amoral or immoral ones who had not been concerned about the welfare of GLBT adolescents) was also forming and - as with school issues throughout North America, including in Los Angeles County which gave birth to PROJECT 10 (a result of LAUSD efforts), almost nothing is being done in LA County schools to really help GLBT adolescents. (See the "Shershow, 1995" reference below). A simlar situation exists in Massachusett's capital, Boston, in spite of Massachusetts having had the unprecedented Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth and a related 1993 report: Making Schools Safe for Gay and Lesbian Youth: Breaking the Silence in Schools and in Families. In Boston, almost nothing (nothing?) is being done to help GLBT students as reported by The Boston Phoenix in November, 1997, and the situation may be similar in many (most?) other Massachusetts' cities and towns. Effectively helping GLBT adolescents will also require much more just "helping" these kids when it is requested. Major changes must be made in the socially constructed (fabricated) heterosexual adolescent population to produce a decent school environment for GLBT adolescents as the Mandel (1996) study (below) indicates.

Social systems which have a history of ignoring GLBT issues, whether they be states, provinces, cities, school systems, and even collectives of GLB organizations, should not be trusted with implementing programs to help GLBT adolescents. Such programs should therefore be independently monitored and evaluated by someone who is highly knowledgeable about homosexuality and related social constructions, including GLBT communities..

Shershow S (1995). Comparative study of programs/services provided for Homosexual students by Los Angeles County school districts. M.S.W. Thesis, California State University, Long Beach, MAI Vol 33-06, p. 2000, 77 pages.

Abstract by author: This descriptive study explored the range of support services provided to homosexual students by different school districts in Los Angeles County, and the factors which promoted or prohibited the institution/acceptance of services or programs directed at this population. The information was obtained from interviews with administrators of seven Los Angeles County school districts.

The findings reveal a lack of support services for homosexual students in Los Angeles County school districts outside the LAUSD and are consistent with the literature which reports that the majority of school districts across the country do not recognize or acknowledge the difficulties faced by homosexual students as a serious problem which interferes with their education.

The results of the survey indicate that social workers have an important role to play in assisting schools to become supportive and accessible to gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth.

Mandel Laurie S. (1996). Heterosexism, sexual harassment, and adolescent gender Identity: a social and sexual curriculum in junior high. ED.D. Thesis, Hofstra University, DAI, VOL 57-07A, p. 2775, 180 pages.

Abstract by author: This research explored how one aspect of gender socialization, heterosexuality, is a requirement for a culturally normative gender identity. Drawing on a total of 200 interviews and observations with adolescent girls and boys from a middle school and a junior high school on Long Island, this study explored the relationships between female and male descriptions of their gender identities and the heterosexist assumptions embedded in these definitions.

This study identified four assumptions about heterosexuality inherent in students’ beliefs about what it means to be a girl/young woman and boy/young man. Further, this study documented five ways these assumptions are enforced in adolescent gender relations in school, in: (1) abusive language directed at girls and homophobic language directed at boys, (2) boys’ disrespect of girls and sexual harassment in gender relations, (3) boys’ physical aggression toward girls, (4) students’ homophobic attitudes and behaviors toward gay males and lesbians, and (5) heterosexual displays in peer social culture.

The implications of this research on adolescent gender identity for practice, theory, and research are far-reaching. First, this study suggests that students’ assumptions about heterosexuality perpetuate a norm of heterosexuality and constrain adolescent gender identity. Not only do students believe that a heterosexual identity is central to their gender identity, but stereotypic notions about femininity and masculinity largely inform their beliefs about who they are and who they cannot be. Beyond descriptions of femininity that focus on a girl’s appearance and her affiliation with boys, what it means to be feminine is quite contradictory, confusing, and complex for many of these adolescent girls. Students’ descriptions of masculinity are also stereotypic and are largely defined by an anti-feminine norm. Unlike the ways in which girls can and do value masculinity, boys do not and cannot value femininity.

Second, this study asserts that there is a social and sexual curriculum in the culture of middle and junior high schools by which girls and boys construct their gender identities. This heterosexist curriculum, it is argued, perpetuates gender role stereotypes, limits gender identities, empowers masculine boys and disempowers girls, less masculine boys, lesbians, and gay males. The most pervasive indicators of this curriculum—due to heterosexism—are illustrated in the amount of gender disrespect, peer sexual harassment, homophobic language, and the highly (hetero)sexualized nature of adolescent gender relations in these middle and junior high schools.

Finally, this study suggests that as we teach girls to develop independence and their personal selves, rather than gain a sense of identity through their relationships with boys, and as we teach boys to develop caring, compassion, and sensitivity, and to develop emotional relationships with girls and boys, we can rewrite the curriculum and build a school culture that is less abusive, less sexualized, more supportive and growth-producing for girls and boys.

Email:   Pierre Tremblay: ----- pierre@youth-suicide.com ----- (403) 245-8827
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