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How can we make things better for LGBT youth?

Family policy expert Hilary Rose weighs in
July 28, 2015
By Hilary Rose

On Monday, the
Boy Scouts of America (BSA) lifted its ban on gay adults serving as volunteers or employees. The announcement comes only two years after the BSA decided to begin admitting openly gay young people.

In the FAQ section of its website, Scouts Canada states explicitly that it does not discriminate based on gender, culture, religious beliefs or sexual orientation. But when it comes to establishing equal rights for gays, lesbians bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) youth in Canada, we still have a long way to go — particularly in our schools, says Hilary Rose, an associate professor in Concordia's Department of Applied Human Sciences.

This op-ed by Hilary Rose was originally published by the Montreal Gazette.

I am still wondering when it gets better. People in the media, even in government, say it gets better. Just hang in there, they say. It gets better. But for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth still in school, how long do they have to wait before it gets better?   

Ten years ago, on July 20, 2005, same-sex marriage became legal across Canada. Canada became the fourth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, and overnight the country became a tourism destination for same-sex weddings.

With that profound and historic change in legislation, Canadian lesbians and gay men finally attained equal rights along with other Canadians. Since then, many same-sex couples have exercised their right to marry. Just like straight couples.

Many observers would say that gays and lesbians have now achieved equal rights in Canada. Like the struggle for equal rights for women, the fight for equal rights for lesbians and gay men is old news. But is this true for all LGB Canadians? What about teens still in school?    

Catherine Taylor at the University of Winnipeg and Tracey Peter at the University of Manitoba have described schools as “The Land That Time Forgot” when it comes to LGB youth. They argue that while LGB adults may enjoy equal rights in Canada, younger cohorts do not.

A national survey of homophobia by Taylor and Peter under the auspices of Egale Canada, a human rights organization, found that LGB youth were three times more likely than straight youth to report feeling depressed about school, and feeling like they didn’t belong at school.

Some would say that everyone gets bullied from time to time, and this is true. It is also true that the effects of being bullied are more severe for some. According to Egale Canada, while 7 per cent of youth attempt suicide annually, 33 per cent of LGB youth attempt suicide. The statistic is even higher for trans kids.

Furthermore, over 60 per cent of LGB youth felt that school staff and teachers were ineffective in dealing with homophobic comments. Perhaps not surprisingly, only 40 per cent of LGB youth reported such incidents to school staff members.

Has legalizing same-sex marriage made a difference in terms of discrimination based on sexual orientation? The McCreary Centre Society in Vancouver, British Columbia, has been collecting data from BC high school students since 1992 —data that can begin to answer this question.

Over the last 15 years, discrimination of high school students based on sexual orientation has in fact increased, especially for those students identifying as bisexual. In other words, making same-sex marriage legal in Canada has not made things easier for LGB students.   

Recent research, however, shows that having explicit anti-homophobia school policies and other measures such as gay-straight alliance clubs, or GSAs, reduced reports of victimization and suicide attempts on the part of LGB youth.

Surprisingly, researcher Elizabeth Saewyc at the University of British Columbia’s Stigma and Resilience Among Youth Centre (SARAVYC) found that explicit anti-homophobia measures also protected straight students from bullying and harassment.

Anti-homophobia school policies work. LGB youth in schools with explicit policies feel safer and more connected to school. Feeling safer and more connected means these young Canadians stay in school longer and get a better education. And that’s good for Canada.

We have heard that LGBTs are always asking for “special” rights, or rights that go beyond those of other Canadians. Having the right to a safe and supported education is not a “special” right. It is the constitutional right of every Canadian, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression.

As we remember the 10-year anniversary of the legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada, we should consider that not all Canadian gays and lesbians have equal rights. The most vulnerable lesbians and gays—the youth—have not yet achieved equal rights in Canada.

Canadian schools shouldn’t have to be the land that time forgot. Not for LGBT youth. Not for anybody.


Hilary Rose is an associate professor in the Department of Applied Human Sciences at Concordia and a member of the Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre (SARAVYC) research team at the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on sexual minority youth and Canadian family policy.

Find out more about Concordia's Department of Applied Human Sciences.


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