Allow gay-straight alliances in all B.C. schools: NDP MLA

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Matt Kieltyka/Metro File Vancouver-West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert in September 2014.

The province should ensure all schools, public and private, allow gay-straight alliances for students, according the NDP.

Vancouver-West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert called on the Ministry of Education Thursday to join Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan in legislating students’ right to establish the peer-led support groups when confronted with homophobic discrimination and abuse at school.

“The degree of homophobia and transphobia in schools and society is still too high,” said Chandra Herbert. “Gay-straight alliances have been shown to save lives.”

The majority of public school districts already support gay-straight alliances, but Chandra Herbert believes there’s need for provincial protection encompassing all public and private schools.

In question period on Thursday, Education Minister Peter Fassbender said government supports districts and independent schools that have implemented LGBTQ clubs on a local level but said B.C. already has an anti-bullying strategy that works.

“The heart of the ERASE strategy is very clear, and that is that we support the diversity of all students in the province of British Columbia,” he said.

While 56 districts and more than 160 secondary schools have gay-straight alliances, University of British Columbia school of nursing professor Elizabeth Saewyc (who has extensively researched the issue) says a provincial mandate protecting them would be helpful.

Saewyc said she’s interviewed students who have attempted to start a gay-straight alliance in public schools but have been denied by principals or couldn’t find teachers willing to sponsor the group.

In one case, Saewyc said youth at a school were allowed to establish an alliance but were assigned to a room that was deliberately locked ahead of lunchtime meetings.

“Many school districts in B.C. do have gay and straight alliances already,” said Saewyc. “But not every school will be guided by research evidence. Sometimes, it does take legislation to ensure that everyone has equal access to something that is helpful.”

The evidence, she says, is clear.

For B.C. schools where gay-straight alliances have been established for more than three years, the odds of gay boys being discriminated against because of their sexuality dropped 30 per cent and the odds of suicide attempts among gay girls dropped 41 per cent, according to UBC research published last year by International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies.

Saewyc said the odds of sexual discrimination, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts also decreased among heterosexual students in schools where gay-straight alliances had been established.

She said the alliances are almost always student-led and can take many forms, from confidential support groups to active student bodies that advocate for increased awareness and inclusiveness within their schools.