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Our schools and our society must do better by our most vulnerable youth (Ian Willms/The Canadian Press)
Our schools and our society must do better by our most vulnerable youth (Ian Willms/The Canadian Press)

Andrew Gadsby

The pink elephant in the classroom Add to ...

Certain things I know about myself. For example, my name is Andrew and I’m 24. I’m a high-school teacher, I love hockey and I’m gay. I also know that when I read the story of Jamie Hubley or young victims like him, I could no longer remain silent. Bullying in schools isn’t new. But, tragically, gay bullying often comes to the forefront only when it’s too late to save another young man or woman from taking their life to escape daily torment. If gay is still taboo for some, gay bullying is the pink elephant in the room.

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Nowhere is this more true than in the classroom. Adults may attempt to recall their youth and imagine the daily struggles of a teen like Jamie, but they have no idea how truly cruel teenagers can be to one another, especially in today’s coarse culture. As a teacher, I have seen vitriolic hate hurled at students, and heard the word “fag” spread around with utter disregard for its hurtfulness. That word can mean so many things: stupid, worthless, dumb, gay. Anyone hit with it knows its sting – how it can make them feel less than everybody else. And with social media, bullying can be brought home. The safety of one’s own room is no longer so safe; it can be permanently shattered with just one tweet or Facebook post.

So what was so wrong with Jamie – why was he so tormented by his classmates that he thought taking his own life was the only way out? Because the 15-year-old “natural-born” performer preferred figure skating to hockey. That’s it.

It makes absolutely no sense. Yet sadly it does, at least if you spend any time in today’s schools. Too often, homophobia is swept under the rug; sometimes it’s even tacitly accepted. In my experience as a student, “gay” was a topic met with reproach, reservation or downright dirty looks. And now, as a teacher, it’s hardly better. Early in my teaching career, I recall confiding to an associate that I was gay; she implored me to keep it quiet, as students might not react well. If an adult can be held hostage to the bigotries of 14-year-olds, what hope is there of creating any sort of safe space for LGBT teens? Who, if not everyone, will protect our struggling youth?

It’s something I thought about again while attending last weekend’s Ottawa Senators game, in Jamie Hubley’s hometown. How many other kids like him were sitting there, loving the ice but wishing they could take to it in a different way? How many kinds like his tormentors were sitting there, ensuring “appropriate” behaviour among their classmates?

There is some hope. We look to Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner, who made the professional leap from figure skating to the NHL. And we look to Brian Burke, whose encouraging story is familiar to all. But the change has to come on the ice, and in the classroom. And it is coming, if slowly. Early next month, Brian Burke’s son Patrick, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, will speak in Toronto on the need for making the locker room a safe place for all athletes. He often cites two statistics: first, that 64 per cent of LGBT students say they feel unsafe in their own schools; and second, that gay and lesbian teens are three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.

Those numbers should do more than just shock the conscience of every parent. They must move our schools and our society to do better by our most vulnerable youth. They must banish hurtful words from locker rooms and playing fields. And they must inspire us all to do what is required, so that never again will we have to read another story of a teen who, faced with an onslaught of homophobia, took their own life.

Andrew Gadsby is a high school teacher and covers the Toronto Maple Leafs for the website PuckBuddys.com.

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