Erica Lenti is a Toronto-based writer.
I came out as gay when I was 14, just as I began the 10th grade at my north Toronto Catholic high school. It was a naive decision for a teenager figuring out her identity. There were few other LGBTQ-identified students at the school − unsurprisingly, given that our religious curriculum suggested homosexuality is a sin − and marking myself as an outsider immediately made me a target for discrimination.
As I walked from classroom to classroom, students eyed me up and down, muttering the word “queer” under their breath. Boys egged me on in hallways to kiss other girls for their amusement. Girls from adjacent schools whom I’d never met would shout slurs at me on my bus ride home. At its worst, two students vandalized my locker on my birthday, scribbling the word “dyke” in big, block letters across the steel door; administration did nothing to punish them.
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There was little I could do to stop the bullying. At times, I viewed myself only through the lens of my hateful peers, those who saw me as no more than slur. For many years, I wished that other students could understand that my sexual orientation was a natural part of who I am, that it wasn’t a choice; we hadn’t been taught otherwise.
That was a decade ago. Today, many teens grappling with their sexual and gender identities are still fighting just to find solace and support in their schools. Gay-Straight Alliances are no longer taboo − all Ontario schools are mandated to allow their creation should students band together to start one − but they often consist of only students who exist on the margins. Homophobia and transphobia are still major issues among LGBTQ youth, who are at higher risk for verbal harassment by classmates and four times more likely to consider self-harm and suicide than their straight and cisgender peers.
Now, thanks to Premier Doug Ford, LGBTQ youth will face the same battles I did 10 years ago.
In 2015, Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals aimed, in part, to improve conditions for LGBTQ students when they introduced a new sexual-education curriculum − the first update of its kind since 1998. Hearing the news made me breathe a sigh of relief: The new curriculum would teach acceptance, highlighting the importance of treating those of different sexual orientations and gender identities with respect and dignity. Queerness would be taught as natural, noting that not all people identify on the gender or sexual binary. It was everything I could have dreamed of hearing as a gay teen: to be affirmed in the classroom, the site of so much hatred against me.
But in one of his first moves as Premier, Doug Ford has scrapped this curriculum, going back 20 years, to a time when same-sex marriage was illegal and national protections and rights for transgender Canadians were unheard of. In schools across the province, students will no longer learn about LGBTQ equality, consent, cyberbullying, gender identities − education that more closely matches the realities of youth everywhere.
It’s the kind of education that would have changed my life as a young gay woman. Perhaps the students in my high school would have been more open-minded, less quick to judge, had they seen me not as a stereotype or target but just like the rest of their peers. Maybe they wouldn’t have called me names or treated me like a spectacle. Instead, they relied on an outdated, harmful curriculum to make sense of my queerness.
As I experienced puberty and had the first pangs of realization that I might not be straight, my Catholic elementary school doled out Fully Alive, a set of textbooks that treated the questioning of sexual identities as no more than a passing phase. I knew I didn’t belong when the remainder of my sex education failed to mention LGBTQ people at all. I graduated high school feeling like a statistic − the kid who gets bullied for her sexual orientation, the one who feels suicidal thanks to everyday hatred.
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This fall, kids will learn from the same curriculum I did. Queer and trans youth will hear not that they belong; they won’t be discussed at all. For those teachers unwilling to bring in their own materials, LGBTQ youth will continue to be othered, and they will be made easy targets. Some will carry on, finding strength in communities outside of the classroom; others will not. I know this because I was one of them.
Make no mistake about it: The new sex-ed curriculum was saving the lives of queer and trans students. In a country lauded for its progress on queer issues, erasing LGBTQ communities from Ontario’s sex education is simply backward. Forget the political interests of social conservatives; we need to keep some of our province’s most marginalized children alive.