By Anya Forsythe
(SFX - People chattering and quieting down)
ANYA: It’s three thirty on Monday afternoon. The doors to the drama room are slam open and shut. A bunch of students crash through the door and remove their shoes. Loud screeching voices break through the air. Students laugh and smile and hug each other.
ANYA: They cluster in a misshapen circle on the carpet. It’s louder monster truck rally in the room and no one questions it. Unlike a sports team or council, these students aren’t yelling about the bogus science test or a party on Friday: they’re talking about their genders and orientations. After everyone quiets down, they all begin to share stories, both silly and somber. They speak of finding out their sexuality and their experiences of self-discovery. Some talk about their confusion or how they’re still questioning themselves. Their voices aren’t hushed, but they aren’t screaming either. At least, not anymore. The students laugh and smile when acceptable and offer their own experiences when needed. These students are all apart of a gay-straight alliance.
ANYA: These students are also a portion of the 74% of people in Canada who share a bond with someone apart of the LGBT+ spectrum (Carlson, 2011). In recent years, sexuality and gender have become more open to expression and communication. However, while it still is not generally accepted by some, pockets of people from varying sexualities and genders have come together to create accepting and inclusive safe-spaces known today as GSAs.
(A Place for Passion Intro, fades into guitar riff)
ANYA: Hi I’m Anya, I’m a panromantic asexual and I’m a cis girl.
ANYA: What you just heard was the typical introduction of the GSA at Aurora High School. We started every meeting off like this. The custom was to give your name, sexual orientation and gender if you were comfortable. Now you’re probably wondering, why did i tell you this? Well think of it this way: being addressed by the wrong name gets on your nerves, right? I used to get called Anna and Annika all the time in school. It’s pretty much the same for your gender. Being addressed as a girl when you’re a boy or otherwise can be awkward and uncomfortable.The reason this was started was to spread awareness. What you look like doesn’t dictate who you are. That’s the goal of the AHS GSA: make people aware that LGBT+ kids exist. The Aurora High GSA adapted this intro from the YRGSA, the York Region Gay straight alliance. It was done before meetings so that everyone knew what pronouns to use for people so that everyone feels safe and wanted. This is a GSA after all - its a safe space for LGBT+ kids.
ANYA: I’m Anya Forsythe and you’re listening to A Place for Passion, a podcast run by the professional writing students of York U. In today’s episode, I’m looking at GSAs. I’ve reached out to my good friend Emily, who was the GSA president at Aurora High School from 2015 to 2016.
EMILY: Okay, my name is Emily, I am 18 years old, and I was the president of the GSA in grade 12.
ANYA: Emily’s also been apart of the YRGSA. The YRGSA is basically home base for all high-school GSAs. They meet in a borrowed space every monday evening and after that, the kids would walk over to Dairy Queen or Second Cup. From what Emily tells me, YRGSA is like a monster in attendance in comparison to our little GSA. Aurora High’s GSA was about fifteen kids, give or take on a good day. Emily told me about how excited she was when she saw the amount of kids at our first meeting of 2015 school year. She also told me about a time where it was extremely low. Like I’m talking three people here. Now to me, this was throwing up so many red flags, mainly because so many people I know today identify as LGBT+. Think about it: you’re bound to know, or know of someone in your circles that isn’t cis or straight. And if you can’t, well think about this: In 2015 StatsCan said about 1.7% of our population from 18 to 59 considers themselves gay or lesbian. 1.3% considers themselves bi. A little food for thought there.
ANYA: The fluctuating attendance wasn’t a big deal though. It was normal for a lot of kids to show up one week, and then none at all the next. It’s just how it worked. However, when talking to Emily, she and I found a big conflict with GSAs. There’s this contradiction attached to it. You want to be out, to be heard and feel validated. You want to spread this feeling and make people aware of it. But at the same time, you want this safe space just to be yours. You don’t want others to come in carloads: its like if you were going to hang around with a few friends. You don’t want their friends and their friends and friends of their friends coming along too, right?
ANYA: But these two points are only stepping stones to this story. There’s a bigger issue surrounding the little GSA at Aurora High. Emily faced it head on numerous times. You’re probably thinking, “oh my god, is it homophobia or transphobia or something like that?” Not quite. What was it? Well something as simple as a washroom. A gender neutral washroom, that is. Between 2014, 2015 and 2016, Emily addressed a big problem with our seemingly-perfect, quaint little high school. There was no gender-neutral washroom on campus. It was the little girl’s room or the little boy’s room.
ANYA: So what did Emily do? Well, you need a little background info on this school, and well here’s the story morning glory: Aurora High School, like most high schools in the York Region District School Board area, is wheelchair accessible. There was a washroom located inside the school and Emily, at the time, tried to get it changed to be a gender neutral washroom. The only changes it would need would be for the lock to be removed or changed and a new sign. The first time she was with the GSA president at the time, and was fluffed off. But when she returned the second time, she had firepower. Major firepower. Aurora isn’t a little town. The neighbouring high school, Dr GW Williams managed to get a gender-neutral washroom within a few months. And that was done by none other than Emily’s friend, Lief. Who, surprise, was also leader of that school’s GSA. Emily and the president walked away with fluff off answers. Emily wouldn’t take no for an answer. She went back in her final year, armed with several other students and now, a petition. She even had dialogue from Student Council, who were willing and able to give her the hundred odd dollars to change the wheelchair-accessible sign to a gender-neutral one. All this work, this entire big headache just to make three little changes to a pre-existing washroom.
(MUSIC: Guitar melody)
ANYA: So what happened? Well. None came to pass. The washroom stayed locked and wheelchair accessible. Her single goal of her graduating year, was to leave Aurora High School with a gender-neutral washroom in place for future students. Emily didn’t reach her goal that year. And as of November 2016, Aurora High is still without a gender neutral washroom.
ANYA: As I said before, Aurora is not a little town, it’s got several high schools in it. The closest one to AHS, is Dr. GW Williams Secondary School. Emily’s friend, whom I could not contact for this podcast, was the president of Williams’ GSA. Leif managed to get a gender neutral washroom for their school in a very short amount of time. So this leaves me questioning, why could one high school have, and the other not?
ANYA: Emily has no definite answer to this, and frankly, neither do I. The sad thing though, is that the students at AHS who may or may not need that washroom won’t have it for now. Interestingly enough, the Peel District School Board has made it mandatory for gender neutral washrooms to be made accessible in all high schools (STAR, 2016). And it soon will be coming to York Region schools too. As of right now, the wheelchair accessible washroom at AHS is just that: wheelchair accessible. There are no immediate plans for a gender neutral washroom at Aurora High. The kicker is, there’s trans and non-binary kids at the school who could be using it.
ANYA: According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, 78% of trans kids across Canada felt unsafe in their schools (OHRC, 2015). 78%. It makes you think, how many of those kids were afraid to do something as basic and simple as using the washroom? How many were afraid of the hate and ridicule they’d face if they went into their preferred washroom? Speaking of the OHRC, it says specifically under the education portion of the document the following:
OTHER VOICE:If they wish, trans students can also request accommodations such as access to gender inclusive washrooms, or private spaces within change rooms (OHRC, 2015).
ANYA: You may be thinking, “well why don’t students just use the wheelchair accessible washroom”. Here’s the problem: it’s locked and the key remains in the front office. Having to go and ask the secretary may put the student under stress and pressure, and cause conflict if others see them with the key and question. It just puts the students in a bad situation either way.
(MUSIC: Guitar riff)
ANYA: So where does that leave us? Well, Emily explains it best.
EMILY: And it’s really unfortunate, but um, that’s just how it is sometimes.
ANYA: There’s no happy ending here. At least right now. After Emily graduated and left AHS, the GSA went off to two other members, whom Emily believes are just as passionate about the gender neutral washroom as she was.
EMILY: I’m hoping that it ends up happening soon. I know that the people who took over GSA are also really passionate about getting the gender-neutral washroom and they’re going to be working hard to try and open it. Um, and uh, we talked to student council about it, and they were like ‘yeah, we’ll totally give you money to pay for a new sign’, so student council would even pay for it, so there are people at school who are actively working towards getting it. Um so I do think that soon it will be coming just, unfortunately we have to be patient. Which really sucks because there are some kids who are going to be waiting in the meantime, and they may need it. But uh, that’s all we can really do unfortunately.
ANYA: So there is a light at the end of this dark tunnel. Emily says she had great confidence in the new presidents. And being blunt, so do I. One day, there will a gender neutral washroom at Aurora High. And maybe that day is soon.
(MUSIC: Guitar melody in the background)
ANYA: It’s now four pm. The only light in the drama room comes from the fluorescent lights above. Outside it’s getting dark. There’s a loud wave of noise filling the room as the door opens and slams repeatedly. The students shove their feet into their boots and throw their coats on. Quick hugs are exchanged and the squeaking of boots carry down the hall.
OTHER VOICE: That’s it for this week! Come to YRGSA at 6 tonight!
Carlson, Kathryn Blaze. "The true north LBGT: New poll reveals landscape of gay Canada" The NationalPost, 6 July 2016, http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/the-true-north-lgbt-new-poll-reveals-landscape-of-gay-canada.
Rushowy, Kristin. "Peel Board to include all-gender washrooms in every high school." Toronto Star, 31 Aug. 2016. https://www.thestar.com/yourtoronto/education/2016/08/31/peel-board-to-include-all-gender-washrooms-in-every-high-school.html
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Member #57025. (2013, Feb 02). Romantic orientation vs. sexual orientation (and what to identify as and call yourself) [Msg 1 - 9]. Message posted to http://www.asexuality.org/en/topic/83648-romantic-orientation-vs-sexual-orientation-and-what-to-identify-as-and-call-yourself/
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Renato Liboro, Lauren Munro, Alex St. John and Robb Travers. "The Success of Gay-Straight Alliances in Waterloo Region, Ontario: A Confluence of Political and Social Factors" Journal of LGBT Youth, volume 11, no. 1, 2014, pp. 150 - 170.
Ontario Human Rights Description. (2000). Discrimination and Harassment Because of Sexual Orientation (Ontario Human Rights Commission No. 1, 0-7794-0113-1).Ottawa, ON: Canada. Queen’s Printer for Ontario.
Special thanks to Emily and Lief for help with this project and being great interviewees and sharing their stories.
Thanks as well to Roni for lending her voice for this podcast.
Thanks to the extra sound effects and music, all found on freesound.org
Mom and Dad, Norina and everyone else for listening to my pitches and giving great feedback.
Special thanks to my friends (you know who you are, you bunch of nerds) for listening to my complaining.