Gladstone secondary school awash in rainbow colours

Vancouver high school's 'HOPE' club emphasizes team building, humanitarian goals

A tall, blond-haired student who looks exactly like the sociable student council representative she is led a meeting about the upcoming celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia at Gladstone secondary earlier this month.

Juliette Busch mapped out where the information table would go, where students will play a game about celebrities who are publicly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, and where the rainbow cake or cupcakes will be placed May 17.

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The Grade 12 student is one of more than a dozen students in the schools HOPE and True Colours clubs planning the second annual celebration at the school near the Nanaimo SkyTrain station.

When vice-principal Steven Cameron arrived at Gladstone four years ago, only two students belonged to its queer-straight alliance. Now a gay student is bringing his date to the prom. The schools counselling office is ablaze with rainbow posters that depict celebrities who are GLBTQ and their supporters. Posters advertising anti-homophobia day plaster doors, windows and walls.

LGB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers/Its time to take a stand, reads a poster designed by Gladstone students.

Cameron morphed a leadership program called Destination Imagination into the club renamed HOPE, short for Humanitarian Organization for People Everywhere, by students. He invited student leaders and teens who were being bullied to join the club.

Participants focused on team building and then on making a difference in their school and the city. The club planned its first anti-homophobia day last year and helped with a Dare to Stand Out conference about homophobia, transphobia, bullying, violence, and discrimination in schools for students from across B.C. and Yukon at their school in January.

This year, Cameron revamped the queer-straight alliance, which is now called True Colours, and called on HOPE and other students to join the club. True Colours provides a safe haven for teenagers who are questioning their sexual identity.

I saw a need, Cameron said. And parents, of course, calling and saying so-and-so wants to transfer out of your school because theyre being teased for being gay and they dont feel safe, and so I had to find a way to provide a safe space for these students to be.

He calls HOPE the public change agent for the more social True Colours club.

Thats why I have the HOPE Club members there with the doors open so anyone whos curious or questioning can walk by and see well, wow, these people are all in there. Its OK, he said.

Cameron, 40, grew up in rural Nova Scotia, where he heard homophobic slurs from his father, teachers and peers. He came out as gay when he was at university but until this year wasnt broadly out at Gladstone.

I wasnt really involved in anything to do with gay stuff before, he said. It was only because I saw students here needing that, that I did and its just been this amazing experience I had graffiti this year about me being gay, really not nice stuff, which goes to show you how badly it was needed.

Busch, an 18-year-old whos been involved in student council since Grade 4, joined HOPE Club upon Camerons invitation after she helped out at the Dare to Stand Out conference. Its actually changed me a little bit because it gives you a different perspective on people and not to be so judgmental, she said. You kind of, like, realize that everyones really affected by anti-homophobia even if youre not personally LGBTQ. You still have family that can be affected. My uncles gay.

Cameron believes the clubs and hosting the Dare to Stand Out conference have changed the school.

When you walk into Gladstone, you can feel the difference, he said. You can feel that these students feel safe and they feel happy and its a vibrant place and everybodys just welcome to be who they are, and the students talk about that.

Cameron told the Courier in January that one Gladstone student told him and a few friends he was gay. He said the Dare to Stand Out conference emboldened more teens.

Students just started coming up to me and coming out, he said. Some would ask to be in the club, some just wanted to say thank you so much. That was the height of everything here.

Maria Foster, the school boards anti-homophobia and diversity mentor, says the districts Total Ed alternative program boasts a strong queer-straight alliance, as does David Thompson, with which Gladstone is collaborating. Cameron said a district queer-straight alliance exists and he wants it to unite groups from different schools.

Busch wants other schools to know how one club can change so many students perspectives and opinions on everyone.

She recalls classmates asking and teasing her about whether she was bisexual in Grade 3. Thats why I feel like kids, in elementary school especially, need to be taught about LGBTQ, all the clubs, and how it can affect students by saying the simplest thing, like Oh, youre gay, dont speak to me, or whatever, said Busch. [It needs] to be addressed at an earlier age.

crossi@vancourier.com

twitter.com/Cheryl_Rossi

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