Paul Moore, Youth Advocate, Parent Counsellor Program, Children's Aid society of Cape Breton - Victoria
I knew this kid once. We all know this kid. He’s been in every one of our residential centres; She’s been in every one of our programs; He’s been in every one of our foster homes. It’s about her that we say, “I’m not surprised!” It’s about him we say, “I’ve know it all along”. It’s about this kid who eventually finds their voice and courage to “own up” to what we thought we knew; to come out; to say “I’m gay” (or lesbian, or bi-sexual or transgendered). There ... I’ve said it - its not a curse or a bad word. But we treat it as such. We may not always realize it, but we give the message that it is bad to be gay / lesbian / bisexual / transgendered (GLBT). We give this message through ourselves, our programs and our social values.
Let’s think about how we talk to our kids in care. We stereotype them according to their gender. Boy’s will be boys; “Rough housing is OK”. Girls will be girls; “Lets have a craft night”. And we speak to them, in words and actions, accordingly.
How many times have I asked the same questions of the boys I worked with at the Centre? “Where do you go to school? How many in your family? What is your favorite food? Do you have a girlfriend?” How many of these kids have shut down or lied after this last question because they have to protect their identity and sometimes themselves from me - because I just asked an innocent, but telling question which reveals who I really am.
Statistics show that a high percentage of street kids are GLBT and a high number of street kids wind up in our centres, programs and homes. We can assume, therefore, that a number of these kids are GLBT. And how do we talk to them? What does the atmosphere say to them? How do our actions speak to them? Like many, I had not thought about these questions until a youth I worked with came out. He was the one I looked back on and said “Yup, he’s gay”. But what did I do to make that process easier? Did I, in fact, make this process easier or harder? I think now of many things I could have done and said.
I could have used gender free language - no mention of girlfriend here - use the word partner or “Are you seeing someone?”
Instead of speaking of me and my wife, could I have said “In my relationship ..”? Self disclosure is a powerful and useful tool only when used correctly.
I could have influenced the physical environment. What prompts were present to let a GLBT youth know that it was OK and safe to ask questions? Were there phone numbers provided for a GLBT youth to talk to a safe stranger or help line before trying to talk about their orientation to a staff? Were there anti-discriminatory posters around? What reading materials were offered in our waiting rooms or living rooms?
But it is not all in the past. We need to be more aware every day. I need to think about things like:
the messages from other residents. Are racist or sexist slurs overheard? Are gay jokes ignored or worse, permitted? Are posters of half naked “idols” allowed to hang in their bedrooms?
the messages from staff. Are GLBT youth not included or actively excluded from activities based on their sexual preference? Are staff comfortable being alone with these youth?
the messages from the managers. Are GLBT youth admitted? Are GLBT youth discharged “for their own good”? Are they put in separate bedrooms for fear that “something” may happen? Is sensitivity training offered? Does sensitivity training include issues pertaining to GLBT as well as our other discriminatory practices? Is such training mandatory or encouraged?
the messages from agencies. Do we have anti-discrimination or anti-harassment policies? How is the invitation to the office party worded? Does your health and pension plan acknowledge same sex relationships? Has there ever been a GLBT staff hired? Have they been the fodder of the rumor mill?
the messages from society. Is being GLBT a choice or a phase? Are all GLBT people like the stereotypes we see on TV? Should same sex couples have the right to marry? Should they have the right to adopt? Can they make good parents?
All youth receive messages from us. We are conditioned by society to act in a specific way - a "normal" way - the way that the majority of our peers act. The dangerous and unfortunate thing is that although, of course, most of us are in the majority, the majority is not always right and neither are our actions, meanings and language. We dispel the contribution to society of those who are different from us based on our premise that "dominant is correct” - and usually that means white, male, heterosexual, able bodied, middle age, and middle class.
Imagine for a minute you are a heterosexual. And as you slept tonight, everything that you knew about relationships in your world changed. Imagine that when you woke up that you would be afraid to tell your co-worker whom you found attractive; whom you liked, loved and wanted to be with. Imagine that you were afraid to walk in public holding hands with this person. Imagine the difficulty in trying to find a Valentine card for this person. Imagine not being able to go to a dance ... and dance with this person. Imagine being afraid to kiss this person good bye at the airport as they left on a business trip. Imagine being the brunt of jokes and not being able to be safe enough to try to stop them. Imagine living in fear that if your “secret” gets out, then you are at risk of losing your job, your friends, your family. Imagine living in the fear that someone may physically want to hurt you because of “what” you are. Imagine that this was not a dream, or a phase, and that you had to (and wanted to) live with this realization for the rest of your life.
Now imagine what it must be like for many of the youth GLBT youth and staff with whom we work.
Instead of our society, our centers and ourselves rejecting this group of GLBT youth solely on their orientation, we should find ways to let them know that it is OK to be themselves.
We should work toward the reduction of homophobic and heterosexist attitudes in our workplaces and ourselves. We can do this by recognizing the language and practices that we deliver, and strive to make them more gender and bias free.
We should advocate for the same rights and privileges that are expected by us to be extended to them. We can do this by negotiating contracts that have inclusive language and clauses which include same sex pairings.
We should eliminate the “us” and “them” in our language and attitudes. This is not a hockey game where there are sides.
We should acknowledge the information which has been taught to us by family, school, church and state is not correct. We should strive to re-learn this information in a non-heterosexist, non-homophobic way.
Finally, we should teach these things to our residents and youth. The greatest learning comes from your peers. By following the rule of “do onto others ...” and applying it to all oppressed groups, as well as practicing it in our lives and our work, we can make our centres and society a better and safer place to live especially for this kid I knew once ...