Hundreds of LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) students from across Halton and beyond celebrated equity and diversity at the Halton District School Board’s (HDSB) annual Gay-Straight Alliance Conference.
The event was held at Iroquois Ridge High School last Thursday (April 23).
Dubbed “Loud and Proud: Can You Hear Me Now,” the conference was intended to give LGBTQ+ students an opportunity to connect, examine various issues facing the LGBTQ+ community and have fun.
“It’s not just about creating safe spaces anymore. It’s about celebrating who people are and getting out there and being visible and being active in the community,” said Robert Stenekes, Equity and Inclusion Education Student/Community Facilitator with HDSB.
“It’s local in that sense, but also we really help to broaden the students’ global perspective on what’s happening with LGBTQ+ issues around the world. We have a really good framework for what’s happening here in Canada, but that’s not necessarily the case in the rest of the world.”
The conference attracted more than 300 students.
Many came from schools throughout Halton’s public board, but some also came from the Halton Catholic District School Board and Appleby College.
Other participants arrived from schools as far away as Brantford.
The conference featured a poetry slam and musical performances, but also community booths where students could learn about local LGBTQ+ activities and connect with advocacy groups.
“This is super important because there are so many people in Halton, and youth in Halton especially, who identify in the LGBTQ+ range. I think sometimes it is very hard for them to find resources,” said a student from Assumption Catholic Secondary School, who is also a member of the Positive Space Network.
“I’m trying to start a (Gay-Straight Alliance) GSA at my school, so having these resources is extremely helpful and coming here and having all the different booths gives me a lot of information about how to do that.”
The 15-year-old said her group is also looking to open a LGBTQ+ Youth Centre in Halton and came to the conference to survey students to find out what they would like to see at such a centre and what it would take to make them feel safe there.
She also noted an LGBTQ+ youth drop-in event takes place every second Tuesday of the month at Mountainside Recreation Centre, 2205 Mount Forest Dr., in Burlington, from 5-8 p.m.
A connecTions social group for gender independent; trans-identified youths and their families/caregivers meets the first Wednesday of the month at the Positive Space Network offices at the Reach Out Centre for Kids (ROCK) at 504 Iroquois Shore Rd., unit 12A, in Oakville.
Another booth featured representatives from Egale: Canada Human Rights Trust, Canada’s national LGBTQ+ human rights organization.
The group is best known for its campaign, which helped bring same sex marriage to Canada in 2005.
Egale now works to advocate for the creation of safer spaces within the community for LGBTQ+ people.
Egale representative Jeremy Dutcher said events like the conference are important particularly when a 2009 national research survey conducted by the group found two out of three LGBTQ+ students do not feel safe in their schools on a daily basis.
“When I was going to school, there were really no supports for myself as a gay student in the school,” said Dutcher.
“To have opportunities for students to come together in a safe environment where there can be peer-to-peer learning happening is really, really important.
“They can share success stories about what is happening in their GSAs and how to support each other in that sense,” he continued. “We see the value just by the students walking by and the looks on their faces and how excited they are to be here because it really is an incredible coming together of some awesome folks working for social justice and working for change in their school community.”
The conference also featured workshops on topics such as: healthy and unhealthy relationships, sexual health, how LGBTQ+ experiences overlap with disability justice, how popular and rock music has challenged traditional gender norms.
Another workshop featured a dialogue between representatives from different faiths and from different spiritual perspectives on the intersections of religion and LGBTQ+ identities.
The workshop was intended to show the youths attending they did not have to choose between their sexuality and their religion, and there is room for both, according to organizers.
The day ended with students dancing during a “Waack Revolt” and with parting words from HDSB Associate Director Stuart Miller.
Miller spoke about a bullying situation he had been made aware of during his time as a vice-principal in which some boys had urinated on another youth’s clothes.
The matter was investigated and the boys responsible were ultimately punished.
Miller said there were two heroes in that story — one was the boy who witnessed the incident and spoke up about it and the other was the victim who refused to let what happened get the better of him and who continued to be who he was and follow his dreams.
“There are two messages I want you to take from this story. The first is never ever suffer in silence. Go to somebody and if you see someone suffering in silence you help them,” said Miller.
“The second message is always help those that seem in distress or in need. You guys, by sitting here, are making a statement to this community, to Halton, to the world that you believe strongly in human rights…. There are countries in this world where gay people are still oppressed and face severe consequences just for who they are. “By being here today you are standing up to those oppressive regimes… you are making a statement,” he added.
The conference received positive reviews from students who attended.
A 17-year-old M.M. Robinson High School student called the conference inspirational and said it has given her considerable insight on what others in the LGBTQ+ community have gone through.
“I always had a supportive family. Seeing how other people are not supported in this has kind of helped me think about how I would like to make a difference,” she said.
Another student also described her experience as positive.
“I’ve had so much fun today. Hearing all the different presentations at the start of the day was awesome. There was slam poetry that was amazing,” she said.
“I just came from a workshop that was interfaith and hearing from all these different people about their views was absolutely amazing. It’s just wonderful to be here.”