Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Queer Youth Feel Unsafe in Canadian Schools

According to this article, a national survey of queer youth between grades 8 and 12 from across Canada reports that in school environments, a quarter have been targeted with threats of physical violence, half have faced verbal harassment, and more than two-thirds feel unsafe in their schools.

Some relevant paragraphs from the article:

The first national study of LGBT students in Canada has produced shocking results in a country that prides itself on diversity.

The survey of students from grades 8 through 12 was undertaken by Egale, Canada's national LGBT rights organization.

It found that more than two-thirds of LGBT students feel unsafe in their schools.

A quarter of the LGBT students said they had been victims of physical threats because of their sexuality. More than half said they had been verbally harassed.

Almost half have had malicious rumors spread about them on the internet or through text messages.

The survey found that harassment of LGBT students occurred at a rate almost twice that of heterosexual students.

Harassment is also affecting learning the survey found. More than a third of the LGBT students said they had skipped classes because of safety concerns.

"We may have human rights for LGBTQ people in Canada, but you'd never know it based on these results," said Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale.

The survey was launched in December of last year, although some Roman Catholic schools refused to participate.

The survey was distributed in schools across the country - in large cities, small town, rural areas, and in schools on reserves and armed forces bases.

Running across this article was particularly timely, given that two days ago I received an email about ongoing efforts to pass an equity policy with respect to sexual orientation at the school board in the city in which I used to live. I don't know the details of the policy, and given my general understanding of how such policies come to be I'm sure I would want it to go farther and do more. However, I do know that a good friend was, for awhile, on the committee that was working on it, and I know that a local religious right organization (whose disgusting politics I had a few occasions to observe when I was doing independent journalism in that city) has been fighting tooth and nail at every step of the way to undermine, delay, and derail what I'm sure is only a small, partial step towards queer-positive schools.

Anyway. A survey such as this is an extremely blunt instrument for learning about pervasive experiences of oppression, and it has serious limits in its ability to make the true shape and scope of that oppression legible to anyone not already committed to seeing through the la-la-it's-all-okay illusions of Canadian liberalism. However, because of the ways they can be used in public debate, such numbers are still pedagogically and politically useful even if they do fail to capture the magnitude of the situation. And the fact is, they paint an extremely disturbing (if unsurprising) picture even without taking into account the likely limitations of the methodology.


I have a few minutes before I have to leave for a meeting, so let me add three ways that I see that the methodology is likely to be limited. Note that I don't know this for 100% sure, since all I know about the study I know from the linked news report, but I have some experience with working with the results of this general kind of data collection instrument in other contexts, so I think what I'm saying likely holds.
  1. First is simple, straightforward undercounting of incidents. Given that you are measuring threat, lack of safety, danger, and shame, and finding there to be lots of those things, it is not a big leap to assume that, no matter how safe you try to make your methodology, some people will choose to be silent about these kinds of experiences.
  2. Second is a more complex but no less real phenomenon rooted in the ways in which all of us as human beings are socially produced. The unsafe nature of the school space (and society more generally) will not just mean some people stay silent with surveyors about incidents that have happened to them and that they understand as heterosexist violence or harassment...it also means that some people will be damaged in ways that force them not to see, not to recognize, not to act on their own desires, causing a violence to their selves that they may be completely unable to recognize, and that will not be captured by a survey like this, but that is nonetheless profound. And it means that some people might develop internal narratives from experiences of desire and/or harassment that erase queerness and heterosexism, even if they can't help but notice that something is going on. (A related phenomenon is an analagous experience to what someone, I think Patricia Williams, has called the "spirit-murder of everyday racism" -- i.e. experiences of heterosexist erasure, denial, rejection that cannot be captured by questions looking for specific incidents that stand out from the background, but that rather are the (painful, traumatizing) background experience.)
  3. Finally, it does not (as far as I can tell) account for differential experiences of danger within the very broad category of "LGBT." Some kinds of expression of queerness are more visible and/or more likely to be targeted for harassment and violence than others, and different intersections of sexuality with other identities will produce different experiences. I'm sure there are lots of ways that this plays out, but one that immediately occurs to me is that certain ways of doing "bi" or "queer" identities that give easy access to straight privilege mean that people who have access to that privilege will be less likely to experience and therefore to report violence and harassment, and also may be less likely to perceive and report lack of safety (though this is not guaranteed). This brings the average reported values for those things down dilutes the estimate of the danger.

This is all related to the inherent dangers in trying to distill really, really complicated relations and the experiences they produce into a few numbers.

Anyway...I'm sure I could do a much more thorough job of this, but I have to run...

1 comment:

Queers United said...

as an American who thinks highly of Canada, this is shocking