Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi was three weeks into his college career when he threw himself off the George Washington bridge and into the Hudson River. He jumped to his death after his roommate broadcasted a video of Clementi engaging in sexual encounter with someone in his dorm room.
The problem of bullying in schools is a topic that inevitably surfaces from time to time. Clementi is one of six reported suicides in the United States which have all been linked to bullying. However, what makes these stories stand out is that these boys were bullied because of their sexual orientation.
The video captured Clementi in the company of another man and was broadcasted by his roommate over Twitter. Several days later, the talented 18-year-old violinist changed his Facebook status to “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
Clementi’s story and the other similar incidents sparked both a national and international outcry, making it obvious that greater awareness and action is needed to tackle the issue of homophobia in schools.
According to the 2009 National School Climate Survey which was conducted in the United States by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, almost 85 per cent of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students had experienced verbal harassment at school while just over 40 per cent had experienced physical harassment.
Not much attention has been given to the specific problem of homophobia at the university level, as most discussions focus on bullying that takes place at elementary and high school levels. While five of the six reported suicides were committed by high school students, Clementi was a university student.
“Queer students experience homophobia within every environment, including McGill,” says Parker Villalpando, co-administrator of Queer McGill. “In such a large and diverse school, the average student is bound to encounter homophobic acts and attitudes. What matters is how [these] are handled [by the school administration].”
The tragedies which occurred in September have brought attention to where school administrators have gone wrong in handling the issue of homophobia and discrimination in schools. It is also important to note the ways in which both school administrators and students are helping to make their schools safer and more queer-friendly.
In response to these six suicides, students may be asking themselves: how much is Concordia doing to address this underemphasized issue?
The queer-friendliness of Montreal’s English-speaking universities
Queer Concordia member Joey Donnelly considers Concordia University to be a queer-friendly school. “Concordia is a progressive university,” says Donnelly. “I have never experienced any homophobia.”
However, Donnelly’s personal experience does not mean that homophobic acts and attitudes do not exist within the Concordia environment. “It’s still pervasive in our culture. A lot of stereotypes [and] gender norms are still shoved down people’s throats,” Donnelly explains.
He also mentions that it is sometimes hard to develop social networks in university which may have the effect of silencing those who have been victimized by homophobia.
Villalpando feels it is impossible to generalize about a university’s environment. “Every queer student at McGill has a different experience and therefore a different opinion as to whether the school is queer-friendly or not,” says Villalpando. “McGill isn’t perfect, but the university has taken several steps to be more inclusive and respectful of its queer students.”
Concordia theatre student Klara Eli experienced homophobia at Dawson College, but she believes that Concordia is a queer-friendly school.
“I did have a problem in one of my classes at Dawson and I had to drop that class because the teacher was being a jerk, ” says Eli. “I have yet to have a problem [with homophobia] at Concordia. It’s a pretty safe place, as far as I know.”
The difference between Queer Concordia and Queer McGill
This year, Newsweek published a list of the 25 most gay-friendly schools in the U.S. With no similar list for Canadian universities, it makes one wonder how Concordia’s environment would measure up. With a look at the services offered to queer students on Concordia’s campus compared to that of McGill, it is hard not to ask whether Concordia is doing as much as McGill in the effort to create a more queer-friendly school.
The GLSEN National School Climate Survey, concluded that the presence of a gay-straight alliance group on campus was related to a decreased incidence of verbal and physical attacks on LGBT students within the school setting. Here in Montreal, both McGill and Concordia University have a queer alliance group whose aim is to create dialogue among the diverse members of the Montreal queer community and act as a resource for those students victimized by homophobia.
Queer McGill was established in 1972 with the name Gay McGill. Queer Concordia is a well established student group but has gone though a succession of names over the many years it has existed. Although both universities have queer alliance groups, there is an important difference between the two.
Queer McGill is a non-profit organization listed under the Students’ Society of McGill University, while Queer Concordia is a student club. Queer Concordia is not a fee-levied group and its budget for the school year is a mere $4,000. Although its Facebook page has 406 members, the small budget it has been allotted has severely impeded the degree to which the club can mobilize in accomplishing its goals.
Ultimately, Donnelly would like to see Queer Concordia become a service centre with a structure similar to that of Queer McGill. Unfortunately, its modest annual budget has prevented the club from being able to offer paid positions, which has resulted in an organizational structure that Donnelly describes as a non-hierarchal collective with no authoritative form of decision-making.
On the other hand, Queer McGill’s budget is much higher at around $40,000 a year. This allows for paid positions and a hierarchal organizational structure. This has allowed Queer McGill to not only satisfy the needs of its queer population on campus, but to expand its services to the wider population of Montreal’s queer youth.
Queer Concordia has a very small office on Mackay Street, which students may visit when in need of a referral. The club has occupied the same space for over a decade and has expanded only so far as to stock its shelves full of books relating to queer studies.
For Eli, Queer Concordia does not have a very strong presence on campus but she says she feels “that the existence of such a club is a step in the right direction.”
Meanwhile, Queer McGill has spawned two initiatives in Montreal which cater specifically to queer youth. The first is Queerline, an anonymous call centre which provides referral, listening and support services to queer youth for a wide range of LGBT-related topics. The second is Allies, which works under Queer McGill and is an organization that provides free English-language workshops oriented towards raising awareness about queer issues among high school students and teachers.
If a student at McGill experiences discrimination or bullying due to their sexual orientation, they have the option of filing an equity complaint with the school. The issue will then be addressed by Queer McGill. If faced with the same problem at Concordia, students may approach the club, who will then refer them to organizations such as Head & Hands or Project 10 or Centre 2110, Concordia’s location for gender advocacy.
Furthermore, McGill has successfully implemented the designation of gender-neutral bathrooms in most of its university buildings, while Concordia has been fighting various roadblocks to engage in the same project since 2008. Concordia’s failure to mobilize on this issue has resulted in recent acts of vandalism in which 12 bathroom stalls in the EV building were anonymously marked as being gender neutral.
The obstacles faced by Queer Concordia demonstrate how difficult it is to create a queer-friendly environment on campus, but such initiatives do exist. Last month, an event called Wear Purple Day was created as a memorial to the six individuals who committed suicide as a result of homophobia. The event, which took place across Canada and the U.S. on Oct. 20, called for people to wear the colour purple to raise awareness about homophobia in hopes that tragedies such as these may cease.
For Donnelly, one event is not enough and he feels that more can be done. “I’m hoping that this Wear Purple Day isn’t yet another cyclical news story,” he says. “Awareness needs to happen. I hope that there’s follow up.”
Queer Concordia is a CSU club dedicated to building community with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight allies. Located at 2020 Mackay St. room P102, students are welcome to drop in. For more information email them at firstname.lastname@example.org
2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy is an independent and student-funded Concordia University organization. Their goal is to promote gender equality and empowerment through ongoing programming, campaigns, resources, services, and advocacy. Located at 2110 Mackay St. The centre opens at noon Monday through Thursday. For more information call 514-848-2424, ext. 7431 or visit them online at www.centre2110.org
Queer McGill is a nonprofit organization under the Students’ Society of McGill University. Located in room 432 of the Shatner Building at 3600 McTavish St. or contact them at 514-398-2106 or email@example.com
Project 10 works to promote personal, social, sexual and mental health for members of the youth LGBITTQ community. They offer several confidential services free of charge, including a Listening Line (514-989-4585), peer counselling and accompaniment, a weekly drop-in on Thursday nights and workshops. For more information, visit their website at www.p10.qc.ca
Queerline is an anonymous phone line that provides queer-related information, referrals and resources. Open Monday to Saturday from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. they can be reached at 514-398-6822.
Allies is a youth-based initiative by Queer McGill and Project 10 that provides free English workshops for high school students and staff on topics such as sexual orientation and sexual health. To contact Allies, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org
Head & Hands is a non-profit organization that offers free counseling for youth aged 12-25. They offer phone consultations, drop-in meetings, as well as health services and a drop-in clinic. Head & Hands is located at 5833 Sherbrooke St. W. For more information visit their website www.headandhands.ca