“They tell me that things will get better. I can only hope so.” With the recent suicides of five LGBTQ youth in three weeks this fall, issues of discrimination and bullying based on a person’s sexual orientation have gained prominence.
The community, faced with a suicide rate four to six times higher than in the general population, has manged to harness attention from politicians and media on continued inequalities. These struggles take place across society, including at U of T.
“It still feels […] like fighting the man,” said fourth-year student Alex Legum, sighing and shaking her head. “These are human issues.”
Legum, a member of the LGBTQ community, added that despite being a student in one of the most diverse universities and cities in North America, she continues to search for a sense of respect that remains elusive.
Steve Masse knows this struggle well. As a member of the LGBTQ community and former president of Woodsworth College, Masse advocates for increased awareness on discrimination, bullying, and respect for LGBTQ students.
He is the first to admit, however, that many of the most vulnerable end up “suffering in silence.” According to Masse, discrimination and bullying can lead to “feeling worthless, misunderstood, or hopeless.”
Syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage started the “It Gets Better” project in the wake of five teen suicides caused by societal homphobia.
University Life Assessment and Special Programs Coordinator Melinda Scott believes “students don’t know the best way to address [suicide].” Scott explained that acts of suicide are often the result of larger issues of discrimination and hate, that the problems can appear too large to solve.
To address these problems, U of T provides a series of programs and services that support the LGBTQ community. Initiatives such as Positive Space as well as student clubs like LGBTOUT work to create spaces within which individuals can “be themselves” without shame or fear of reprisal. Additionally, the Sexual and Gender Diversity Office provides an online harassment reporting system to ensure students can report incidents of hate or mistreatment anonymously.
However, Sexual and Gender Diversity Officer Jude Tate is worried about the “increased tolerance of intolerance” that has created a culture of silence and acceptance that can reduce the number of reported abuses and conceal issues of hate and harassment towards the LGBTQ community. Issues of intolerance appear to be found in the very fabric of U of T’s communities.
This is why Legum is realistic about the merits of programs such as Equity Studies, Women’s Studies, and Sexual Diversity Studies. While these programs can be seen as progressive, in some sense, “structural issues [have] made it impossible to integrate [this information] into other classrooms.” For Legum, the presence of these programs allows LGBTQ issues to be dealt with within these specific departments while ignoring the need for broader integration.
Unfortunately, Tate further suggests that curriculum reform on a broader scale to include diversity issues and address these issues has been very tough, and obstacles remain.
“They still have a long way to [go],” said Masse, who acknowledges that universities are heading in the right direction. But even if “places of education are becoming more and more inclusive and supportive,” the fact that we aren’t hearing about the sexual and gender diversity discrimination issues on campus does not mean they no longer exist.
“We assume we are modern enough that we don’t need to have [conversations about discrimination] anymore,” said Legum.