What it means to be Out at School

U of T professor turns research project into play for Pride Month

What it means to be <i>Out at School</i>

The Nexus Lounge, located on the 12th floor of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) building, is intimate in size but offers breathtaking views of downtown Toronto. The room is encircled by large glass windows, which allow the sun to linger over the stage set in the middle of the space. In this setting, the stage itself feels closed off from the outside world, yet simultaneously above it.

At the Lounge, I recently viewed U of T Professor Tara Goldstein’s latest “performed ethnography,” titled Out at School and put on as part of Toronto Pride celebrations. According to promotional materials, Out at School is “a verbatim theatre piece based on interviews with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) families about their experiences in Ontario elementary and secondary schools.” 

The play took place on a hot Saturday evening in June, in the middle of Pride Month, and highlighted the narratives of 37 families interviewed by Goldstein’s team. This research project took the experiences of these families and wove them together into dramatized production, resulting in a story of hope.

When I first entered, the room was humming with the noise of multiple conversations amongst the various families, friends, and peers who had just finished watching the afternoon performance of the show. I was immediately struck by a feeling of familiarity and welcomeness ⁠— it felt as though I had stepped into a family gathering. Professor Goldstein and her partner tended to a table of refreshments and chatted with attendees, and I was immediately greeted with hugs and multiple offers to grab a snack. 

Following the show, I inevitably realized that this was exactly how Out at School is supposed to make you feel: as though you belong. And although I did not know many of the people in the room, I noticed that the audience was largely composed of large groups of families and friends of the performers, which made the show all the more intimate. 

Goldstein and her team successfully built a safe and positive space for all, regardless of background, and invited the audience to simply listen to what her research had to say. What really fascinated me was how this play was a product of the intersection between scholarship and creativity: a product of Goldstein’s own academic pursuits but expressed in a way that is easily digestible by anybody. As simply put in the program for the play, this was “where theatre meets research.”

This was an intentional and tactful choice. As Goldstein told me, the play “is what we call a verbatim play because we only use the words [from] the interviews [with LGBTQ+ families].” They, of course, edit and thematize the interviews in the process of adding music and images. Nevertheless, she explained that “Every single one of those words [was] spoken by one of our families.”

In highlighting the voices of real Ontario students and families, this play offered a refreshing addition to Toronto Pride ⁠— one made all the more political in light of Doug Ford’s cutbacks to the Ontario education budget and changes to the sex education curriculum.  

When they introduced the play, the directors explained that it was a “relaxed performance.” This was an apt description. It felt like listening to a friend talk rather than a staged event: there were no microphones, and the stage was empty, save for chairs arranged in a semicircle and a slide show behind the cast that displayed original artwork for each scene. This also made each scene feel like a support group.

Performers sharing their stories on stage. PHOTO COURTESY OF BRIAR WELLS

I was fond of this idea because it reflected how personal the stories in the play really were, and emphasized that verbatim accounts were being used. Furthermore, the use of direct quotes from the interviews conducted in Goldstein’s research project powerfully conveyed the honesty and personality in the stories shared onstage. 

Out at School highlights the shortcomings of the Ontario education system in supporting LGBTQ+ students and families in a meaningful way. In an interview after the show, Goldstein explained how her research particularly reflects this. “We heard a lot of parents talk about making strategic decisions of when to come out or not,” she told me. “To be out means you can talk very directly with the school system about how to support your family. On the other hand, if you think you’re going to be rejected you may choose not to come out.” 

This means that the choice to come or not depends heavily on the school culture, which in turn is fostered by the educators and the curriculum they teach. For example, Goldstein explained, “We’ve had some students talk about how during elementary school everybody knew they came from a family with two mums, but when they changed to high school they would wait and see if there was a social cue that made it safe for them to talk about their family.” 

The stories I had the opportunity to hear were not just about hardship and pain, but resilience and advocacy. Although this kind of advocacy might work in small ways, the minute changes made can come together to make a real difference in the lives of many in the community. This is the message that Goldstein not only tries to convey in her writing, but also incorporates in her own way of teaching here at U of T. 

As she told me, “When you’re working with teachers, if you do this work with one teacher, you could have an impact, if they’re in elementary school, on 30 [students] and families, and if they are a secondary school teacher you could have an impact on 150 to 200 students and family lives.” She explained that although schools constitute the locus of her activism, she also wants “the issues to be talked about outside of schools and [her] own classroom.”

After all, she told me, that desire to reach a wider community informed their decision to stage the research project as a play, and is why they are considering putting the play on in Ontario schools. 

This demonstrates how the changes Goldstein and other LGBTQ+ advocates hope to see must begin with smaller, localized communities. Furthermore, safe spaces need to be a reflection of the population around us. From there, larger-scale reforms can be staged to make schools more comfortable places for everyone.

This is the kind of change Goldstein witnessed while teaching at U of T. When asked about the connections between the play and the university, she recalled the multiple progressive changes that have taken place at U of T in recent years. “I have watched the growth of the sexual diversity program at the U of T from the very beginning,” she told me.

“As the program grew and students started to join [it], they were the ones who advocated for more resources.” She smiled. “A number of people here today are looking out the windows of OISE, and noticed the Pride flag and the trans flag flying at Varsity Stadium; that meant a lot to people because they hadn’t realized U of T would celebrate Pride in that way ⁠— big and proud.”

“Big and proud” is the message of hope echoed at the very end of the play. Movingly, each member of the production stood up and said what they hope to see change in the future. A desire for change has been expressed in many different ways during the past few months, given the actions of the Ford government. With budget cuts that threaten the current education system, Goldstein highlighted the 2012 Accepting Schools Act as something more hopeful.

As she explained, “Despite Doug Ford’s ideas about curriculum, we still have the 2012 [Accepting] Schools Act, which requires all schools and all teachers to keep all kids safe.” Goldstein paused, then continued. “If that’s going to happen, we have to talk about LGBTQ+ lives.”

Disclosure: Hemrajani is a St. Michael’s College Director for the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). 

Editor’s Note (July 30, 1:00 pm): This article has been updated to disclose the author’s affiliation with the UTSU. 

Doug Ford doesn’t deserve to march at Pride

Premier has a record of disregarding the needs of minority communities

Doug Ford doesn’t deserve to march at Pride

Earlier this month, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that he would not be marching at Toronto’s Pride Parade on June 23 as long as uniformed police officers remained banned from the event. Uniformed police officers will not march at Pride for the third year in a row, following a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest at the 2016 Pride Parade.

BLM successfully demanded the removal of police floats from future parades and voiced the need for Pride to better include communities of colour. Since then, criticism over perceived police inaction and mishandling of several disappearances in the Church and Wellesley Village has also underlined the continuation of the ban. 

Ford’s decision not to march — calculated and political — is not surprising, considering his history of exclusionary policy-making, some of which reduced funding for healthcare, education, and social services.

These changes will impact the most vulnerable of our community and blatantly express a disregard for constituents who are unable to access these resources independently. His choice to march in the York Pride Festival on June 15 alongside the York Regional Police is just another reminder of Ford’s disregard for the marginalized in Toronto and raises the question of whether the premier was marching in support of Pride or in support of police.

Ford breaks six-year tradition set by Wynne in 2013

By contrast, Kathleen Wynne became the first sitting Premier to march in the Parade in 2013. Wynne, who led Ontario’s previous Liberal government, was unaware of this historical first, and said of her attendance, “Every year I take part in the Pride events. Jane and I go to the Pride and Remembrance run on Saturday morning. I go to the church service, which is always very, very moving, on Sunday morning, and of course I walk in the Parade.”

Wynne, who was the first Premier in Canada to openly identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, noted at the time that many of her constituents told her that Pride was like an annual family gathering, given that many of their own families had excluded them from important events.

On the other hand, in 2014, while running for the mayor of Toronto, Ford — alongside his brother, former Mayor Rob Ford — declined to march in the parade, infamously saying, “Do I condone men running down the middle of Yonge Street buck naked? Absolutely not.” He continued, “Maybe there are some people in this city that approve of that, and maybe they can bring their kids down to watch this.”

The Fords have long been criticized for their absence at the parade, and it is unreasonable to expect Ford to attend the parade now. Since taking office last summer, Ford reintroduced a regressive sexual education curriculum which, as discussed in a previous Varsity editorial, greatly threatened the ability for LGBTQ+ students to learn in an inclusive space.

After much backlash from Ontarians, including legal challenges by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, Ford’s government backtracked on its plans, instead opting for a new sex ed curriculum that appears similar to Wynne’s 2015 version. However, though sexual orientation and gender identity are still in the curriculum, they will now be taught much later, and parents will also have the ability to opt-out their children from the curriculum.

Absence at Parade follows legally-challenged move to revise Ontario’s sex ed curriculum

In truth, Ford’s appearance at Toronto’s Pride Parade would be a farce, as his policies do not reflect the needs of the community. In practice, his reversal of Wynne’s sex ed policies is regressive and detrimental to students’ health education. A 2015 comparison by Global News revealed that the previous government’s policies brought Ontario’s sex ed curriculum closer to that of Canada’s other provinces and territories. 

By reverting Ontario’s sex ed curriculum this year, he instigated a harmful discourse questioning the importance of LGBTQ+ identities. Eliminating references to sexual orientation, gender identity, and same-sex relationships — as Ford planned to do before the reversal — threatens efforts to normalize different gender and sexual identities through the public school system.

Not only did the previous curriculum aim to foster a community of inclusivity, but it also strived to eliminate gender and sexuality-based persecution and bullying in and outside of schools. In many situations, this curriculum may have been the first time many students below grade eight encountered issues related to the LGBTQ+ community.

The Ford government claimed that Wynne’s curriculum was too detailed in its description of certain elements of sexual health and reproduction and introduced certain concepts too early in students’ education. Rather than rewriting and introducing an alternative curriculum that would specifically remedy these issues, Ford wanted to roll back Wynne’s 2015 curriculum, a decision which the CCLA says “stigmatizes, degrades, and alienates” LGBTQ+ students and parents.

In addition, his cuts to public education threaten the livelihoods of teachers, parents, and students as schools will be forced to make cuts to specialized programs, elective courses, and classroom supplies. It also grossly increased class sizes, reducing face-to-face time between students and teachers. These disproportionately affect students who are not able to access programs outside of school due to financial, physical, or environmental factors.

Ford’s Student Choice Initiative has also threatened funding of LGBTQ+ student advocacy groups

Similarly, Ford’s highly controversial Student Choice Initiative (SCI) allows students to opt out of non-essential fees. Institutions must rationalize “essential” services according to the framework set out by the Ontario government. Student groups, such as The Varsity, will need to provide a fee opt-out option. The Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario and the York Federation of Students subsequently launched a legal challenge against the initiative in May.

The opt-out policy has the potential to defund or severely restrict funding for groups and services whose members may be otherwise without a community to depend upon for social support. Particularly at U of T, an institution that has been criticized for failing to foster a positive collegiate atmosphere, students rely on clubs and group activities to transform our university into a place of emotional and social growth and support. Minority students, many of whom may not be able to express themselves in their communities and homes — whether through their gender identity, sexual orientation, or cultural and ethnic heritage — will be without these support systems.

The SCI will potentially cut the ability of levy-funded student organizations, like LGBTOUT, Rainbow Trinity, and Woodsworth Inclusive, all of which advocate for LGBTQ+ students.

University is meant to be a place of growth and of self-discovery, and Ford’s SCI limits individuals’ and clubs’ ability to fully support this element of postsecondary education.

Ford’s funding cuts do not stop at the SCI. His reductions of OSAP funding threaten lower- and middle-income students’ ability to access postsecondary education. In particular, the decrease in grants for loans, the consideration of parents’ incomes up to six years after being in school, and the fact that the loans will accumulate interest immediately after graduation have detrimental effects on students’ ability to access funding. Just this week, many students took to social media to show how much funding they stand to lose in comparison to previous years.

According to Higher Education Today, a blog by the American Council on Education, “higher education has historically been and remains a positive location for students’ identity development.” Gender and sexual identity development should not be bound to an economic bracket.

Placing an increased pressure on lower-income students to find funding for school not only places these students in a compromising position, but uniquely challenges LGBTQ+ identifying students by limiting their access to a historically supportive space — and especially considering that LGBTQ+ people are more likely to be in lower socio-economic brackets. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, “Bisexual and trans people are over-represented among low-income Canadians… An Ontario-based study found that half of trans people were living on less than $15,000 a year.”

Doug Ford has never been for the people, and there is no reason to believe he has a place at Toronto Pride. His policies have increased financial and systemic pressures on the province in general and on the LGBTQ+ community specifically.

Ford continues to tout his adherence to his campaign base while ignoring and flagrantly opposing much of the social and financial support systems which aim to benefit marginalized communities and individuals. By limiting access to student groups, financial aid, and modern sexual health education, Ford is unduly challenging members of the LGBTQ+ community who rely on these services.

Ford’s last-minute decision to participate in York Pride was his opportunity to assure his base of his support of the police force, and, in the process, his prioritization of the needs of institutions over vulnerable communities and individuals. Supporting the LGBTQ+ community was never the nexus of his appearance. If it were, he would have attended the Parade during his time as a city councillor. Doug Ford chose not to go to Pride, but the truth is, Pride is better off without him.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.

A love letter to Pride

A reminder that regardless of how far we have come, there is still more that needs to be done

A love letter to Pride

There are few places where one can strip themselves of any veil and express the unadulterated version of themself. Throughout the years, Pride has become one of these safe havens.

Pride highlights the LGBTQ+ community in all of its glory. The carnivalesque themes and harlequin atmosphere project and celebrate the years spent hiding from oppression and fighting for basic rights the right to love, to express, and to simply be.

LGBTQ+ individuals fight, whether in public or private, to be a part of the fabric that creates and connects societies worldwide. Pride allows members of the LGBTQ+ community to defend their feelings, protect their right to resist social stigma, and promote the rich diversity that defines the community.

There is a fearlessness to Pride, backed by a history infused with tenacity and courage, that leaves me in awe. June 16, 2017 was the first time I attended the Pride parade. People of every age, shape, and ethnicity filled the streets. The crowd was as polychromatic as the flags that they carried, and the atmosphere was filled with glitter and charged with ecstasy.

Amidst the bombastic music and vivid rainbows, all I saw was the unreserved emotion — the wide smiles that make eyes gleam, and the tears running down faces, filled with nostalgia and joy.  Coming from a country like Pakistan, where many aspects of society are censored, I had never had the privilege of experiencing something like this before.

I have always been a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community, possibly even before I understood how sexuality and gender are constructed in our world, but in those moments at Pride, a newfound appreciation for the movement grew in me.

The spectacle of ‘come as you are’ is terrifying for most people, myself included. We fall into a façade that we feel will be accepted, rather than letting the world adjust to accommodate, or simply accept, us.

Although I have experienced discrimination as a Muslim woman of colour, I also identify as cisgender. I cannot claim to completely understand the struggle of being constantly mislabeled by heteronormative culture, as I have never had to justify who I’m attracted to or the identity that I adopt.

But as I marched alongside all the supporters who had come out to celebrate Pride, I realized that this community has every right to be heard. A flicker of hope sparked in my heart that one day people in my country could do the same.

Freedom of expression is a relative term in Pakistan, but so are all the other freedoms that we take for granted in the West. Pakistan is a country submerged in years of turmoil and deluded by biased religiosity. There is a lack of free will, despite citizens being charming and humble. Even social activists are often afraid to advocate for the inclusivity of various sexualities, genders, and identities.

The monochromatic city walls retain the stories of people who are desperate, but afraid, to be themselves without discrimination. I have seen my friends struggle because we come from a society laced with conservatism, which leaves them unable to live their truths.

Narrow-mindedness bred through education paves a predetermined path for every generation, before its members even realize who they are or who they love. People have to think twice before touching, and the simple act of interlocking fingers turns into hushed shadows. They begin to live in the darkness — secretly existing, but never really seen. Where I am from, this is all too often the narrative of the LGBTQ+ community.

Standing at Pride, I wanted more for my country. I wanted ruffled feathers, ostentatious costumes, hopeful slogans, and liberation. It was all right in front of me people reveling in the light as they walked through the streets of Toronto.

For me, that felt like the importance of Pride. It is not just a celebration, but a remembrance of the journey that led to these moments and the road moving forward. That is, a road for further inclusivity that dispels the latent bigotry and gives rise to equity.

While the West has made strides, there is still a vast amount of LGBTQ+ culture that needs to be taught and mainstreamed. It goes beyond a day or a month — paradigms need to be shifted worldwide.

The LGBTQ+ community has always faced adversity with love and resilience, from Stonewall to the fight for transgender rights. Members and supporters of the LGBTQ+ community keep marching to retain the rights given to them, with the hope that we can spark change in a countries where these rights do not yet exist.

This year, Pride encompassed not only the vibrant festivities, but also highlighted the violence that has recently struck the community. Pride serves as a reminder that regardless of how far we have come, there is still so much that needs to be done.

Rather than touting what I have done for the LGBTQ+ community which is little in comparison to what the community has taught me this is my love letter to Pride.  

U of T students’ guide to 2018 Pride

How to join the parade with U of T student groups

U of T students’ guide to 2018 Pride

In celebration of Pride Month and in preparation for the Pride Parade on June 24, several student groups at U of T are holding events on campus that students are encouraged to attend.

Ahead of the Pride Parade, student group Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Trans People of the University of Toronto (LGBTOUT) will be hosting a Pride Float Decorating Party. Students are encouraged to bring any kind of arts and crafts material to help design the float. The decorating party will take place on June 23, from 5:30–8:30 pm, in room 523 of Wilson Hall.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) is holding a Pride Picnic on June 24 at 10:00 am in Hart House Circle. During the event, the Architecture and Visual Studies Students Union will be joining to host a pancake breakfast, followed by face painting, t-shirt decorating, and snacks.

Other Pride Toronto events that U of T groups are participating in include the Trans March on June 22, the Pride & Remembrance Run and the Dyke March on June 23, and, of course, the Pride Parade on the afternoon of June 24.

All students are encouraged to attend the parade and march with the U of T affiliated groups. The Sexual and Gender Diversity Office (SGDO) and LGBTOUT will be meeting students at 3:15 pm on Bloor Street and Ted Rogers Way in the “J 18” section. For students who missed out on the SGDO’s Pride T-shirt Painting Party, extra t-shirts will be available on the day of the parade. All students are encouraged to march with them, either on the float or beside it.

The Faculty of Engineering will also have a float in the parade and encourages all engineering students to join them. While the UTSU does not have a float this year, it will still be marching in the parade and invites students to meet them at 2:00 pm on the front lawn.

Students are asked to bring plenty of sunscreen and water, and wear comfortable footwear to the parade.