Anti-bullying project on LGBTQ youth, a vital resource in schools and beyond

What does LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) mean to you? This was the key question that York University Faculty of Education Professor Jen Gilbert posed to launch the Beyond Bullying Project. With colleagues in the United States, she marshalled support for this idea and collected stories in Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco that reflect the many ways LGBTQ sexuality comes up in schools.

Jen Gilbert

“Students, teachers and administrators went inside the [recording] booths and told their stories about LGBTQ sexuality – school assignments, crushes, families, friendships, break-ups, coming out, harassment, bravery and aspirations,” Gilbert explains.

Gilbert sees education and social equity as inextricably linked and has made it her mission to make schools more welcoming for all students.

At a time when sex education is being revisited in Ontario, this project is highly relevant. It shows how the school system can support LGBTQ youth and, therefore, should be of great interest to those in the education system, including: teachers and administrators; LGBTQ youth and their peers and parents; government policy-makers, setting curriculum around sex education; and anyone interested in equity.

Gilbert wants to make schools more welcoming for all students

This international joint venture was sponsored by York University, San Francisco State University, the Center for Research & Education on Gender & Sexuality, the Health Equity Institute, the Ford Foundation and the Bay Area Video Coalition.

How it all began

The researchers in this large collaborative venture wanted to know what happens when we think about LGBTQ sexuality in schools beyond risks like bullying, poor mental health and dropping out. They sought to learn about love, family, friendship and even favourite movie and television stars.

The goal of the project was to collect stories from American high schools, from students, teachers and staff, about LGBTQ gender and sexuality in their lives. “Any story was welcome. It didn’t even have to be true,” Gilbert explains.

The methodology was straight forward: the participants went into a private booth and shared stories that were recorded by video or audio. Their words were transcribed and in cases where the individuals or parents allowed the researchers to release the audio or video, this was posted on the website, so that visitors could hear the actual voices of these individuals.

First-hand experiences have great impact, immediacy

Some of these high-impact stories speak of an existential struggle around gender and sexuality followed by acceptance and support. For example, a Grade 12 student, an 18-year-old African-American straight girl, describes her best friend:

“I knew he was gay and he knew he was gay, but everybody else knew, too. But he had this whole fear if he should hide it or he should show it…. And now I see him today, he’s the most beautifulest girl you could ever imagine. He dresses like a girl. Wear hair like a girl. Does everything like a girl. You would even mistake him for a girl. So you can’t judge what’s on the outside if you don’t know what’s on the inside. I loved him for him.”

In another, an 11th-grade pan-sexual teenager describes the difficult path to acceptance:

“I’m gender fluid. And it was a really, really rough experience coming out as in just kind of being, you know. Something you weren’t born by…. My parents, I, I couldn’t, I didn’t tell them for a while…. We went to dinner together and I just started asking him [my father] questions of what his views were on, um, gender. And I finally told them I feel like I’m both genders…. He didn’t understand it. But now he did the research cause he cared for me and he was very supportive and I’m really happy that he is because now he’s my biggest supporter in this.”

One gay Latino high-school student turned the homophobia of his classmates into a call for leadership after being supported by teachers in his school.

“When I started in school, was kind of hard for me…. When I come out as a gay boy, people just start, like, surprised…. They start talking about me behind me and saying I am the stupid boy…. Everyone’s coming like my enemy, trying to push me down, talking behind me, talk about me bad things…. I just feel bad about myself because I, I thought that was wrong…. But when I started getting enough support from my teachers, I just let everything go. Just be myself. Just start doing leadership things…. I feel more strong.”

One participant got support from his teachers and this greatly encouraged him to be himself
One participant got support from his teachers and this greatly encouraged him to be himself

Policy-applicable message for educators

These narratives could never have been made public 20 or 30 years ago. More than anything, they tell the story of change, progress and equity.

The underlying message is that young people’s experience of gender and sexuality is far more complex than their teachers imagine. Beyond bullying lie stories of acceptance and support.

Teachers and the education system have an important role to play. Gilbert not only wanted to know how these stories of LGBTQ life came up, but also what schools need to do to make room for these individuals.

Teachers and the education system have an important role to play. Shown right: Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario marches at 2018 Toronto Pride Parade. (Image: Shawn Goldberg)

Website is very much a living thing

The Beyond Bullying Project continues. Gilbert encourages others to participate by adding an entry.

For those in the LGBTQ community, the website also offers resources at school, home or in the community; online resources that can help a person think more about storytelling; resources to help a person think more about sexuality and faith; online sources of news and critique regarding gender and sexuality; and much more.

To read more about this project, visit the website or follow the project on Facebook, Twitter (@BBPStories) or Instagram. To share a story, visit this page on the website. To learn more about Gilbert, visit her faculty profile page. To read an interview with Gilbert, visit the “Get to Know Our Faculty” website.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch, watch the York Research Impact Story and see the snapshot infographic.

By Megan Mueller, senior manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University,