High school students are exposed to homophobic incidents that range from hearing “gay” used as a synonym for “stupid” or “worthless” to insulting and assaulting students because of their sexual or transgender identity or their perceived sexual or transgender identity. This report discusses the results of a national survey of Canadian high school students undertaken in order to identify the forms and extent of their experiences of homophobic incidents at school and measures being taken by schools to combat this common form of bullying.
Phase one of the study involved surveying almost 1700 students from across Canada through two methods: individual online participation and in-school sessions conducted in four school boards. This report analyzes the data from individual online participation. The study has been funded by Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, the University of Winnipeg, and SVR/CIHR.
The lack of a solid Canadian evidence base has been a major impediment faced by educators who need to understand the situation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) students in order to respond appropriately and to assure the school community that homophobic bullying is neither rare nor harmless but a major problem that needs to be addressed. The information presented here has come from young people themselves through the many hundreds of students, LGBTQ, questioning, and straight, who took the time to make their voices heard by completing our survey. We reached them by advertising the survey widely through news releases and direct contact with organizations across the country that had LGBTQ youth memberships.
The survey itself was a fifty-four item questionnaire made available online and in print, and consisting mostly of multiple-choice questions of three kinds: demographic (e.g., age, province, gender and sexual identity), experiences (e.g, hearing gay used as insult, being verbally harassed), and institutional responses (e.g., staff intervention, inclusive safe-school policies). Quantitative data were tested for statistical significance through bivariate analysis that compared the responses of various groups of students (e.g., LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ, LGB and transgender, current versus past).
Three-quarters of LGBTQ students feel unsafe in at least one place at school, such as change rooms, washrooms, and hallways. Half of straight students agree that at least one part of their school is unsafe for LGBTQ students.
Transgender students are especially likely to see these places as unsafe (87%).
LGBTQ students see more places as unsafe for LGBTQ people than do straight students, and transgender students most of all (4, 2, and 5 unsafe spaces, respectively).
Three-quarters of all participating students reported hearing expressions such as “that’s so gay” every day in school.
Half heard remarks like “faggot”, “queer”, “lezbo”, and “dyke” daily. Over half of LGBTQ students, compared to a third of non-LGBTQ reported hearing such remarks daily.
LGBTQ students were significantly more likely than non-LGBTQ to notice comments about boys not acting masculine enough or feminine enough every day.
A third of transgender participants heard derogatory comments daily about boys not being masculine enough, compared to a quarter of LGB students. Transgender students were more than twice as likely as LGB students to report hearing comments about girls not being feminine enough.
LGBTQ students were more likely than non-LGBTQ individuals to report that staff never intervened when homophobic comments were made
Half of transgender students reported that staff never intervened when homophobic comments were made, compared to 34.1% of LGB respondents.
Current students were even more likely than past students to hear expressions like “that’s so gay” in school.
Current students were also more likely than past students to hear homophobic comments from other students every day.
One sign of progress:
Current students were significantly less likely than past students to report that school staff never intervened.
Six out of ten LGBTQ students reported being verbally harassed about their sexual orientation.
Nine out of ten transgender students, six out of ten LGB students, and three out of ten straight students were verbally harassed because of their expression of gender.
One in four LGB students had been physically harassed about their sexual orientation.
Almost two in five transgender students and one in five LGB reported being physically harassed due to their expression of gender.
Two-thirds of LGBTQ students and just under half of non-LGBTQ have seen homophobic graffiti at school. One in seven LGBTQ students had been named in the graffiti.
Over half the LGBTQ students had rumours or lies spread about their sexual orientation at school, compared to one in ten non-LGBTQ.
One third of LGBTQ participants reported harassment through text-messaging or on the internet.
Three-quarters of LGBTQ students and 95% of transgender students felt unsafe at school, compared to one-fifth of straight students.
Over a quarter of LGBTQ students and almost half of transgender students had skipped school because they felt unsafe, compared to less than a tenth of non-LGBTQ.
Many LGBTQ students would not be comfortable talking to their teachers (four in ten), their principal (six in ten), or their coach (seven in ten) about LGBTQ issues.
Only one in five LGBTQ students could talk to a parent very comfortably about LGBTQ issues. Three-quarters could talk to a close friend.
Over half of LGBTQ students did not feel accepted at school, and almost half felt they could not be themselves, compared to one-fifth of straight students.
Transgender students (over a third) were twice as likely as LGB students to strongly agree that they sometimes feel very depressed about their school that they do not belong there, and four times as likely as straight students.
Fewer than half of participants knew whether their school had a policy for reporting homophobic incidents.
Of those, only one-third believed there was such a policy.
LGBTQ students who believed their schools have anti-homophobia policies were much more likely than other LGBTQ students…
- to feel their school community was supportive (one half compared to fewer than one-fifth),
- to feel comfortable talking to a counsellor (one half compared to fewer than one-third), and to feel comfortable talking to classmates (over a third compared to one-fifth),
- to believe their school was becoming less homophobic,
- to hear fewer homophobic comments and to say staff intervene more often,
- to report homophobic incidents to staff and their parents,
- to feel attached to their school.
LGBTQ students who believed their schools have anti-homophobia policies were much less likely than other LGBTQ students…
- to have had lies and rumours spread about them at school or on the Internet,
- to have had property stolen or damaged,
- to feel unsafe at school,
- to have been verbally or physically harassed.
The results were similar for students who believed that their school districts had such policies.
Only one-tenth of students in Catholic schools believed there was such a policy in their school or school district. Students from Catholic schools were much more likely than students from non-Catholic schools…
- to feel their school was not supportive of LGBTQ people,
- that teachers were ineffective in addressing homophobic
- that they could talk to at least one adult in their school.
(Unfortunately, no Catholic schools or school boards have as yet agreed to implement the survey, and we regret that we will therefore not be able to report further on the situation in Catholic schools in Phase 2.)
Conclusions and Recommendations
This survey has provided statistically-tested confirmation of what LGBTQ students and their allies have known for some time: that despite Canada’s leadership on human rights for LGBTQ people, a great deal of verbal and physical homophobic harassment goes on in Canadian schools, that they are more likely to be aware of it than are other students who are not its main targets, and that the response has more often than not been inadequate.
The survey also shows, however, that the situation is much improved where schools and schools divisions have developed safe-schools policies and procedures that explicitly address homophobia and made them known to students. In such schools, LGBTQ students are less likely to hear homophobic comments or to be targeted by verbal or physical harassment,
they are more likely to report it to staff and parents when they are, and staff is more likely to intervene. They feel safer, more accepted, and more attached to their school.
Developing inclusive safe schools policies and making them known to students are not the complete solution. However, this survey has identified big differences between schools with and schools without inclusive policies.
We therefore strongly recommend the following:
That schools implement anti-homophobia policies and make these well known to students, parents, administration, and all staff as a positive part of their commitment to making schools safe.
That divisions develop anti-homophobia policies to provide institutional authority and leadership for schools. Although our
analysis showed that students are less likely to know about division-level policies, it would of course be helpful to principals to know that their school-level efforts had strong divisional endorsement in the form of official policy at that level.
That schools strongly support the efforts of students to start Gay-Straight Alliance clubs (GSAs). That in schools where students have not come forward, administration should ask teachers to offer to work with students to start a GSA club. It is not safe to assume that LGBTQ students would prefer to go through high school isolated from their peers and teachers.
That provincial Ministries of Education mandate the inclusion of homophobia in safe schools policies and programs, including those of Catholic schools, along with steps for the implementation of the policies, to provide support and motivation to divisional and school staff.
What students have told us in the First National Climate Survey on Homophobia in Canadian Schools is that speaking up works, and that they want the adults in their lives to do their part, too. They are weary of seeing teachers and principals look the other way. And they are grateful to the many dedicated school staff who have worked to make schools safer for everyone in their care – not everyone but them.
For more information:
Helen Kennedy, Toronto. Tel: 416-964-7887