High school homos
Concordia grad investigates being openly gay in Quebec high schools
Concordia grad Michael Whatling interviewed seven openly gay high school students across Quebec in order to help tell their stories in A Vigil for Joe Rose. GRAPHIC VIVIEN LEUNG
High schools are close knit communities, where everyone knows everyone else. Or at least think they do. For gay students, choosing to come out to your peers can be risky, but for those who succeed, it can often be the most rewarding experience of their lives.
Michael Whatling devoted his PhD at Concordia to understanding what it’s like for students to be publicly queer in Quebec high schools. The result is A Vigil for Joe Rose, a collection of seven short stories and one novella based on in-depth interviews.
“Even though there are millions and millions of dollars that have been spent on [educational research], none of it has ever changed teaching practice in schools,” said Whatling. “Teachers don’t read academic journals or academic papers. I wanted to make my academic findings accessible, so I decided to utilize my background in [creative writing].”
Whatling could only find prior research into the experiences of out gay high school youth that were done in retrospect, sometimes years after a student’s graduation.
“My research was unique in that I did in-depth interviews,” he said. “I didn’t just hand them a survey.”
Whatling canvassed every anglophone school in Quebec, speaking to guidance counsellors, principals and teachers in his search for participants.
“The reaction I received most often was, believe it or not, ‘We don’t know any out gay students,’” he recalled.
At least one of the school administrators he spoke with took offence to the project, telling him, “We shouldn’t be promoting this!” What exactly he was ‘promoting’ still isn’t clear to Whatling.
“On an individual level, whether it’s administrators, teachers or kids, they’re privately very supportive of the out gay student,” he continued. “They’ll tell them privately that they admire them, but what I found is that, publicly, no one talks about it. It’s a subject that is avoided at all costs.”
Once he asked around, out students were more than willing to come forward and tell their stories, he said. Only two out of the seven students Whatling interviewed experienced a great deal of harassment for their sexual orientation.
“It really depends on the school and how seriously they take homophobia,” he explained. “There are some schools that don’t deal with it at all, and so harassment is allowed to go unchecked. But other schools that have effective ways of dealing with it, then it stops.”
Whatling also questioned why teachers don’t intervene when students use the term gay pejoratively.
“When I asked why teachers don’t do anything about it,” said Whatling, “the suits said that [it was] because they hear it so much they would be doing it all day long. [We’ve gotten] to that point where it’s so defeatist.”
Under the Quebec Teachers Act, teachers are bound to seven obligations, including the responsibility to “take the appropriate means to foster respect for human rights in his [or her] students.”
“Teachers who don’t defend students based on their sexual orientation or allow harassment [are] not living up to [their obligations],” said Whatling. “My argument is, let’s take their licenses away.”
Joe Rose, the book’s namesake, was a classmate of Whatling’s who founded the Queer Association of Dawson College. Rose was stabbed to death at the age of 23 for sporting pink hair on a city bus.
“The insanity of losing somebody in the way he was lost haunts me even today,” writes Whatling in the book, which also features interspersed “Pages from Joe Rose’s Notebook,” which postulate what words of encouragement Rose would have for his fellow out students.
Whatling would like to see others pick up where his own research has left off.
“I think it would be interesting to see it from the other stakeholders in education’s point of view,” he said. “My participants were all male students, so I think it would be interesting to see it from the point of view of lesbians in high school, but also from the point of view of teachers.”
A Vigil for Joe Rose can be purchased at joerose.viviti.com. The book’s facebook page can be found at facebook.com/ Vigil4JoeRose.
A Vigil for Joe Rose