In Alberta, about 60 students and teachers gathered Saturday in Edmonton to do what would have been unthinkable even a decade ago: hold a conference about starting, supporting and sustaining gay-straight alliance groups in schools across the province. With the blessing of both the Alberta government and Edmonton’s public school board, the first Gay Straight Alliance Student Conference saw students from across the province join forces at the Bennett Centre to talk about gender identity, homophobia, advocacy, respect and creative self-expression. “Just a few short years ago, within the span of your lives, this would be almost unthinkable,” deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk said in kicking off the conference, sponsored by the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta. Alberta Culture Minister Heather Klimchuk, who also spoke to the students, likened their efforts to those of the Famous 5, who fought for the right of Canadian women to be appointed to the Senate and paved the way for women like her in politics, she said. “We should not be defined by what we wear, how we look or who we love, and that’s very important to me,” she said. “Never doubt that the gay-straight alliances you represent are anything but an instrument for change to make it better, fairer and more just.” The featured speaker was Rae Spoon, a transgender musician and author who grew up in an evangelical Christian home in southern Alberta. Delegates also talked a lot about gender identity and expression, said Kris Wells, associate director of the ISMSS. “It’s equated to where sexual orientation was 30 years ago – largely not understood; a lot of stereotypes and misinformation.” The Edmonton public school board has a sexual orientation and gender identity policy. It has put forward a policy resolution to the Alberta School Boards Association that all Alberta boards do the same. The association will debate the resolution on Monday. In Ontario, legislation has been passed mandating gay-straight alliances be supported in any school where students request one, even in Catholic schools, Wells said. Alberta doesn’t have such legislation. In Edmonton, there are 13 gay-straight alliances at public high schools, he said. Some have only recently been established, like the one at Centre High, where 18-year-old student Bryan Cooke was among those who challenged the school’s no-clubs policy and lobbied successfully to set up a gay-straight alliance, which met for the first time this past week. It’s small so far — only a few students, a counsellor and an openly gay teacher who helps out — but Cooke expects it to grow. Earlier, as a student at McNally High School he came out as bisexual with the support of that school’s gay-straight alliance. “I came out while I was on the football team and some of the guys were uncomfortable. But I said, ‘I don’t care if you don’t like it, I’m changing in here.’ ” Most of his teammates were accepting. His coach was supportive, but one boy continued to bother him. Because of his behaviour, the boy was suspended from school for five days and from the football team, Cooke said. Grade 12 student Kiana Chouinard heads the alliance at Scona High School, one of the two oldest gay-straight alliances in the city, established in 2000. The other is at Ross Sheppard High School. The group hosts education and awareness events and has teamed with the school’s Christian club for a couple of events. “Everyone just assumes that we’re not going to get along … but they’re great,” Chouinard said. Still, biases and misunderstanding about the club persist. “I’ve had parents call my school complaining about the ‘gay cult’ in our school, and saying ‘my kid is in the gay cult,’ and that’s ridiculous,” she said. Younger kids in the club still come to her complaining of incidents of bullying and homophobia. She has intervened on their behalf. A conference like this one is a great affirmation of the positive work that alliances do, she said. “I think it’s just great that we can be in a public place and advertise it on the Internet and it’s in the newspaper, and we can talk about it nobody is outside protesting and we can all just be ourselves.”
When Californians voted to outlaw same sex marriage four years ago, one factor - both revealing and alarming to the civil rights community - was African Americans' support for the ban. Proposition 8, which passed with a 52-percent majority, had 58-percent support among black voters. It was a different story November 6 in Maine, Maryland and Washington state, where voters endorsed marriage rights for gays and lesbians, and in Minnesota, where state law already prohibits same sex marriage but voters rejected a Proposition 8-like ban in their state Constitution. Surveys show a majority of African Americans now support those rights, said Ben Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which campaigned hard for same sex marriage. In Maryland, where blacks make up almost 30-percent of the voters, their backing was crucial. "We're talking about it as a civil rights issue," and people are listening, Jealous said in an interview last week during a visit to San Francisco. He also said President Obama's endorsement of same sex marriage rights in May, followed shortly afterward by an endorsement from the NAACP, was a "game changer." If the issue reached the ballot again in California, "we would see majority black support," Jealous said. "I'm very confident that ... we would win." San Francisco's NAACP leader, the Rev. Amos Brown of Third Baptist Church, agreed. "People are enlightened," said Brown, a member of the NAACP's national board who took part in the Maryland campaign. A different view came from the Rev. Maurice Scott of Oakland, one of many African American clergy members throughout the state who vocally supported Prop. 8. "People of African descent are very religious people," said Scott, pastor at the Great St. John Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church. "I think that many are supportive of the president but not supportive of homosexuality." Even today, he said, all the parishioners with whom he has spoken "would not vote for (a) man-and-man, woman-and-woman relationship." Not all assessments of the November 6 vote in Maryland agreed with Jealous' assessment of African American support of same-sex marriage. The NAACP leader said surveys just before the election found majority backing for the measure among blacks, but the Washington Post said an exit poll pegged support at 46-percent, compared with 52-percent of all voters. The surveys agree, however, that attitudes toward same sex marriage among African Americans and other racial minorities have changed even more rapidly than the views of the general population. The Pew Research Center said a November 6 exit poll found that 51-percent of African Americans nationwide endorsed the right of gays and lesbians to marry and 41-percent opposed it, slightly higher than the support level among all voters. A Pew survey in 2009 had found only 26-percent support among African Americans, compared with 39-percent for all respondents. Other recent polls have found Latino support for same-sex marriage as high as 59-percent, compared with just under 50-percent for non-Hispanic whites. In Washington state, where gay rights advocates campaigned for support in minority communities, "we saw very little opposition aside from a few very conservative black preachers," said Andy Grow, spokesman for Washington United for Marriage. California's experience with Proposition 8, he said, was "the grand model for all of us" in showing the need for outreach. Jealous said Prop. 8 was also a wake-up call for the NAACP. He said the civil rights organization and its allies evidently took African Americans for granted and were beaten to the punch by clergy who mobilized much of the black community in support of the measure. They realized afterward, he said, that "if you want (blacks') support you've got to ask for it, ask for it early and build relationships." North Carolina, where 61-percent of voters in May approved a constitutional ban on both same-sex marriages and civil unions, provided another lesson. Most polls showed at least an equal level of support for the measure from African Americans, and that was a signal to change the message, Jealous said. "It's about rights and not about (religious) rites. We figured that out too late in North Carolina," he said. "It's about protecting your neighbor or even yourself from a judge or a hospital discriminating against you. It's not about dictating to pastors or rabbis or imams about how to run their house." Obama endorsed marriage rights for gays and lesbians the day after the North Carolina vote. Ten days later the NAACP, which had previously limited its advocacy to individual states, declared support for equal marriage rights nationwide. In Maryland, supporters of same sex marriage sought to turn the issue of religion in the black community to their advantage. One of their leading ads featured the Rev. Delmon Coates, African American pastor of the 8,000-member Mount Ennon Baptist Church, telling viewers, "I would not want someone denying my rights based upon their religious views; therefore, I should not deny others' rights based upon mine." The Baltimore Sun said tests with focus groups found that the ad was a hit with voters of all races and helped the campaign raise crucial funds. Jealous said he was particularly heartened by exit polls in four states - Florida, Ohio, Georgia and North Carolina - reporting that a majority of African Americans in each state would favor a measure establishing same sex-marriage rights. "When we're polling majority black support in Georgia," he said, "the issue has changed permanently across the country."
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