Segregation or integration? It’s nature versus nurture all over again

Published 02, Oct, 2012

Dave R writes...the recent scheme to provide queer-centric education in Toronto is a bold but controversial project but it creates several dilemmas.

Segregation or integration? It’s nature versus nurture all over again

“...Segregation, determination, demonstration, integration

Aggravation, humiliation, obligation to my nation,

Ball of confusion, Oh yeah, that's what the world is today...”

The Temptations: Ball of Confusion 1970

You may have caught the recent CBC news clip, or read about it in Xtra where Fan Wu, a University of Toronto student who graduated from Douglas Collegiate in 2010, put forward the idea of a queer-centric school for Toronto. The idea being that you would be able to provide a safe environment in which the school curriculum could be taught from different angles. History for instance would take on a different flavour if seen through LGBT eyes. It’s a natural follow-on from the Toronto Triangle program which over the last fifteen years has provided safe learning environments for kids who needed both a break and support from being LGBT in a normal or oppressive educational system. Since then it has evolved into something much more than just crisis intervention but remains by definition, small-scale.

You may then wonder why, what seems to be a piece of local news, would be of interest to this particular foreigner observing from afar? The fact is that this concept is a very interesting one which will probably split communities both straight and LGBT.

I was a teacher for thirty years before illness brought an end to my career and although I taught from ages 8 to 18, I very quickly realised one thing: there comes a point when the kids just don’t believe you automatically anymore; they’ve become more cyber-savvy than you and Google becomes a bigger truth. My favourite age to teach was 10 to 12 because they still accept almost everything you tell them and haven’t yet grown into the rebelliousness of adolescence. It’s at that age that you can still teach the difference between right and wrong, with the kids having a good idea of what you’re talking about. That’s not to say that teaching on an LGBT or HIV-positive platform at that age is really a good idea. In the best of all possible worlds maybe but not in the current climate where moral outrage plays such a political role. Your job may be worth more than your principles. However, I firmly believe that it’s the duty of all teachers to search out situations and deal with bullying of any sort at source; the kids will associate those ideas with particular groups at a later date. Both teachers and kids know that outside the classroom, bullying will happen but thinking it’s a fact of life that’s out of your control is a very bad teaching philosophy. At that age, children can really understand what it is to respect other people and to reject injustice of any sort. Those lessons may well stay in their minds.

I used to start off by admitting my own mistakes. If I got irrationally irritated at a child for some reason, I would apologise in front of both the child and the class. Then, using the same principle, if one child got angry with another, we would stop whatever the lesson was and deal with it by talking it out right there and then. If necessary, apologies would be demanded and hands would be shaken. I used to tell them that it was our duty as a class, including the teacher, to stick together and work as a sort of extended family to make our long periods of time together positive experiences. Our classroom should be a safe place at all times. We would regularly have discussions and debates on topics of the day and every child was encouraged to speak, in the knowledge that their opinion was as good as anybody else’s.

In this manner, I was able to introduce abstract social values and apply them to whatever situation the discussion was about. Everybody was encouraged to admit their mistakes, stand up for others and take responsibility for their actions. There was zero tolerance for bullying and every year, the success of this policy was proved by the number of unlikely alliances that took place in the school yard. If someone else from the class was being pestered, others stood up for them and nobody was excluded.

It was a multi-cultural school; there was no choice! I’m not saying it was perfect; it frequently wasn’t; kids fell out with each other as kids do and very often I had to back down from my own injustices (I was frequently taken to task over unfair homework assignments) but in general the children learned how to interact with each other socially based on respect for the other’s individuality and allowing for the fact that we can all fail at times. If teachers can somehow instil in children that all forms of bullying are absolutely unacceptable and at the same time, constantly show why that has to be so, the message may stick. It shouldn’t be an impossible task but you can’t just write these things on a poster and stick it on the classroom wall; you have to live it as well.

During my last year of teaching, a white, South African, ex-pupil who was then 18, paid a return visit. The first day he’d arrived at the school at the age of nine, he’d told the Nigerian girls in the class that as of that moment they would be at his beck and call (this was before the end of apartheid). It was a cultural shock for him when the girls laughed in his face and told him that’s not how it worked in our school. During his visit, he told me something that I’ve never forgotten:

“I loved being in your class because you taught me how to look at other people in the same way I look at myself and that I wasn’t better or worse than anybody else.”

All that said; I could only make that approach work for kids who were open to social ideas and who hadn’t already formed unmoveable prejudices one way or the other. As I said, the ages ten to twelve are ideal but I do realise that most kids are being educated in schools where the demographic is far less privileged than that of an International school full of ex-pats. The principles for teaching must be the same but the chances of success are much less. You may also rightly point out that sexuality is largely a teenage struggle and unless you fit into the norm, you run the risk of being ostracised and worse, abused and for that reason, the Toronto projects must have value.

The dilemma is; do we want integration or segregation? As one lady points out in the clips; all schools should be safe environments for the socially different but that’s a ‘best of all possible worlds’ scenario and teachers have never been under the stress they are under now, both from their pupils and from the administrations that require every action to be noted in triplicate.

Of course, Queer-centric, or LGBT-friendly schools shouldn’t be necessary because all schools should provide a balanced social and educational environment where kids feel safe in being who they are. However, it just may not be realistic as yet. Look at the problems of race and culture which are taking decades to be resolved. Adding LGBT issues to the mix shouldn’t on the face of it be that difficult but in the real world kids still have to survive largely on their own.

Providing safety for children should be a given and in that sense, if there’s no alternative, then ‘segregated’ schools may well provide a sticking-plaster solution but the aim should always and untiringly be to change attitudes in all state schools.

It does make you think though. We prefer to go to LGBT-only bars, LGBT parties, discos, saunas and even cruises. Why, because we feel more comfortable there; we can be ourselves amongst like-minded people. So should we deny our LGBT teens the chance to be educated in a similar space? You may even have fantasised about the possibility of an LGBT state, or island, totally independent from hetero-normative influence but let’s face it, the biggest attraction of that sort of fantasy would be the greater chances of hooking up! Have you ever sat on an LGBT committee! Bitch-slapping becomes a new art and you want to run away screaming after an hour. Our local LGBT tennis club was a microcosm of how a gay state may be run – you spend four hours debating the first two points on the agenda and then woe betide you if you piss off madam chairperson! The idea of an LGBT-run administration heading a nation fills me with horror, however, that may be just me.

Segregation in any form is also one of the most loaded words of the 20th Century. Hitler took it to apocalypse levels and separated Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals to exterminate them. All it needed was a different coloured star to reduce you to an ‘untermensch’ and the frightening thing is that many of the people in conquered lands helped the process along. The reverberations caused by segregation in the United States and South Africa are still being keenly felt as black people seek to establish an equal identity. Even so-called civilised societies seriously considered shipping off all people with HIV to an island separated from the rest of the population (yes Sweden, you did!). It can go horribly wrong. So does segregation actually create prejudice? History suggests it does and integration may be a far better method for ensuring less visibility and therefore more acceptance within a society; you can then effect change from within.

Taking all that into account, I’m still not sure that Fan Wu and the people behind the Toronto Triangle Program are wrong. When all’s said and done, it must be better to at least provide an option where LBGT kids can find an educational haven, safe from the sort of oppression that inhibits their development. If things have got to be so bad that it’s a choice between social isolation and misery and an environment where their potential can be realised, it’s probably a no-brainer. After all, societies across the western world provide ‘shelters’ for the homeless, for abused women and children, for drug addicts and even for prisoners just out of jail – the systems are in place, they just have to be adapted. The question is, do you want it to be this way, or do you want to give society the chance to sideline us even further because we’ll look after our own so to speak?

Personally, I found the very idea of any form of segregation abhorrent. To my mind, society has to fix itself and we need to take an active role in doing that. Ignorance and abusive attitudes should be eliminated through education. However, now I’m not so sure. History surely tells us that societies just don’t fix themselves and utopias don’t exist. Stigma and stereotypical prejudices may well be part of human nature and thinking that we can change that on a nation-wide scale may be an illusion. So maybe we should look after our own whenever the opportunity arises and maybe that will show the world that there are alternatives and that prejudice is wasted energy. I just don’t know anymore. I do know that this sort of project in Canada would be unthinkable here in the Netherlands because we live under the illusion that we live in one of the freest and most tolerant societies in the world. We don’t; it’s a veneer and if you scratch the surface the same stories appear here as anywhere in the world. A world in financial crisis doesn’t help matters; in those times, societies pick on their weakest because somebody has to be blamed. The Republicans in the States have built a whole campaign around that concept. So my final word on the matter is good luck to those with the courage to present controversial ideas for improving the lot of LGBT people. I’ll be following any progress with great interest.

The following YouTube clip, produced by Xtra is an interesting look at the views of people on the street on this matter, although their interviewees could be said to be a desired demographic. Whether this reflects the views of the population as a whole is another matter.