the boy in the rainbow bracelet

published: outwords inc., issue #137, february 2007

tagline: gay-straight alliances reach a supportive hand into a few more closet doors

It was a sunny day last summer when a boy wearing a rainbow bracelet caught me off guard. I was serving at this cute little café in the heart of the Exchange, and the boy bearing the colours of the rainbow across his wrist could not have been a day over 13. Awestruck by his overt display of pride, all I could think was, “How are you ready to be out?” My maternal instincts urged me to return him to the closet where he would be safe. Aware of my ridiculousness, I took his order instead, and I thought, “What has changed during the last seven years in Winnipeg that queer high school students are ready to come out at such a young age?

Tony Kushner was right when he foreshadowed the changes the new millennium would bring. While the world was preparing for Y2K, no one actually realized it would be “Y2Gay.” It could have been my budding adolescence that year, but it seemed like the topic of homosexuality went from taboo to primetime overnight. The boys from Queer as Folk caught the red eye from Manchester to Pittsburgh just in time for Christmas. Already in its third season, Will & Grace had become the model couple for gay men and their straight best girl friends. By the time I opened the closet door, the Fab Five had gone mainstream and apparently I was the only one in Winnipeg who still had a problem with being gay. Talk about raining on someone’s coming-out parade.

In the years that followed, being out was in, and I was caught up in the trend. No longer pressured by my peers to be “straight,” I tried to keep on top of the latest fashions while sharpening the wit of my new persona, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was my tele-course on the modern gay man. I learned to be “queer” without the slightest idea of what that actually meant. Put me in a mall and I would pass with flying colours, but place me on a date with another man and I was as clueless as Alicia Silverstone.

So what if this boy with the rainbow bracelet and his peers jumped out of the closet thinking primetime tolerance would catch their falls? Unlike them, I had the luxury of being sexually naïve while gallivanting through the corridors of an ultra-liberal university. I was no longer confined to the conservative politics of a high school where homophobia ran rampant.

But what if high school is not as traumatizing for queer students as I remember? Maybe the boy in the rainbow bracelet came out so young because, unlike me at his age, he was not alone in doing so. It is probable that, since the year 2000, the hallways of adolescence have become more tolerant of queer issues and less homophobic. Whether this change is due to a popular culture that turned gay men into a trend, or a national gay-rights movement that turned same-sex marriage from fantasy to reality, I am not sure. However, there is one factor that shouldn’t be overlooked.

The year I graduated from high school, gay-straight alliances had already started to organize in other schools. During the last 10 years, Karen Dana has witnessed first hand the changes those Winnipeg high schools have made to better the lives of their queer students. She has been the driving force behind the inception of several gay-straight alliances (GSAs) at high schools in and outside the city, and she is currently the facilitator of the GSA at Kelvin High school in Fort Rouge.

Every Thursday at noon, queer and straight students at Kelvin meet to discuss issues and plan events to combat homophobia. When the Kelvin GSA began in 2003, it was clear the students had a sense they were on a mission, Karen says. “We never questioned why kids were there; they were there because they believed that homophobia should not occur in schools.”

Prior to its inception, queer students were invisible in the classroom, Dana says. “It was not an accepting environment. A lot of kids did not want to come out, particularly not in high school.” Now at Kelvin, rainbow stickers add colour to teachers’ doorways and gay and lesbian literature sits on the library shelves.

Jess Rybuck is an active member of the school’s GSA. She says the group’s success is due in large part to the students’ knowledge that the meetings will be well attended by people who believe in its importance. “It takes … people actually going for people to see [that] there are people here,” Jess says. Sometimes, as many as 20 students show up for the meetings.

Dana continues to receive phone calls from regional schools that are interested in starting their own gay-straight alliances, but she is the first to admit that the fight to ensure the welfare of queer high school students in this city is far from over. Several school divisions still do not allow the establishment of queer organizations.

That’s a shame. Seven years ago, in fear of risking my carefully crafted heterosexual identity, I knew I did not stand a chance of ever attending a GSA. Yet the knowledge that they existed has resonated with me ever since. The inception of GSAs in Winnipeg high schools could well be the reason why some queer students are coming out at such a young age, and I often think, had my high school experience been different, I, too, could have been that boy in the rainbow bracelet.

For more information on combating homophobia in Manitoba high schools, or for help starting your own gay-straight alliance, visit the website http://www.helpingout.ca