Adapted from an interview with Saleema Noon on CTV Morning Live, 
February 24, 2016

I remember when I first started teaching 18 years ago, just mentioning the word “gay” in a grade 6 or 7 class would bring on swarms of laughter, snickering and barfing noises from students. But thanks in part to national awareness campaigns like Pink Shirt Day we’ve come a long way in the past decade when it comes to people understanding that homophobia isn’t OK. Still, people of all ages are using homophobic language without even realizing it, using the word gay to mean stupid, dumb, lame or simply as an insult to others. And this is where we still have work to do.

Often students say to me, “Oh c’mon, Saleema, relax. We say ‘That’s so gay’ but we don’t mean anything bad by it.” or “But boys don’t mind being called fags. They know we don’t mean it, it’s just guy talk”. I try to help kids understand that this doesn’t make it OK. Regardless of the intention, homophobic language is hurtful, disrespectful and offensive.

Many other students tell me that they make a point of not using homophobic language for this reason. Great, I tell them, those of us who get it have a responsibility to call on people who don’t. Even as an adult I’ve had to do this. I suggest that using a simple “I” statement such as “I find that language offensive” or “I don’t like it when you talk like that.” or “I don’t find that joke funny.” works best. The great thing about an “I” statement is that people can’t argue with your feelings.

It’s not always easy to take a stand, but if we don’t say anything when we hear homophobic language or jokes we send the message that it’s OK or that we don’t care. We as parents and educators need to stress to kids how powerful we are as bystanders in situations where someone is being disrespected. The seemingly little decisions we make in terms of how we’re going to react (or not react) to someone’s words have a huge impact. Saying something takes homophobia’s power away. Silence fuels it.

I’d also like to see us paying more attention to transphobic language (language that is offensive to transgender people).  Quite often teachers tell me they hear students using words like “he/she” to refer to peers who don’t express themselves according to the gender binary (as solely masculine or solely feminine). The term is also, of course, offensive to people who are intersex. I’ve also heard boys use terms like “ladyman” to refer to a boy who may have interests that are more traditionally feminine or expresses himself in a more feminine way. This rejection of gender fluidity is a direct reflection of gender stereotypes that teach boys from day one that they have to be tough, strong, like “boy stuff” and be macho in order to be a “real” boy or man. It’s these gender stereotypes that are preventing boys (and girls too) from living their truth and being who they want to be.

Pink Shirt Day is not only a perfect opportunity to talk about these important issues with our kids, but it invites us to celebrate diversity in general. Differences make the world interesting. Differences make us unique. Differences are important.

And the youngest kids understand this the best. Last week I was teaching body science in a grade 2 class and one of the girls could barely contain her excitement to share with all of us that she was “super unique” because she’s a twin, she has two moms and she came out of the sunroof (was born by c-section).  Her classmates gave her a round of applause and high fives.