Tackling Heteronormativity and Homophobia in Toronto’s “All-Boys” Schools

Finn Meiklejohn, Casual Contributor

Disclaimer: Mention of sexual assault as well as discrimination against the 2SLGBTQ+ community. The names of the students interviewed were replaced. Any opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Trinity Times or its staff.

In her 2007 book, Dude, You’re a Fag, sociologist C.J. Pascoe describes how “boys collectively battled a terrifying, destructive, and simultaneously powerless Other, while each boy was, at the same time, potentially vulnerable to being positioned as this Other” (p. 157). She observed this during an ethnographic study of a Southern California high school in 2003––the year I was born—yet its discoveries are as valuable as ever.

I read Pascoe’s book in 2019 when I was in grade 11 and attending a public high school in Vancouver, BC. I did not need to be told that the “Other” Pascoe referred to was the “fag” I had been marked as myself. Although I had been through years of being the Other in elementary school, when I was finally “out” as one in my last year and a half of high school, I largely felt accepted and supported by students and staff. Coming to Toronto, I wondered if the same was true for my queer, male-identifying counterparts who had attended “all-boys” private schools.

 In late 2018, a heinous assault took place at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS), an independent “all-boys” Catholic school founded in 1852. Located in Forest Hill, SMCS enrols students in grades 7 through 12. The sexual assault perpetrated by a group of football players in a school locker room was filmed by students before being shared across social media. According to John Rieti of CBC News, the incident was one of eight that police officers ended up identifying in 2018 involving football players at the “all-boys” private school known for its competitive sports culture. The locker room and the verbal and physical abuse that frequently takes place within it epitomize the systemic issues that put queer students at risk.

 I spoke with Wyatt, a queer second-year undergraduate student and former student of SMCS, about his experience at the school. Wyatt said “locker room talk bled into almost every aspect of school and how students communicated with each other.” Whether it was homophobic slurs, the objectification of girls, or racist comments, students competed to prove their masculinity through the expression of bigotry to avoid being seen as an Other themselves. From Wyatt’s view, it was clear that one’s ability to perform “outdated” masculinity determined a student’s place on the “social pyramid” at SMCS.

 This is where the work of R.W. Connell comes in handy. In 1999, in her foundational book Masculinities, Connell stresses that we view “masculinity” as a multitude of masculinities with complex relations of “alliance, dominance, and subordination” (p. 39). In noting this pluralism, we can recognize the ways in which prevailing or “hegemonic masculinity” forces conformity among young boys. Connell shares that hegemonic masculinity can be defined as a socially produced patriarchal masculine ideal built on the “Othering” of difference. Wyatt’s descriptions make it clear that students who best produce themselves in the image of that ideal lay claim to the top of the social hierarchy in “all-boys” schools.

Hegemonic masculinity in “all-boys” schools is not only supported by explicit homophobic incidents but also heteronormative structures and traditions that privilege heterosexuality as natural. At SMCS, Wyatt often felt “cast to the side,” made to feel ashamed of his sexual attraction and “unnatural” due to the heteronormative standard set for and by his peers. So what are “all-boys” schools in Toronto doing to support queer students being pushed aside by hegemonic masculinity and heteronormative expectations?

I began by looking at staff positions at “single gender” private schools in Toronto. Quickly, a pattern emerged. Many of the “all-girls” schools had dedicated “directors” or “specialists” in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). This was not the case with “all-boys” schools. However, even in the absence of such positions, support for queer students is provided through “out” teachers and staff, as well as social workers/counsellors.

I decided to reach out to Andrea Kaye, a social worker and school counsellor for Royal St. George’s College (RSGC), an “all-boys” Anglican urban day school located in the Annex. Founded in 1964, it enrols students from grades 3 to 12. Talking with Andrea, it became clear that I was not the only one who noticed the disparity between “all-boys” and “all-girls” schools. Andrea shared how “all-boys” schools have struggled to make students more confident in their non-normative sexual and gender identities. She noted that “all-girls” schools often have more conversations regarding identity and self-understanding. Despite these challenges, Andrea has done extensive work to support queer students at RSGC.

With a group of queer students at RSGC in 2010, she helped found the inter-school Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA), formerly the “Gay-Straight Alliance,” for “single-gender” independent schools in Toronto. As a space for queer students and allies committed to education and advocacy, the GSA has a yearly membership between 40-50 students. The GSA is currently run by Patrice Callegaro, a mathematics teacher and the “Upper School Pluralism Coordinator” since 2021 for Upper Canada College (UCC), an “all-boys” school in Forest Hill. Patrice, the first person to inhabit their role, graciously spoke with me about their experiences with queer students.

Patrice runs an in-school 2SLGBTQ+ Affinity Group at UCC. The affinity group is only for 2SLGBTQ+ students, and with a membership of around a dozen, it provides an opportunity for queer and trans students to unpack their experiences and offer each other emotional support. Patrice, who is gender-nonconforming, works to make students knowledgeable and passionate about their identities, enabling them to feel safe in their bodies and welcome in spaces at school. Andrea, like Patrice, looks to provide opportunities for older students to feel comfortable in being vulnerable, allowing them to reflect on their experiences honestly to younger students. However, this has proven to be a challenge at RSGC, where she describes the queer community as “quiet.”

I interviewed Harold, a graduate of RSGC and a current second-year undergraduate student, about his time at the school. He shared how the fear of being exposed as queer was pervasive in his time at RSGC. Harold felt that queer students would not be discriminated against if they “came out.” Yet, there were no openly queer students in his grade. He saw it as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding sexuality among his peers.

Even with groups like the GSA or UCC’s 2SLGBTQ+ Affinity Group, students at “all-boys” schools struggle with making their identities public out of what Harold called the “fear of no longer fitting in.” Once students come out, even if they may not face explicit discrimination, they no longer ascribe to the heteronormative expectations set for them by our society. That is no easy place for a young student to be, especially in a “single-gender” environment.

When I first read about the 2018 locker-room sexual assault at St. Michael’s College School, I remember expecting to find an institutional reckoning at “all-boys” schools in Toronto. According to Patrice, DEI has increasingly been rolled into the fabric of “all-boys” schools, especially since the 2020 murder of George Floyd in the United States, which catalyzed the development of many of the DEI policies and positions in “single-gender” schools today. However, the 2018 sexual assault at SMCS was largely isolated as a “sports culture” or “St. Mike’s” issue. A 2019 independent review of SMCS titled A Time for Renewal explicitly mentions the need for broader cultural change, yet according to Wyatt, there was no such thing. Today, just like in 2018, hegemonic masculinity and heteronormativity is ingrained into the way privileged boys in this city are raised and what their “single-gender” school environments prioritize. As individuals like Andrea and Patrice work hard to provide consistent support for 2SLGBTQ+ students, I hope that “all-boys” schools in Toronto recognize the need to uproot the embedded falsehoods that hurt and inhibit the potential of their 2SLGBTQ+ students.

Andrea shared that “authenticity becomes something students admire as they pass through the ranks.” As students of “all-boys” schools age, the need to conform to hegemonic masculinity and partake in a constructed social hierarchy weakens. Both Wyatt and Harold discussed how since graduating from SMCS and RSGC, they have been able to be much more public about their identities. Wyatt has been able to “catch up with everyone else” by partaking in experiences robbed of him during high school, experiences that are reserved for heterosexual teenagers alone.

Students should be encouraged to explore their identities from the moment they enter a classroom for the first time, even if that authenticity breaks heteronormative or cisnormative scripts. Being the Other should not be shunned. Let us recall Wyatt and Harold, who had to hide, conceal, and struggle with their identities as queer boys. Let us support the 2SLGBTQ+ students walking the halls of SMCS, RSGC, and UCC today. Let us celebrate the students who have taken what Pascoe termed the “terrifying, destructive, and simultaneously powerless Other” and turned it into something formidable.

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