After the initial "hesitation" diminished, requests for presentations and counselling increased and the program gained momentum. In 1991, however, it came under attack from Christian fundamentalist groups. The catalyst was a student conference on homophobia held at one of Toronto's alternative schools. After her daughter attended a workshop on lesbians, gays and bisexuals and religion, a Christian fundamentalist mother complained about the program to the Board trustees. This same woman went on to play an important role in the formation of Citizens United for Responsible Education (C.U.R.E.) (2).
Her complaint and the media attention it garnered launched a period of extreme harassment for the program staff, who fielded hundreds of abusive and threatening phone calls and letters. Tony Gambini received death threats by mail and phone at work and at home. For a couple of weeks a woman waited everyday outside the Board building to tell him that she hoped he would get AIDS and die. Although the harassment has since lessened, it does continue. Last fall all four tires of Tony's jeep were slashed in the Board parking lot, and in the last few weeks, biblical quotation stickers have appeared on the front doors of the Board's office building with "repent" added in handwriting. Recently, a group of male students yelled "queers" as we entered a school in Mississauga on our way to a presentation.
But the usual, everyday, nine-to-five lesbo/homophobic reactions are a little more subtle. Given the growing recognition of the fundamental human rights of a diversity of individuals, some of those who feel hatred tend to be a little more guarded in their expression. And there is the silence of others who do not have an opinion one way or the other because the notion of a reality other than heterosexuality has simply not crossed their minds.
The main problem in all of these cases is lack of accurate information. Most people think about two things when they think about the word homosexual. The first can be described this way: homoSEXual. The second is a picture of a white gay man. The lack of information and the inaccurate and negative stereotypes that circulate among young people are evident in questions that are commonly asked in our presentations. For example: Why do all lesbians hate men? Are all gay men child molesters? If you know someone who is gay are you more likely to become gay yourself? If lesbians and gays have children will the children be gay too? Are there any black gays?
One of the primary ways presentations in classrooms are conducted is by answering questions like these that students write down anonymously and hand in. The questions are always varied, but usually fall into one of a number of categories: How did you get "that way"? What is it like living "that way"? Why don't you stop being "that way"? and "Don't you know that you will be unhappy/go to hell because you are "that way"?
A disturbing problem I have noticed during presentations is the specific lack of awareness of lesbian issues. Lesbians are always lumped together with gay male experience, in the same way that white people's experience marginalized the experience of people of colour. The reality is that most lesbians lead very different lives to gay men; not only because we are women, but because we are women living in a sexist, andocentric society. Unfortunately, even in lesbian and gay communities, lesbian issues often take a back seat to gay male concerns.
In classroom discussions where lesbian experience is assumed to be the same as that of gay men, we are often asked by the students what it is like to always be afraid of being gay bashed. Being afraid to walk alone at night may be a novel experience for a man, but as women, lesbians have always faced the threat of male violence. The possibility of being harassed, assaulted or insulted as lesbians is in addition to the threat we face as women, and the danger increases if we are also of colour or differently abled.
Similar assumptions are made about HIV and AIDS, particularly when the association between HIV/AIDS and homosexuality is being made for the sake of arguing that being lesbian, gay or bisexual is "against the law of nature" (read GOD). To begin with, this argument mistakenly associates HIV and AIDS with sexual orientation rather than with sexual behaviours. However, I often throw it back by pointing out that if HIV/AIDS is a punishment from god, then lesbians must be the chosen people since we are one of the lowest risk groups for HIV infection.