03/04/2013 12:23 EST | Updated 05/04/2013 05:12 EDT

How I Told Gay Youth It Gets Better

A couple of years ago, the Learning Coordinator for Safe Schools asked me if I would be a keynote speaker at their annual Gay Straight Alliance Conference under the theme: It Gets Better. Here's what I said.

Last week a Grade 11 student, Evan Wiens, from Steinbach, Manitoba, says he'll do whatever it takes to ensure gay and lesbian students at his school are supported even though he believes he is the only gay student at his school.

Gays everywhere probably can relate or at least remember that feeling. Who hasn't felt they were "the only gay in the village?"

This feeling was comically immortalized by the British comic show Little Britain:

The reality of course is that it is most unlikely that there is a school in the world that only has one gay student. Of course, it is that isolated feeling that is the problem.

As Weins explains, "Steinbach's a very religious, conservative community, and I'm really concerned about what these students are feeling like in their homes...that they feel that they really can't come out."

So at Steinbach Regional Secondary School, Wiens, 16, started a gay-straight alliance.

"I just want to be able to at least have a place at school that they feel safe."

Kudos to this brave young man for initiating the alliance.

I wonder if he knows that the Ministry of Education supports him. With Bill 212 in 2007, the Ministry of Education encouraged the development of Gay Straight Alliances and in '09 Bill 157 stated that schools need to support students who wish to participate in Gay Straight Alliances to promote healthy relationships.

We need to get this message spread across our land so that other students who feel they are struggling alone know that they can reach out and receive support.

In London, Ontario, the Thames Valley District School Board -- Safe Schools has encouraged the development of Gay Straight Alliances for the past 7 years. They even host a GSA Conference every year to support LGBT youth. Representatives from around thirty high schools come together to be inspired, share ideas and create action plans to implement back in their schools.

The first year of the conference only 30 people attended. Now hundreds register.

A couple of years ago, the Learning Coordinator for Safe Schools asked me if I would be a keynote speaker at their annual Gay Straight Alliance Conference under the theme: It Gets Better.

It Gets Better is a project created in response to the suicide of a number of teenagers who were bullied because they were gay or because their peers suspected that they were gay. The goal: to prevent suicide among LGBT youth by having gay adults convey the message that these teens' lives will improve.

Included in the presentation: a 12-minute video which featured a significant number of Canadian LGBT public figures, including Rick Mercer, talking about their own experiences of coming out.

Minutes before I was called up, I found out they couldn't afford Mercer, their first choice, as his rates were truly shocking.

Second fiddle and a cheap replacement. Life is the great humbler, isn't it?

It helped that I truly believed in the campaign and although the pressure was on, I did have thirty minutes to make my case! Well, two of them. First, that I convey to these impressionable students that It Does Get Better and second, proving to the administration that I was a worthy replacement for the talented Mercer! LOL

Tough gig. Remember, they were reminded how good Mercer was when he made his appearance on the big screen.

The pressure was on, but not really.

Three decades after being bullied for being gay in the very TVDSB school hallways represented before me, it was not difficult to show them that I am now happy.

I told them, "I've never felt so fricken normal in my life. I love my life and I like me."

I sang for them Janis Ian's old song At Seventeen, which is a commentary on adolescent cruelty, the illusion of popularity, and teenage angst, and then declared, "I don't think I'm ugly and more importantly I don't care if you think I am! I've learned love is meant for more than just high school beauty queens and I've got a drawer full of Valentines to prove it. And my lack of social graces enhanced my career as a writer. That's the truth I learned since turning 50!"

I continued:

"Yes, it gets better, but not immediately.

How can we speed the process? Is that possible?

Clearly, the pain is universal; how we deal with it isn't.

I learned to love being gay in a very straight world, 'cause let's face it while we now have Glee and Lady Gaga, many of us still live in a relatively conservative areas, no? Even so, I am pleasantly surprised at the progress that has been made.

I remember in the '70s a librarian telling our class she had this book on "homosexuality" and if a student had parental consent, she would lend it out. Can you imagine? Trust me, it was never signed out. I never heard one student or teacher talk about anything gay in a positive way in all my 12 years of school.

Of course, it gets better. It IS better in so many ways in schools today. And the Safe Schools program is making such a difference.

Even so, for the student who is feeling tortured right now, It Gets Better seems far off in the distance. TOO FAR.

How can we help now?

If we can get a student who is feeling worthless because of bullying and or/abuse and or confusion about their sexuality to hear a non-judgemental voice that he/she is special and okay and that those who are harming are wrong and that he/she is totally alright, it can make a difference.

We have to be non-judgemental, engaged and not give up after repeated tries because most often that's what it takes to reach someone who feels isolated.

Giving voice to those who have been silenced by violence means just that. They have one. A voice that's unique, original, individual, but it is one thing they can call their own.

Expecting an unkind word or an unnecessary remark will also remove its power.

These avenues of discussion, disclosure and communication are important.

Whatever path you choose, please consider this: I have embraced the torture. It propels me, energizes me, activates me, motivates me. I went from an introverted wall-flower to an extraverted force to be reckoned with.

I discovered I had a strength that everyone surrounding me not only took for granted, but discounted and discouraged -- no one more than those who taunted me! As much as people have kicked me in my life, I actually should thank them! In fact, I wouldn't be standing here if it weren't for all the hateful things that had been said and done to me.

My battle wounds are part of my armour now! But we must never forget those who are currently doing battle. It's true, it only takes one person to create a victim. But it can be one person that turns out to be that victim's saviour. Never discount your importance to any potential victim in your community -- to the student sitting beside you. I craved a saviour. Odd that I turned out to be my own."

I concluded with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., "Never, never be afraid to do what's right, especially if the well-being of a person is at stake. Society's punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way."

After the conference I went up to one quiet, bespectacled boy, who reminded me of my younger self and told him, "You are the most beautiful person here!" His face lit up and his arms shot up in the air shouting, "Wow!"

Sometimes just one kind word or expression can make a difference.

We all must do what we can so that the Evan Wiens of the world no longer feel that they are the only gay "in the village!"