No doubt about it, Jen Sung is effervescent, funny, and hugely likable. Her self-confident aura commands instant respect, and she’s easy to pick out in a crowd.
“Just look for the blue hair,” Sung told the Georgia Straight by phone ahead of a recent interview in a coffee shop across from the offices of the Vancouver Out on Screen Film Society, located in the Dominion Building.
Sung, 26, is the nonprofit society’s youth-outreach coordinator; she said her main task is to be an example to queer youth finding their way. Part of that work entails working with local gay-straight alliances in schools.
“A gay-straight alliance is an alliance between people who do not identify as 100-percent straight, or heterosexual, and those who are allies and supporters and friends of the LGBTQ—or the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer—community,” Sung said. “So the whole point is that GSAs are a youth initiative starting in secondary schools. So it’s the idea that these GSAs, or alliances, provide safe spaces, whether that’s at lunchtime or break, where young people—whether they are questioning their sexuality or not, or if they are out and proud in their school—can come together with their friends and with their allies and talk about issues in a very safe and supportive space.”
On top of her GSA work, Out on Screen is set to host the 24th annual Vancouver Queer Film Festival from August 16 to 26. That’s an immediate priority, but looking through the long lens, Sung said: “GSAs are really important, still, in schools and in our communities.” She credits her colleague Ross Johnstone, director of education with Out on Screen, who oversees a pilot program that the umbrella organization started in 2004 called Out in Schools, for his ongoing work in the field.
Speaking to the Straight in his spacious, high-ceilinged office, Johnstone confirmed that he and a group of facilitators visit schools throughout B.C. Last year, he said, the program presented 100 workshops and reached 8,000 students. Since 2004, Johnstone said, 30,000 young British Columbians have accessed the tools made available to them through the pilot program. He said that now there is a teacher’s resource guide to provide support materials for the LGBT youth in schools.
“The teachers all think it’s a great resource,” he added.
As a queer woman who immigrated to Canada from Taiwan almost 20 years ago at age seven, Sung said she has spent her whole life dealing with the prejudice that comes with being different in ways besides just hair colour. Her parents’ choice of new home was Port Moody, where the Mandarin-speaking Sung and her family had to assimilate in a city not known for its Asian population. This is why Sung’s job takes on extra meaning for her.
“Part of my work is to really empower young people and young voices to really put them in spaces where they feel safe,” Sung said. “When young people are growing up in an environment where they feel encouraged, where they feel empowered, and can access tools—whether that’s media or education—they really flourish. That’s what I notice when I work with GSAs, when I work with drop-in centres like GabYouth, is that young people flourish and blossom into amazing adults.”
Sung’s fearless approach comes from positive thinking. This is in large part thanks to the support of her folks, who, she said, have studied both the Jain and Buddhist philosophies and are believers in nonviolence, raising their daughter in a very open and free environment.
“It’s an idea that once we grow in an environment of love and acceptance, the possibilities are endless for them [kids] to be whatever they want to be in this society,” she said.
For one thing, Sung said, once more public role models are established, queer youth and visible minorities will be able to see themselves reflected in those community leaders.
Romi Chandra Herbert, 32, has been one such role model for a long time. Now married to Vancouver–West End NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert, he laughed during a phone interview with the Straight when it was put to him that he is the “godfather of gay-straight alliances”.
“I’ve certainly seen it grow and flourish,” he said. “I’m not quite sure about the godfather title.”
Chandra Herbert said it was as recently as 1997—only 15 years ago—that he was interviewed on TV news programs shown across the country after starting this province’s first GSA in Maple Ridge. “Because of Canada’s east-west divide, we never really knew of any GSAs on the East Coast, but we knew of tons of GSAs in states from California to Seattle [Washington], and that’s where most of our resources were coming from,” Chandra Herbert noted. “Primarily also because the U.S. was a little bit ahead of looking at those issues in the schools.…The queer youth groups at the time were Gab as well as Youthquest. But they weren’t in local communities, necessarily; students were leaving their home areas to come to these spaces.”
For Sung, the link to education is important. “In places like secondary schools, it can be very daunting and scary to be out,” she noted. “For one thing, young people who are questioning their sexuality have it hard enough as it is in terms of their own discovery of themselves and what they are going through with their identities.”
Matthew Cortez, 15, can identify with that isolation, having experienced difficulties at David Thompson Secondary School that resulted from his coming-out at age 14. The GSA there was instrumental in making that transition bearable.
“Challenging Homophobia at Thompson [the school’s GSA] actually made me feel like I wasn’t the only person that felt like I was different,” Cortez told the Straight by phone from his home. “The club made me recognize the facts about how people look at gay people differently.…When I was 13, when I wasn’t in the club, I was in a hallway of really, really mean kids who would make fun of me constantly every single day and mock me and copy my voice and try to copy my body, the way I walked, all of those kinds of things.”
Cortez said this is what lots of gay teenagers are going through in less tolerant countries than Canada.
“When I was 14 and first joined the club, the people in the club made me feel very welcome,” Cortez said. “They were, like, ‘We are here to help you. We’re not here to make you feel more open if you’re not open about it yet. We’re just here to help you and really look at what the big issue is in the school and try to stop it so when more gay teenagers walk into our school, they feel safer and feel more welcome and feel like no one is trying to hurt them. We’re all even, and it’s all about diversity.’ That’s what I learned in the club.”
Cortez said he wasn’t always “the kid that felt safe” in school.
“Some kids obviously wanted to beat me up; some kids picked on me and called me names like ‘fag’ and ‘fucking gay shit’,” Cortez said. “I’ve been called some pretty bad names. They’re not very nice. They [name callers] range from any kind of age, from a kid younger than me to a kid older.”
Cortez said it’s very important for youth like him to keep speaking up and get the help they need. Jung and Johnstone both say that their work has taken on a special poignancy since a rash of high-profile teenage suicides in Canada and the U.S. in the spring of 2010.
“Unfortunately, it took the deaths of these teens to really catapult a lot of this discussion to happen in the mainstream narrative,” Johnstone said.
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