By: Robbi Canning

Last Thursday, October 22, 2015, UPEI’s Rainbow Alliance hosted an annual Candlelight Vigil Against Homophobia and Bullying. For a little background, the vigil began in 2010 and grew out of the slew of media coverage of gay teens who had experienced bullying, and who subsequently ended their own lives in September of that year. Since its creation, the Rainbow Alliance has used the vigil to bring awareness to bullying of all kinds, including; homophobia, transphobia, cyberbullying, slut shaming, cultural prejudice, racism, and workplace bullying.

First up was the Chaplaincy Centre’s Sister Sue, who spoke about letting go or fear, and about pushing forward. Following Sister Sue was the manager of Student Affairs, Treena Smith. Treena talked about the work that went into putting the vigil, and the entire day of inclusion, together. She thanked Zak and Elyse for their efforts to organize the night, which began in June. She stressed how easy it is to do things on campus, and also how important it is. She said, “If you want to do something on campus, literally tell someone and then do it.”

Next, three students who have personally been affected by bullying or homophobia spoke. The student speakers were Zak, Megan, and Emily. Zak spoke about his experience as “gay Zak” and the flawed concept of “it gets better.” He stressed that it gets better when we make it better. Megan spoke about her personal experiences with bullying. She talked about a friend who helped her through her recovery, even while he himself was hurting. She thanked him. Emily read a poem called “World War Three” that she originally wrote in high school, and which she has altered as she’s grown. The poem alluded our society, media influence, and Emily’s own mental health, to a war. It asks you, as the audience, “when did you become so numb? Was it when you looked in the mirror and hated everything you saw? When you were kicked long after you fell down?” Without going into much more detail, all of the student speeches were absolutely beautiful, heartbreaking, and inspiring.

Next up was the keynote speaker. From the 519 in Toronto, Steven Little, manager of education and training gave a presentation titled, “Creating Authentic Spaces.” He talked about the 519’s goal of creating a spaces where LGBTQ people can be their authentic selves. If you’re wondering, the 519 runs a community centre in the middle of the gay village in Toronto, and it is the largest of its kind in Canada. The 519 also does a lot of work with refugees who have been forced to flee their countries because of their LGBTQ status.

He spoke about his personal experiences dealing with homophobia growing up in Scotland, and then how he learned to overcome the problem of lack of conversation between students and teachers pertaining to homosexuality.

Most of his speech was used to discuss trans people and the discrimination that they face not only in their personal lives and social settings, but in the healthcare field and in the workplace. Steven had volunteers come up and read descriptions of how the lives of trans people changed when they came out. All of the descriptions were divided into categories of community, family and friends, home and housing, employment and education, and healthcare. All of the description were based on real people and what they struggled with coming out as trans. They were extremely eye-opening about how much of a person’s life can be damaged or destroyed because of transphobia.

Next Steven conducted an educational activity called, “Understanding Sex, Gender Identity, Gender Expression, and Sexual Orientation.” At each table were handouts with words like “public”,” female”, “gay,” and “genitalia” to name a few. The activity was to place each of the words into one of the categories in the activity’s title. The activity reinforced the importance of remaining educated about things like the difference between male and men, or female and women, or using the pronouns that someone has taken the time to tell you they feel comfortable with, and why these things are so critical for creating comfortable, open spaces for everyone.

It was a privilege to attend the vigil with such a beautiful group of open-minded people. The speeches triggered more than a few goose bumps and I think the student centre truly became an authentic, safe space for the night. The vigil ending with the “lighting” of artificial candles and a moment of silence for those who have lost the battle against bullying and homophobia.