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Defenders for Human Rights
Jeremy Dias

Jeremy Dias Gender and Sexual Diversity

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GRADE LEVELS = 5 to 12  /  SUGGESTED TIME = Four 60 minute class periods

“I asked for help. I cried a lot. I went to therapy. I went back to therapy. I read books. I listened to music. I read more books. I went back to therapy. I asked for help. That was a good one. I found one good friend. Then I found another. Then I lost the first one and stuck with the other. Kept the other for a while. I did everything I could to just keep my head above water.”

It started on a cold Tuesday night in Edmonton, Alberta.

Jeremy Dias was five years old, and holding his candle, his feet in the snow. He was with his mother and helping her protest the low wages she was receiving in her government job.

Through the crowd, he saw the union leader’s candle blow out.

“So I zipped through the crowd and relit his candle.”

That image of a young person supporting the demonstration in 1988 made the newspaper’s front page the next day. In his own little way, five-year-old Jeremy made a difference.

Jeremy believes that young people are the key to making change, and he brings that mentality to every anti-bullying and anti-homophobia workshop he gives on behalf of the organization he founded when he was 22: Jer’s Vision, now the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity.

Jeremy didn’t like school very much.

“I always felt that there were these rules and these systems that were always there, and I never really fit into them,” he says.

He liked school even less when he moved away from his friends in Edmonton to begin high school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

“It was mostly just exhausting, really exhausting,” Jeremy says. “You’d always be waiting for it to happen, and then it did, and then you’d be waiting for it to happen again and again. You just didn’t know when it would end or stop. But it never did.”

He was 15 when a friend – now former friend – announced his homosexuality to the entire school, and when a math teacher ignored his hand in the air to answer a question, even though it was the only one.

When he sat alone to eat his lunch, abandoned by his friends, he found himself surrounded by the football team. The captain asked if it was true he was gay. Jeremy said ‘yes.’

“Look,” the captain said. “I have no problems with you people, as long as you don’t hit on me.”

“I would never hit on you,” Jeremy answered. “You’re not pretty enough.”

“He didn’t find it that funny,” Jeremy recalls.

The next two years weren’t much different. Nearly every person in the school targeted Jeremy – the school’s only “gay, brown kid” – at least once.

“I always compare disrespect to a thousand little paper cuts, because that’s what it feels like,” says Jeremy. “One paper cut doesn’t matter, but two or three or four just chop at your soul every single day. Then you can’t even put it together after a while.”

It took one friend for everything to change. One friend, who stood up for him and, months later, turned to him after prom and said: “You should sue the school.”

So he did. And he won.

He knows he’s lucky, he says, because he has the support of family and friends – and because he has a survival story, where he was able to “make it better,” not just wait for it to “get better.” Telling that story, he says, is his responsibility.

Jeremy doesn’t want people to reach the point he did, where he lied, out of fear, to his parents about how he was getting hurt. His vision is a school community where a child, or a teenager, isn’t forced to go years at school hearing derogatory comments, and being in and out of the hospital so often that custodians knew his name.

“Because it worked out for me, I have an obligation to help other people who it’s not working out for,” he says. “I have an opportunity to make the world and my community a better place.”

Jeremy admits that, remembering the cafeteria, where his friends were replaced with a hostile group of football players, seeing a school’s straight athletes become allies to the queer community gives him just that small, extra piece of joy.

At schools around the world, athletes and academics and outcasts and none-of-the-above’s alike have dressed in pink to support their peer’s sexualities or take pride in their own. Jeremy’s Centre founded the International Day of Pink in 2007.

At one Ottawa high school, the football team dressed in their uniforms and made an honour guard for the LGBTTQ – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirited, queer/questioning – kids at prom.

“They created a walkway arch [with their bodies] that the gay kids could go through and take a picture. It was really cute. They just stood there kind of like knights would at a royal reception.”

Optimism and never giving up, Harvey Milk’s right-hand man Cleve Jones once told Jeremy, is the key to change.

As for his own message for young people, Jeremy doesn’t have one of those.

As a kid “I’d just shut up and listen,” he says.

And, every time he finishes telling his story, that’s what he does. He listens to questions, and answers them, even if it’s just “what’s your favourite colour of glitter?”. But “how can I take action?”, says Jeremy, is the most inspiring question young people can and do ask.

“Everything all worked out… because of a little boy and his candle,” Jeremy says.

“Obviously that’s not the case, but I like to think so sometimes.”

“The hardest and most important thing for me to do when I was struggling was ask for help. Whether it was calling Kids Help Phone, YouthLine, or talking to a teacher, it is critical that one recognizes that it doesn’t get better, YOU MAKE IT BETTER. Ask for help.”

“I started trying to do a few more things (for LGBTQ rights); I started trying to put things together so that it was explicit and honest and direct. At the same time, though, I was getting beat up. I would end up in the hospital every once and a while.”

“I think as a man it’s my job in addressing sexism to be an ally and be supportive and get involved and understand how my actions affect women. In the same way, it’s up to straight people to figure out what they are doing and have done and can do to address problems faced by queer people.”

“(Our organization) never calls something bullying. We’ve called it what it is. What is that behaviour? It’s name-calling, it’s sexism, it’s violent oppression, it’s hitting.”