In 1988, Jackie Balleny started teaching in a small Northern Ontario community.
At the time, she was married to a man. Seven years later, though, her marriage had broken up, and she came out of the closet as a lesbian.
“That brought with it quite a few challenges,” Balleny said. “I dealt with some homophobia.”
Rather than look at these experiences as a roadblock, she decided to look at it as an opportunity to advocate for gay students, thinking that if it was tough for her, “it's got to be way tougher for kids.”
It's a goal that has become one of the driving forces of her career.
Balleny, who was born and raised in Sudbury, has been working as a vice-principal with the Rainbow District School Board for the past 10 years, with the last five spent at Sudbury Secondary School.
She said the way that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) students and teachers has changed a lot from the beginning of her career.
Sudbury Secondary has a “remarkable, inclusive environment where we celebrate differences,” Balleny said.
If students do encounter bullying, the vice-principal said she has the power to deal with the situation, educating the perpetrator on appropriate behaviour.
Balleny was one of the guest speakers Feb. 19 at the sixth annual Classroom Closet conference, organized by Réseau Access Network.
The aim of the conference, which was attended by nearly 200 people, is to provide professionals and students within the education system with the appropriate tools to create an inclusive environment.
It included presentations on everything from gay-straight alliances, to queer sex ed to the life story of a trans woman.
Balleny said she's encouraged that so many non-gay educators and students attended this year's conference alongside the LGBT community.
“Teachers that can take their experiences here at this conference and share that in a classroom,” she said. “The magnification effect of that can only be positive.”
Gaston Cotnoir, Réseau Access Network's gay men's sexual health co-ordinator, said he started the conference six years ago because it was clear from his work with an LGBT youth group that gay students weren't supported by their schools.
But he thinks things have changed. Part of that change is as a result of government legislation, including Bill 13, which requires schools to allow students to start gay-straight alliances.
Cotnoir also thinks the Classroom Closet conference has also made a difference. He said teachers who attend the conference are going back to their schools armed with knowledge, and sharing this information with their colleagues.
Among those at the conference was a table filled with child and youth worker students from Collège Boréal.
One of those students, Amanda-Lynn Duchesnes-Whales, said she thinks learning about LGBT issues will come in handy in her career.
“We will have clients that are touched by this kind of stuff, so it would seem like a really good idea to come to this conference and learn about it,” she said.
There was also a large contingent of high school students at the conference, including Grade 11 Espanola High School student Teanna Krang.
As a member of the LGBT community, she said she's “excited for months” before conferences such as the Classroom Closet because she loves learning new things, and being surrounded by supportive people.
Not that Espanola High School isn't supportive. Krang said she belongs to the school's gay-straight alliance, where she has a lot of friends, and the school as a whole has been pretty accepting of her sexuality as well.
“People don't stare at you funny,” she said. “People don't do anything. It's pretty awesome.”
Although he's not gay himself, Grade 10 Espanola High student Evan Julien is a member of the school's gay-straight alliance.
After attending the Classroom Closet conference, he said he's going to ask more people to join his school's gay-straight alliance.
“It's pretty important, being able to support them,” Julien said. “We give them the confidence to be who they are and to be able to help them live their life the way they want it to be, not how other people think it should be.”