From gay jokes to gay rights advocate

If the 13 year-old Chris Studer could have seen himself today, he would have a lot to be proud of.

Chris Studer
Beacher, Malvern grad and Get REAL co-founder Chris Studer speaks to Malvern students about ending homophobia together with Kevin Hennessy, left, and MacKenzie Herd.

At 21, Studer is a confident public speaker, a political science graduate, a former Malvern Collegiate school president and the co-founder of a media-savvy, campus-based NGO with 70 core volunteers, thousands of supporters and plans to create a new university chapter every year.

But the goal of that organization—ending homophobia in Canadian schools—would likely surprise Studer’s younger self. He might even laugh at it.

Before enrolling at Malvern, Studer took Grades 7 and 8 at an all-boys school, Upper Canada College, where he says “gay” and “fag” were go-to words for anything uncool or unpopular.

On April 10, Pink Day, Studer was standing on stage with two friends from University of Western Ontario and spoke about that time to a crowd of 120 Malvern students. He wore black jeans, a black hood and the hot pink baseball cap that is the trademark of Get REAL, a movement set on Reaching Equality at Last.

“You know, everyone was insecure going through puberty,” he said. “No one wanted to seem gay or whatever we perceive to be gay. And I was one of the worst.”

Pink Day has gone global since 2007, when two Grade 12 students in Cambridge, Nova Scotia bought 50 pink polo shirts for their schoolmates to show solidarity with a younger student who was threatened by homophobic bullies for wearing a pink shirt the day before.

Data on police-reported hate crime in Canada suggests that the youth-focus of the Pink Day movement is sound. Reports from 2010 suggest hate crimes peak among people ages 12 to 17. The vast majority of accused, 88 per cent, are male.

Hate crimes targeting sexuality made up 12 per cent of the 1,400 hate crimes reported in Canada in 2010, less than those targeting race or religion. But they are also the most likely to be violent, in most cases a minor assault. Suicide is also a concern among students who face social stigma for their sexuality or other reasons.

Such serious issues did come up during the Get REAL talk at Malvern, but they weren’t in the foreground. Studer and friends Kevin Hennessy and MacKenzie Herd (who also studied at Malvern) instead focused on what is likely the most common kind of homophobia in Canadian schools – using the word “gay” as a put-down in jokes or casual conversation.

Scott Phyper
Scott Phyper, centre, watches students race to the bottom of their cups during Malvern Collegiate’s Pink Day activities on April 10.

Scott Phyper is a Grade 10 student who helped organize Pink Day at Malvern on behalf of Malvern Students Against Sexual Stereotypes. He says the ‘that’s so gay’ put-down is still quite common, even among people who strongly support Pink Day’s message.

“It’s weird. I have friends who do it too,” he said. “They say ‘Oh, I don’t mean it in a bad way.’ I know you don’t mean it in a bad way, but psychologically it has a meaning.”

Having grown up in the Beach, Studer says most people his age and their parents strike him as open-minded, tolerant people.

“Maybe that speaks well for the Beaches, more than our three dog bakeries,” he joked. “I would hope so.”

But homophobic language persists. Some obvious sources are movies, TV shows and stand-up comics, Studer said, though he sees an improving trend there, noting the openly gay characters and actors on popular TV shows like Modern Family and How I Met Your Mother.

“It’s definitely shifting a little bit, and stand-up comedy’s also been really good for that,” Studer said. But there are still too many writers looking to get cheap laughs by alienating minority groups, he added.

On stage, Studer, Hennessy and Herd kept their speech low-key and full of personal stories like the ones that they and other university students shared in their ‘To My Grade 7 Self’ video.

That mix of fun and seriousness seemed well received at Malvern last week. It also helped during the first school talk that Get REAL gave in May of last year. Studer remembers how one student who had been snickering throughout the talk piped up at the end to ask if he and Kevin were a couple.

It was an obviously bratty question, but from the way the room went quiet, it was clear that a lot hung on how the speakers reacted.

Studer, who is straight, kind of laughed, looked at Kevin and said, “No, Kevin’s a good-looking guy, but we’re not together.”

The room breathed a sigh of relief, he said.

“I really think that showed in one moment the major difference, why we work and why adults doing this would not work.

“You can’t get rattled or get upset or get angry. If we’d done that, we’d have lost right there, before we even finished the presentation.”

Get REAL will be back in the Beach to present at Glen Ames public school in June. For updates and to watch Get REAL videos, visit

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