Lindsay Willow is not who you think she is. For one thing, she’s not a jock; she’s a gym teacher, in part because she couldn’t imagine being stuck in a classroom all day. She’s a lesbian too. And she didn’t molest 17-year old Nadia Ibrahim, although that was the misguided allegation of John Orlando in September 2000—“Two seconds that changed my entire life,” says Willow. Orlando is the teacher against whom she filed, and subsequently won, a discrimination complaint that also named then Halifax West High School vice principal Gordon Young and her employer, the Halifax Regional School Board.
But you already knew all that—if you watched the progress of her precedent-setting human rights tribunal last winter. In May, Willow’s name was cleared in a decision by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission’s Walter Thompson and she was awarded $27,375 as compensation for being discriminated against on the basis of perceived sexual orientation. It’s less than a third of what the case cost her—in dollars.
Willow also paid for her victory in stress: She has fresh acne scars to prove it, she says. She’s lost weight and sleep. She says she feels 15 years older instead of six. She got Missionary Bible Church hate-mail—she gave it to the police. She’s now paranoid, she says, illustrating her point with several incidents, like this one: On prom night, she backed out of the washroom after seeing a female teenager throw up and asked a straight female teacher to go in and help the student. She doesn’t quite trust people.
On a warm day the week AFTER SCHOOL locked its doors for the summer, she’s sitting in a south-end Halifax cafe wearing a pale pink ball cap, a white tank top and shorts. As someone who’s been burned by her employer, Willow projects an uncommon level of purity, not spite: She smiles warmly and speaks directly about the toll her case has taken on her.
She grew up in Fairvale, New Brunswick, the only girl in a blended family that also included six boys. When she came out to her guidance counsellor in high school, she was told she needed counselling. “I realize now how damaging that was,” she says, cringing. A few years later, when she came out to her mother, a lawyer, Barbara Stanley told her daughter she hoped she didn’t become a “poster girl” for gay rights.
Was it a premonition? Willow calls her recent human rights battle her “fate.”
She decided to become a teacher after reading a student essay in a newspaper about the impact of a teacher on the student’s life because she wanted to have that kind of influence.
Until she sued the Halifax Regional School Board, Willow was like most other gay teachers: She wasn’t even out to her students, never mind the rest of the world. She recalls, “I was the sort of person who would insert ‘they’ for ‘her’ when talking about my girlfriend.”
But she’s savvy: She says she wore suits and struggled to remain attentive during the long tribunal days. As she puts it, “I role-played myself.” She learned from a reporter’s description of Gordon Young gazing absently out the window during much of the testimony.
In fact, she says whenever she lost perspective on how well inquiry testimony was going, she regrouped by reading the news. She quotes from an editorial that called Young “Teflon man” because he has neither apologized nor been penalized by the school board, even though the tribunal found him responsible for “perpetuating the effect” of John Orlando’s allegation by not quashing it.
Surprisingly, Willow says her victory didn’t happen just when she won her case— “There were people who told me I would never win against Gordon Young. And it’s partly true”—but it started when she won the right to an inquiry. That was after a failed attempt at mediation through the Commission, during which board reps refused to apologize. Ultimately, she got an apology from the school board, one ordered up by Thompson.
She says she’s probably going to sue the school board—she’ll decide in September. It would be a further onerous financial burden: Even after receiving $4,000 in donations on top of the award, legal bills have left her almost $70,000 in the hole. No gay and lesbian advocacy groups would fund her legal defence. Not the national advocacy organization Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere (EGALE) and not the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project because they told her it’s not their role.
And she’s angry that activists have picked same sex marriage as their cause célèbre when there are still more basic rights to win, like employment free from sex discrimination.
“I do think the biggest stereotype against us is as a sexual predator,” suggests Willow. “We think if we don’t say it, then people won’t think it. But they think it.” She says she had to legally confront the rumours that circulated around her for the same reason that she spurns the board’s diversity survey, introduced just days after the decision—and derided in the media as extremely ill-timed. In their survey, the board requests that teachers divulge their sexual orientation.
This school board “has no idea—it took them one-and-a-half years to make , hundreds of thousands of dollars to process it,” Willow says, incredulous. “And if teachers witness me having to go through this, why would anyone say that’s OK? They’re scared—I’m still scared.”
What she supports is a LGBT—that’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered—caucus as part of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. One exists in BC, where Willow has been garnering some of her support. But she says NSTU rules require that a caucus have 100 members, half of whom are willing to sign their names. Willow says she knows 100 LGBT teachers in Halifax, but only eight are willing to go public.
Respect is something Willow never begrudges teenagers: “There’s no fluff. The gay youth today—my god, they’re brave. A shining example of what you have to do to be happy.” Eight of those teens established Gay Straight Alliance at The West, a project that she says she helped along during the early days of the Commission’s investigation. “I decided I had to stop being scared,” she recalls. “But I kept the case a secret in the beginning; all I wanted then was an apology.” She says most of her support was from that group, which unlike the flightless teachers’ group is now 50 strong.
It’s an irony of this story and other stories like it—such as those of Nova Scotia’s Eric Smith and Alberta’s Delwin Vriend, two gay teachers who lost their jobs in the 1990s—that the accusations stem not from the school’s students but from overzealous, misguided adults among the administration. Neither Smith nor Vriend went through human rights tribunals—Vriend successfully took the Province of Alberta even further, to the Supreme Court of Canada—and neither one got their teaching jobs back. But their cases resulted in sexual orientation being incorporated into the list of protected rights in their respective provinces. This ultimately resulted in the employment protections that Canadian lesbians and gay men have in 2006.
Some of Willow’s most profound support came from Nadia Ibrahim, the girl she was accused of molesting: “She didn’t even know me as a person,” says Willow, still clearly impressed. Ibrahim’s integrity was recognized in Thompson’s decision, when he awarded her $2,500 as acknowledgement that she was treated like a “dupe” rather than a mature 17-year-old student just helping the gym teacher put things away. Willow says Ibrahim, who just graduated with her Bachelor of Education from the Université Sainte-Anne, is one of the school board’s newest employees: She’ll be teaching this fall at Cornwallis Junior High.
There are a few more things you probably don’t know about the 33-year-old Grand Marshal of this Saturday’s Halifax Pride parade, who testified for 14 hours at the hearing and whose journal—which she kept at the advice of her mother—was part of the evidence. For instance, she wants to have a child soon with her partner, Ruth Wilkins, without whom she says, “I would have cracked”—it’s a dream deferred by the legal limbo Willow’s been in since she approached the Commission in 2001.
“These were supposed to be my yuppie years,” laments Willow. “I sold my house in Mahone Bay and we bought one in Martins River. I sold my new car and bought a $1,000 beater.”
She’s toying with the idea of writing a guidebook for people out to defeat sex discrimination, filled with common sense tips on stuff like keeping a journal.
The last Friday of June was also the day she said goodbye to The West, the school where she started her career. This 10-year veteran—probably no other young teacher deserves the title like Willow does—decided to put everything that’s there behind her. In September, the gym at Sir John A. Macdonald High School in Tantallon will be home.
“I need to stop saying the words ‘Halifax West’—I need an opportunity to be in a new space.” She says she couldn’t leave until now, despite the advice of her union: “I wanted to prove the point that the harassed person should not be the one to leave—that went against everything I was trying to fight.”
Lindsay Willow has a medicine wheel tattooed around her right forearm and, on that same shoulder, a crow flying skyward. She got both when she wasn’t much older than her students. Nurturing, balance, spontaneity, magic. Almost 15 years later, they still symbolize these things to her.
“People always ask me, ‘What are you going to do now?’ And I say, ‘What are you going to do now?’”
Halifax Pride parade, Saturday, July 21, 1:30pm, corner of brunswick and maitland. See our events listings on page 47 or visit www.halifaxpride.com for parade details.
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r-e-s-p-e-c-t for this article
This is hands down my favourite christmas special of all time.
Stuffing pancakes? Who's been smoking meth? They all seem rather disgusting to me.