How not to be a bystander to LGBTQ harassment

A preview of some tips on "queer bystander training" from a session at Saturday's shOUT conference on gender and sexuality awareness at UPEI.

'Be like, "Oh I haven't seen you in forever!" and get them out of that situation'

'You could approach the people in a really positive, pleasant way,' if you overhear an anti-LGBTQ comment, suggests Zak Court. (fizkes/Shutterstock)

"That's so gay."

How often have you heard this bandied about casually?

"What people are trying to say is 'that's so stupid,' or 'that's uncool,'" Zak Court says. "But if you step back and really process what's going on, they're taking an identity marker ... and equating that to something that's stupid. It's still a derogatory slur towards the gay community."

Court attempts to gently correct the commentor by telling them it bothers him (if it's a friend) or agreeing "that is stupid!" (if it's a stranger).

It leads to a community and a society where larger, more direct, blatant attacks are OK.— Zak Court

Court is offering a session on "queer bystander training" at Saturday's shOUT conference on gender and sexuality awareness, aimed at high school gay-straight alliance members from across P.E.I. He offers bystander training at UPEI and has adapted it to be queer-friendly for this session. 

Participants will learn how to be what Court calls "pro-social bystanders" who stand up for the queer community or intervene to help an LGBTQ person who may be in trouble.

Here are Court's top tips.

1. Safety first

"The bystander needs to think about their safety first," Court advises. "You can't help somebody if you're at risk as well." 

Zak Court is presenting a session on queer bystander training at Saturday's shOUT gender and sexuality awareness conference, being held at UPEI.

Intervening can be safer if you are with someone else to back you up, he said, such as friends or security staff. 

If alcohol is involved — like at a bar — situations "can blow up out of control pretty quickly," and Court advises calling in staff, bouncers or even police in extreme cases rather than stepping in personally.

2. Little things matter

It's important not to be a bystander in "seemingly benign" situations, in which people use anti-LGBTQ language or jokes, Court said. 

'You can't help somebody if you're at risk,' says Court — bystanders concerned for their safety could call for help. (s-ts/Shutterstock)

"It leads to a culture where if this is OK, if this little insult's OK or this offhand comment's OK, it leads to a community and a society where larger, more direct, blatant attacks are OK. And that leads to a community where you see assaults, you see discrimination." 

Court suggests that you speak up when you witness such "micro-aggressions" as long as you feel safe.

We talk about the example of overhearing ant-LGBTQ talk in a coffee shop.

"If you feel OK doing it, you could approach the people in a really positive, pleasant way or you could perhaps go to staff working in the store and say you heard something that makes you uncomfortable," he said. 

If you yourself identify as LGBTQ, standing up for yourself can be tricky, he said — that's why he hopes everyone will speak up.

Online, calling people out in comments sections rarely results in satisfaction, Court said.

"It can be a lot more effective to reach out directly," via direct message, he said, acknowledging "it doesn't go over as well with strangers, usually." However, he has done so successfully. 

3. Make it a family matter

Court would like to see bystander training kick in at home. 

If you need assistance getting out of a threatening situation, Court advises 'keep asking until you find someone who will help.' (1000 Words/Shutterstock)

"You think of the racist or maybe ignorant family members you might have," he said. If you see them only occasionally, it may be tempting to ignore them, he said. Talking to family can sometimes be more difficult than talking to strangers, he said, but you can intervene without causing family discord. 

If you see discriminatory posts on social media, you can report it to the site's administrators — Facebook will remove some posts, Court said. 

You can also privately message a family member directly. 

"Don't attack them, but just say 'Hey, you might not have thought that this is insulting, but it actually really bothers me,'" Court suggests. Resist name-calling (i.e. "you're ignorant") and tie in your comments to how it makes you feel. 

If you're across the holiday dinner table, Court suggests "Maybe pull them aside afterwards and be like 'Hey, what you said actually really hurt my feelings — I'd appreciate it if you didn't say stuff like that around me.'" That can sometimes be enough for your family member to rethink how they speak in future, he said.

4. Be mindful what YOU say

You could inadvertently be part of the problem! Be careful what you say, especially online where sharing jokes can seem harmless and sometimes anonymous. 

"It might not affect you directly, but it could have some pretty devastating effects to people who see what you post," Court said. 

5. Ask for help

If you see someone being harassed or threatened, you can intervene by approaching them and pretending you know them. 

'Never assume that somebody else is going to intervene,' says Court. Do so yourself, if it is safe. (1000 Words/Shutterstock)

"Be like 'Oh I haven't seen you in forever!' and get them out of that situation as best you can," Court suggests.  

Likewise, if you are the one being harassed, approach someone you know or who looks trustworthy and ask them quickly to pretend they know you. 

Court stands 6 feet 3 inches tall, and people have sought his help this way in a public situation like a bar.

"That's a tactic that's used by a lot of different groups in bars and around town," he said. 

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Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a bachelor of journalism (honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email