Commentary  No Place for Queer Students

Why I’m Dropping Out of McGill School of Social Work

content warning: homophobia, transphobia, racism

I just dropped out of the McGill School of Social Work and it was one of the easiest decisions I have ever had to make. Granted, it had taken a great deal of time, resources, and energy to apply to the Master of Social Work program, move my entire life to Montreal, and spend a whole semester doing the program. For me, however, none of the time, energy, or resources spent justified staying in a program that is at best severely outdated, and at worst, oppressive and harmful.

In retrospect, I should have done more research. It wasn’t until after I started the program that I found out that the McGill School of Social Work had only received conditional accreditation in 2012 by the Canadian Association for Social Work Education (CASWE) due in part to its inadequate level of commitment to teaching concepts of social justice and anti- oppressive practice. Not only did they almost lose their accreditation due to this inadequacy, but upon further research, I discovered a human rights complaint was filed by a student against the school. As I began to scratch the surface of this institution, I started to see how deep these problems went.

I just dropped out of the McGill School of Social Work and it was one of the easiest decisions I have ever had to make.

Thinking back, I don’t know how it wasn’t a red flag to me that I didn’t personally know anyone who went to McGill’s Social Work School. Before attending McGill’s social work program, I was under the impression that social work was a pretty queer field, as many of my friends who are social workers are also queer. And yet, as I arrived at the Qualifying Year orientation this past August, I began to realize how deeply homogenous the program truly was. I felt as though I was stepping into a factory run by straight, nice, white ladies intent on producing straight, nice, white lady social workers. When my friends from home texted me to ask how my orientation was going, my response was a single photo I took during a get-to-know-each- other orientation activity involving a yarn ball, which featured an entire row of fairly identical white women meekly holding onto their part of the string. Was this the life I was signing up for? Admittedly, I did not at all expect social work school would be brimming with radical hope. However, I didn’t know to what extent the program would be, as another friend in the school puts it, “amazingly bad.”

During my first week of school I was lucky to have been invited to a small gathering for McGill trans and queer social work students. I won’t forget the desperation in the faces of new friends I made during that gathering. I remember how we talked about the desire to alleviate mental unwellness in the queer and trans community that drew us to social work in the first place, and yet how toxic it was for queer students to navigate a school that was not meant for them at all. I began to hear harrowing stories of daily experiences of my peers being misgendered, disrespected, and tokenized. I learned about (and later personally experienced) how over and over again the onus is put on the students who are different to explain their differentness. I learned that there are faculty and staff in the school who were working against the implementation of gender-neutral bathrooms in the school last year, actively undermining the safety of trans students. “It will take me a long, long time to recover from this program,” my new friend told me, “get out now, get out while you can.”

I began to hear harrowing stories of daily experiences of my peers being misgendered, disrespected, and tokenized.

One queer friend, who had already graduated from the School of Social Work, mentioned to me that they got through it by dissociating most of the time. Another queer friend, who is still there, told me that not a week goes by where they don’t think about dropping out.

In class, I felt as though I were stuck inside a black and white television set reality and only I knew that multi-coloured television existed. What struck me was the overwhelming sense of disempowerment among my classmates and even among the professors. Each class, the take- away message seemed to be, “we are stuck in a bad system and can’t do anything about it.” It seemed to me there was no shared understanding among faculty about how grassroots community empowerment and social movements work. Instead, people who had been exploited by capitalist systems were put under the magnifying glass to be considered as “case studies,” “clients,” and “populations” to be managed and controlled. This centering of straight, white, middle and upper class women’s experiences and the constant othering and pathologizing contributes to the ongoing silencing and violence marginalized people are subject to on a daily basis.

What struck me was the overwhelming sense of disempowerment among my classmates and even among the professors.

So, what were we learning in this program, and why did it feel as one-dimensional as the floor, and as bleak as the fluorescent lights we were sitting under? To be fair, my experience in the program was not entirely bad. I was quite fortunate to be placed for my internship at Project 10, a fabulous local queer youth organization, and there were a few professors who were very supportive and understanding. Those saving graces, however, were ultimately not enough to keep me committed to a dismal and outdated program. With very little ambivalence, I heeded the advice of my new friend and started to plan my departure from the program. It was only once I made the decision to leave that my mental health regained a sense of stability and the rage and anxiety I was experiencing began to subside.

In my email to the administration, which I also sent to the president of the school who is unsurprisingly one of few men on faculty, I explained that of the prime reasons I was leaving was that I felt alienated as one of the very few queer students in the Qualifying Year program. I mentioned that I didn’t see many efforts being made on the part of the school to center the needs and voices of queer students, which I knew from my own experience and also by hearing from other marginalized queer students and especially trans students who felt similarly. I also mentioned how upsetting it was to me that there are so few students and faculty of colour which reflects quite poorly on the School of Social Work and is an indication of deep- seated problems around lack of accessibility and lack of adequately anti-oppressive curricular content and school culture. I ended my email by stating that it is important to me to invest my time and money into an education that not only embodies my values for social justice but is also structured to meet the challenges of our time.

In 2012, the Racialized Students Network (RSN) — a group that was identified by the McGill School of Social Work as a major stakeholder in a self-study it conducted— submitted a report to the CASWE accreditation site visitors that cited “a deeply felt need for change around race relations in the School.” It is 2018. Have things changed? Have they changed enough? While I alone cannot answer these questions, my guess is no. What is concerning is that I don’t think the school itself even knows where to start to address these issues, which is why it has been throwing bandaid tokenizing “solutions” at gaping wounds for years.

A great deal of work needs to happen within the school before it can offer a safe environment for learning.

A great deal of work needs to happen within the school before it can offer a safe environment for learning. I sincerely hope that greater efforts will be made by the McGill School of Social Work to address the inequity in the school and provide an education of a caliber fit for the 21st century. Amidst all of this, I hold deep admiration and respect for those marginalized people within the school, both staff and students, who are staying and fighting every day for their voices to be heard. I know how hard it can be to give feedback in a context where there are homophobic and racist professors and where trans- exclusionary feminism is being taught. I know it is often not safe to speak out, and that at the heart of oppression lies the burden of having to prove its existence, again and again and again. I know that many fellow queer students in the McGill School of Social Work feel ostracized and harassed, and I am humbled by all the work they have had to do just to stay afloat. Although I have yet to get a response from the president to my email, I have a lot of hope in the students who are fighting the good fight, and I am excited by the game-changing prospects of the upcoming internship strike.