Tragedy inspires school project

For one group of graduating students from Penticton Secondary, leaving a legacy became a very colourful reality this week.

Jozsef Varga paints the red stripe of a rainbow crosswalk in front of Penticton Secondary. Varga and the fellow students who joined in the project on July 13

Jozsef Varga paints the red stripe of a rainbow crosswalk in front of Penticton Secondary. Varga and the fellow students who joined in the project on July 13

For one group of graduating students from Penticton Secondary School, leaving a legacy became a very colourful reality this week.

The school now sports two rainbow crosswalks leading from the parking area to the school doors. Jozsef Varga helped organize the event and was one of the first to arrive on July 13 as a small group gathered to paint the crosswalks.

Rainbow crosswalks started appearing in communities around North America last year. Vancouver has a permanent one as do Summerland and Kelowna, and Penticton has discussed it. They’re meant to demonstrate inclusiveness, and acceptance, particularly in regard to the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transgender, Questioning) community.

Varga said class discussions in the wake of the June shooting at a LGBTQ-friendly nightclub in Florida inspired them to create a legacy that would mark Penticton Secondary as a welcoming school.

“I’m gay,” he said. “After the Orlando tragedy, I came into Ms. (Lesley) Lacroix’s class the Monday morning and I was pretty shaken.”

Lacroix, who teaches history, said that led to a long class discussion about homophobia and related issues, resulting in a student-driven request for permission to paint the crosswalks as a way to mark the school as a welcoming community.

Varga said he hasn’t had many problems while at school.

“I hear ‘gay’ and ‘faggot’ being used sometimes, but I haven’t had anything directed at me,” said Varga.

Out in the city, however, is a different story, like during the grad celebrations, where Varga was insulted walking down a hallway.

“Someone questioned my manhood. I was wearing a princess tiara,” said Varga. But even on a regular day, Varga said he has to deal with bigotry.

“I have had people shout at me from their car,” said Varga. “I was holding hands with my boyfriend.”

Painting the crosswalks marks the school as a safe and welcoming place, Varga said, and he hopes that will filter out into the rest of the community.

Since this is a new project, no one is sure how long the paint will last on the crosswalks. A more permanent paint would have cost about $2,400 and lasted a decade, but Lacroix said they decided to go the less permanent route.

“This way it can be a project every year,” she said. That way, she said, it would be an ongoing reminder for the students to think about acceptance and inclusion.

This fall, the Okanagan Skaha School District board is expected to discuss the possibility of creating a policy to help protect the rights of LGBTQ students and staff.

Read more: Rainbow message