Five of the members of Rainbow Alliance, a proposed GSA at St. Joseph’s Catholic Secondary School, including founder Leanne Iskander (second from right).
Oliver Mathias is a grade 10 student at St. Francis Xavier, a Catholic high school in Mississauga. In his writing, he is thoughtful, curious in nature, and articulate. Like most 15-year-olds, he connects with friends through Facebook, has a Tumblr to share pictures of female Canadian artists like Emily Haines and Tegan and Sara, and when he’s bored in science class, he uses his smartphone to surf the internet. He’s also an out student trying to reconcile his religious faith—not with his sexual orientation, but with the actions and beliefs of those around him.
He wrote about his experience in a letter—he fell ill and couldn’t attend in person and so, charmingly, his friend Christopher read the words on his behalf—for the education forum “Sex Ed, GSAs and Religion in Publicly Funded Schools” held last Wednesday by activist organization Queer Ontario in honour of Day of Pink to protest homophobia, transphobia, and bullying.
Oliver’s letter provided a glimpse into his life as a queer teenager. He first came out to a boy who soon became his boyfriend. His school life was a mixture of threats and ignorance, but also of hope, as other students quietly came out to him. His home life was easier, with a supportive, loving, but confused mother (much worse off is his boyfriend, who gets called “faggot” at home). Oliver took on an activist role at his own school and at neighbouring Catholic high school St. Joseph’s, where there is a struggle to legitimize a gay-straight alliance. “I didn’t want people to get death threats or feel ashamed like I and many other queer students had, too. Homophobia at my school had to stop with me,” Oliver wrote.
At St. Joseph’s Catholic Secondary School, there has been a battle between administrators and student activists over making a proposed gay-straight alliance, called “Rainbow Alliance,” official. “Many of the students involved in the GSA fight do not have family support, and the school is the one place where they are surrounded by friends and should be comfortable,” said student Taechun Menns at the forum. “But pushing in the hallways, ridicule for reading articles that support our fight, and negative, judgmental words have made our school yet another place where we feel out of place.” The main conflict stems from a document, entitled “Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students of Same-Sex Orientation,” that dictates the stance of Catholic school boards and considers homosexuality “immoral.”
Meagan Smith speaks at the Day of Pink. Students created rainbow bracelets to wear in solidarity at the forum.
The problem is systemic across Ontario. The Halton Catholic District School Board had gone further than the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board (which governs St. Joseph’s) in outright banning gay-straight alliances: “Gay-straight alliances are banned because they are not within the teachings of the Catholic Church,” stated chair Alice Anne LeMay in an interview with Xtra. (LeMay also provided this justification: “We don’t have Nazi groups either.”) Under media scrutiny, the HCDSB has since done away with the ban, but still refuses to allow any student group with the word “gay” in its name.
What’s confusing about the situation is the understanding by the Catholic school boards that queer students face a more difficult time at school. From “Ontario’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy” [PDF], a document from the province outlining ways to make the school environment more welcoming for all students, it notes that the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops recognized “suicide rates among homosexual students are higher than among their heterosexual peers” and stated that the school should be a safe, positive space for all students. However, instead of allowing GSAs, there has been a push for catch-all groups that deal with all forms of inequality and discrimination, such as ethnic minorities and students with disabilities—with an additional caveat: no mention of homosexuality on any promotional materials, such as flyers and posters.
This umbrella model, then, appears to rob queer students of any agency. The need for a dedicated space for LGBTQ issues is affirmed by the fact that these students are treated differently than others who face discrimination. For example, Leanne Iskander, the founder of Rainbow Alliance, notes that included in the education materials passed on to her was a printout from the website for Courage International, an organization that adopts the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous model to “minister to those with same-sex attractions” and recommends lifelong abstinence for queers. It is unlikely that a similar program exists for ethnic minorites or those with disabilities. A GSA, Iskander said, was a chance to openly discuss queer issues. However, even with the support of nearly two dozen students and a faculty anchor, she has been denied official status.
MPP Rosario Marchese (Trinity-Spadina) flanked by empty seats reserved for no-show MPPs Leona Dombrowsky and Elizabeth Witmer.
The story in Ontario’s public schools couldn’t be more different. That’s not to say that homophobia doesn’t exist in public schools, nor that more education isn’t needed, but unlike at the Catholic school board, there isn’t a systemic disapproval toward queers and GSAs. As we reported recently, members of the Toronto District School Board, in an act of solidarity, “unanimously passed a motion declaring the Board itself to be a Gay-Straight Alliance.”
All publicly funded schools must follow Ministry of Education guidelines on equality and inclusiveness, including in the area of sexual education. However, in this fight to allow clubs like GSAs that help fight discrimination and create safe spaces for students regardless of gender or sexual orientation, the provincial government has been eerily inactive. Xtra has requested an interview with Leona Dombrowsky, and after 100 days she has not spoken out on the issue. (Dombrowsky was also invited to the educational forum and did not show. The only MPP who attended was Rosario Marchese (Trinity-Spadina), who shared the advice that constant, persistent pressure on politicians is the best tactic for effecting change regarding GSAs and the sex education curriculum in Ontario. Change may be on the way, however: Casey Oraa, chair for Queer Ontario’s Political Action Committee, noted bumping into Premier Dalton McGuinty on Sunday in a tweet, and on the subject of GSAs the premier said “a lot is happening” and provided a timeline of “the next two weeks.”
For the students at St. Joseph’s, it couldn’t come soon enough. Asking for a GSA has only made the teenagers more visible to bullying, both online (through services like Facebook, Tumblr, and Formspring) and in school, but they continue to fight. “There is a great need for an environment within the school in which students are free to speak their minds and discuss with others—to know that they are not alone, they are not sick, they cannot pray the gay away, and God does not hate them,” said student Meagan Smith on Wednesday.
The high school experience is tough as it is, coming out further complicates it, and adding activism on top of that is simply more pressure than most students will ever face. Yet, even with the weight on these students’ shoulders, they carry a positive attitude. “We believe love is more important than what’s between your legs, who you go home to at night, and what gender you love and care about,” declared Megan Baranowski. The students aren’t rejecting their faith, either: on the Facebook group for the GSA, when a few well-intentioned but ultimately anti-Catholic comments were posted, Menns explained that some members of the GSA remained Catholic and politely asked that the rhetoric be toned down, before capping it off with a smiley-face emoticon.
Photos by Dean Bradley/Torontoist