2011 Hero: Students Fighting for GSAs
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2011 Hero: Students Fighting for GSAs

Nominated for: inspirational advocacy in the face of institutional prejudice.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have had an influence on the city over the past twelve months. From December 12–23, the candidates for Mightiest and Meanest—and new this year, a reader’s write-in option! From December 26–29 you’ll be able to vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year, and we’ll reveal the results December 30.

Gay-straight alliances in Ontario became a hot topic in the press in early 2011 with the Halton Catholic District School Board’s January ban on GSAs. Sparking outrage, HCDSB chair Anne LeMay explained (and then quickly tried to explain away saying) that the schools also do not allow Nazi groups—another issue that does not fall “within the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

Students in Toronto and throughout the GTA involved in gay-straight alliances, along with students who actively support GSAs in schools without them, are heroes for fighting to provide support and community to queer students and their allies everywhere. The students’ refusal to accept the HCDSB’s ban and the board’s subsequent encouragement of student participation in groups called “By your SIDE (Safety, Inclusivity, Diversity and Equity)”—catch-all equity clubs—led to a province-wide momentum on campaigning against the GSA ban. The movement was particularly strong in the GTA, where students like Mississauga’s Leanne Iskander kept discussions of the ban and its implications alive in the media and in households across the region. In April, in response to both the ban and the backlash, the Toronto District School Board declared itself to be a gay-straight alliance, adding more weight to the movement. In addition to being activists, many of the students heroically (and importantly) are not anti-Catholic themselves and took to Facebook to disagree with anti-Catholic (albeit, well intentioned) sentiments in support of the GSAs. Eloquent, honest, and ambitious, the GSA students make us (almost) wish that we were still in high school.

Heroes don’t always meet with happy endingsm but the students of the GSAs have won some major battles; most recently, on November 30, Dalton McGuinty’s government ended the debate on GSAs in Ontario schools, mandating that GSAs were required in Ontario Catholic and public schools where students want one. The students have not yet won the war—the legislation requires boards to support student-led initiatives including “organizations that promote the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, including organizations with the name gay-straight alliance or another name.” The last three words of the sentence are controversial, with many insisting that the legislation provides the Ontario Catholic District School Boards with a loophole, reinforcing a ban on the word “gay.”

The momentum in Toronto that has grown over the past year and continues to grow is directly the result of the students who have kept the issues at the fore of local news by reaching out to the media and holding rallies and city events. Facing mighty adversaries such as religious institutions, intolerance, homophobia, and high school, the students of GSAs in Toronto and the rest of the GTA have persevered, refusing to be bullied into silence and working to make high school a more tolerable place to be—a commendable goal and an inspiration for Toronto’s LGBT community and its supporters.

CORRECTION: DECEMBER 16, 5:02 PM We originally wrote that Anne LeMay apologized for her remarks about GSAs. As has been pointed out to us by Xtra reporter Andrea Houston, LeMay’s remarks fell significantly short of an actual apology. We have amended this post accordingly.