Even though they can’t call their anti-bullying group a gay-straight alliance, students at one Brampton Catholic school say the group they've spent months fighting to keep alive is already changing attitudes.
One member went home after the first Open Arms meeting last November and came out to her parents, says Allison Risch, a member of the group. “She was so inspired she told her parents when she got home. She felt like she had the support to do that.”
Risch, a 17-year-old student at Holy Name of Mary Catholic Secondary School, an all-girls' school in Brampton, says this proves her school needs a group exclusively dedicated to queer issues, something she says students were originally promised.
When Risch first submitted the proposal for a GSA, she says, principal Silvana Gos was supportive of a group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans issues. “At the time, she agreed, saying, ‘That’s great. We really need that at our school,’” Risch claims.
But she says teachers ripped the group’s posters off the school walls about 20 minutes after students taped them up.
The posters — which depicted a rainbow and students holding hands — were removed on the principal’s orders, she claims.
“Teachers absolutely freaked out,” she says. “They said the Pride flag had too many sexual connotations.”
She says Gos backpedalled after the posters went up.
“She told us we misunderstood, and it was never supposed to be an LGBT-focused group. She told us the group is a general anti-bullying club, but we never ever discussed that at our meeting. We made it very clear in our proposal that we wanted an LGBT-focused group.”
Risch didn’t back down, even when Gos and the school’s chaplain, Paul Devine, tried to put words in her mouth, she says. “They tried to make it sound like I was asking for a general equity group. When I was standing my ground, they kept trying to turn it around and convince me that if the group only focuses on one issue I was sexist and racist.”
Gos tells Xtra she never asked to have posters torn down. “I don’t know what poster she’s referring to,” she says, also claiming that she never agreed to allow an LGBT support club.
Gos says the school has provided students the type of club specified by the bishops in “Respecting Differences,” the guidelines released last month by Ontario’s Catholic teachers.
“We have what the board requires. We are following the mandate of the board. Our group is called Open Arms,” she says.
Risch says the group members wanted to call themselves the Rainbow Alliance, but that was rejected because school staff said rainbows are “too political.”
She says the group’s first meeting was held in November. It meets biweekly, always chaperoned by Devine, and there are about 15 students who share personal stories or debate news.
“It was difficult in the beginning because our principal was insisting on coming to the meetings. That was problematic because everyone was nervous and intimidated,” she says. “When we were first starting we were warned if we went to the media we would lose the chaplain’s support, teacher support and principal support.”
For a time, four or five administration officials from the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board attended meetings, she says. “None of the students were talking because no one really felt comfortable.”
But she says that over a short time the group has changed attitudes in the school dramatically. Group members walk the halls feeling proud because they have supportive friends. “It’s definitely made people feel a lot better, safer, just having the group. People say they are a lot more comfortable.”
Risch says she doesn’t have it as easy at home, which is one reason she thinks school GSAs are so important. Her dad knows she is trying to start a queer group at school, but he’s not taking much interest in it. Her mom is “pretty homophobic,” so she’s intentionally kept in the dark.
At school, the bullying can get pretty bad, she says, mostly consisting of slurs and verbal harassment from other students. “I heard one girl saying, ‘We don’t want these gay kids in our school.’”
One group member was outed to her parents by another student. “It was a bad experience,” says Risch, who says she will continue fighting for a GSA rather than a general equity group. “This group is important to us.”