A group of religious parents will protest the Accepting Schools Act, Bill 13, at Queen's Park March 29. Across the lawn, a group of queer activists will also protest, calling on the government to implement the bill, which would mandate gay support groups in all publicly funded schools.
Inside the legislature, debate about the bill is scheduled to continue.
Members of conservative religious group Concerned Catholic Parents distributed a news release with the list of speakers who will attend its protest. These include Charles McVety, president of Canada Christian College; Dominic Tse, senior pastor at North York Chinese Community Church; Campaign Life Coalition's Jack Fonseca; Family Coalition Party leader Phil Lees; and Alphonse de Valk, the editor of Catholic Insight magazine.
The counter-protest has also been coordinated and queer activists have been alerted. Find details here.
Organizer and Trans Lobby Group activist Christin Milloy says she is standing in solidarity with the students and those supporting Bill 13. "It doesn't matter if it's just me and two other people standing on the sidelines. Just because there's more of them doesn't mean they're right," she says.
Both demonstrations are set to start at 2pm.
At Queen's Park on March 26, Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod, the Conservatives' education critic, said Bill 13 should not be supported. MacLeod doesn't think homophobia should be mentioned explicitly in any anti-bullying legislation. She says the bill should be "all-encompassing" of all forms of bullying.
This position contradicts what lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans youth have been asking for: specific support, such as gay-straight alliances (GSAs).
MacLeod wants to see MPPs throw their support behind Bill 14, Conservative MPP Elizabeth Witmer's anti-bullying bill.
"Bill 13 is flawed," MacLeod said. "There are groups pointing out the flaws in Bill 13."
MacLeod also said she expects both Bill 13 and 14 will be merged in committee.
"Sexual orientation and gender are not the only reasons kids are bullied at school," she said.
According to studies by EGALE, 70 percent of youth face daily bullying, the brunt of this experienced by young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer. Moreover, 75 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual students and 95 percent of trans students say they feel unsafe at school, compared to 20 percent of straight students.
NDP MPP and education critic Peter Tabuns highlighted the importance of providing specific supports to at-risk queer youth.
"Allowing students in schools, under the sanction of the administration, to set up clubs says to all students that those students deserve respect; that the authorities in charge of the schools and the education system believe that those students deserve respect," Tabuns said. "Allowing students in schools to set up support networks gives them the security of being together and reduces the isolation that we all know can be, literally, deadly.
"By simply existing, GSAs present students 'with the idea that LGBTQ identities have a place in the school, and society at large. Directly engaging LGBTQ youth and their allies within school, as well as those who are ambivalent regarding those themes, is an excellent means towards addressing school climate, isolation and promoting social connectedness.”
Preparing for a GSA showdown at Queen's Park
March 25 - While politicians and religious leaders prepare to duke it out at Queen’s Park this week, Catholic students are caught in the middle, vowing to continue to fight for their right to start gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in their schools.
If passed, the Liberals' new anti-bullying legislation, the Accepting Schools Act (Bill 13), will make it law that schools establish welcoming environments for queer youth and provide supports if requested by students. The second reading debate continues at Queen’s Park on March 26.
Mississauga Catholic school students Leanne Iskander and Christopher Mckerracher and Peterborough Catholic school student Trevor James held a press conference at Queen's Park on March 21; they declared that students in Catholic schools want GSAs, not "respecting difference" groups, the name that Catholic bishops have chosen for schools’ general anti-bullying clubs.
“These guidelines are very restricting,” Iskander says. “They are definitely not what we wanted.”
The respecting-difference guidelines are the response by Catholic bishops to repeated demands from students all over Ontario that they be allowed to start GSAs, which remain prohibited in Catholic schools. The guidelines allow students to set up general anti-bullying groups — but under no circumstance can they be called GSAs, says Nancy Kirby, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association.
James, who attends St Peter’s Secondary School in Peterborough, is the latest student to join the GSA movement.
Under the bishops’ guidelines, James says, queer students in his Catholic school are being stifled and bullied. “Kids just want a safe place to go. Why do Catholic schools have to be so different?”
Iskander, Mckerracher and James are urging everyone to support Bill 13 and to support amendments to the bill that would tighten up the language to give students the power to name the groups as they wish.
Bill 13 would legally require school boards to approve student-led groups “with the name gay-straight alliance or another name.” For Catholic trustees, the words "or another name" mean that Catholic boards can overrule students and force them to rename the groups, even if they specifically request GSAs. "We can have other names," Kirby says pointedly. “We will ask that those words remain in the act. We are talking about minors. We teach chastity. I don’t think [Catholic schools] need GSAs.”
Mckerracher says the language has to be tightened so there is no loophole left open for interpretation by Catholic administrators.
"LGBTQ youth are being told every day that who they are is inappropriate and shameful," Mckerracher says, quoting a friend. "I want Bill 13 to send a clear message to teachers, students and school boards that if a student wants to run a gay-straight alliance, they should legally be entitled to it."
NDP MPP and education critic Peter Tabuns (Toronto-Danforth) says his party is considering changes to the bill to do just that. “That will allow students to determine the name of the group. We also think [Education Minister Laurel Broten] should closely monitor the implementation of the bill in schools.”
In the meantime, James is reluctantly planning to start a respecting-difference group at his school as soon as possible. “Gay, lesbian, trans and queer students at my school need support now.”
James says students, including himself, have tried to start a GSA in the past but have repeatedly been denied. "I was told that a GSA would be inappropriate and unfair. Right now, I simply want a safe group for people."
A respecting-difference group means James can't put up a rainbow flag, display information on queer issues, offer pamphlets on safe sex, hand out condoms or hold anti-homophobia events, which, under the guidelines, are all considered activism. "The respecting-difference guidelines prohibit such activities," James says.
MPP Cheri DiNovo (Parkdale–High Park) says bullying and queer youth suicide is a pervasive problem that is escalating at an alarming rate in all schools. GSAs help to save lives.
"We know what students need and what kind of group is best for us," Mckerracher says. "GSAs provide a sense of belonging for LGBTQ students who are otherwise isolated and unaccepted everywhere else."
Experts agree. Studies show that GSAs make schools more welcoming, accepting and safe places for all students. The clubs have been found to prevent bullying, depression and suicide. Also, students involved in GSAs generally have higher grades.
But some Catholic parents continue to disagree. There is a growing chorus of religious groups fighting against Bill 13.
A rally is planned for March 29 from 2pm to 3pm at Queen's Park, organized by Concerned Catholic Parents of Ontario. Their flyer states, “The McGuinty government has rejected the Ontario Catholic Bishop’s [sic] position (Respecting Differences [sic]) as well as the moral teachings of other faith communities to teach human sexuality according to their own faith values. We want parental and religious rights restored for all.”
Another group, Family Freedom, has started a petition and released a video, in which they predominantly interview people of colour.
Dubbed “Lesbian Gay curriculum in Ontario to be mandatory for Kindies and up,” the video features an off-screen interviewer telling people that to “children as young as three years old, gay, lesbian and gender topics will be taught.” Some of the parents appear horrified and disgusted at the idea.
In February, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada released a paper titled “Ontario’s Bill 13, The Accepting Schools Act, and Anti-Bullying Initiatives: What You Need To Know.” It states that Bill 13 violates the rights of Catholic schools by “requiring them to engage in activities that are inconsistent with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Follow Xtra reporter Andrea Houston on Twitter at @dreahouston.