The refusal comes in the form of a statement on the board’s website, reinforcing a January 14 letter from the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario, saying GSAs are only “one option” to ensure equity in schools. Only a general "umbrella" equity group is permitted.
“It is our practice, however, to frame discussions, such as those identified above, under the umbrella of a broader community focus on equity and diversity, and through a Catholic lens,” states education director John Kostoff.
The letter also says the “equity group” will be moderated by a faculty advisor and chaplaincy team and will include a “Catholic perspective” as part of the discussions. “The name of this group must be respectful of, and in alignment with, our Catholic perspective,” he states.
No one at the board was available for comment.
On March 28, St. Joe’s student Leanne Iskander, 16, posted the students’ proposal for a “Rainbow Alliance” on the group’s Facebook page. Her stated objective: “I as well as many other students at St Joseph Secondary School would like to propose the creation of a group or club at our school that caters to the needs of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight ally students in our school community.”
Noa Mendelsohn-Aviv, Canadian Civil Liberties Association's equality program director, applauds the students’ proposal, calling it “articulate and professional.” She says the students have the right to form gay-positive groups that deal specifically with gay, lesbian and trans issues.
By denying the students a gay-positive group that specifically tackles gay, lesbian and trans issues, the board is violating the students’ constitutional rights, she says. “Creating an equality group while still banning a gay group is contradictory. There is no reason both groups can’t exist in the same school. There is no reason the board can justify the ongoing ban of GSAs.”
The letter repeats premier Dalton McGuinty’s statement during question period March 21, stating, “we are in complete compliance with the province’s legislation.”
“This doesn’t change the fact students should be prevented from forming gay-positive groups,” says Mendelsohn-Aviv. “The Canadian Charter provides them the right to form these groups.”
The letter also states that training materials for staff and educators involved in the new “equity groups” includes Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students with Same Sex Orientation.
“From what I read in the Pastoral Guidelines the board does intend to discriminate against LGBT students,” says Mendelsohn-Aviv. “Even general equality groups would not actually be equitable for these students who need it the most and are calling for it.”
Casey Oraa, chair of the political action committee for Queer Ontario (QO), calls the statement "disappointing yet expected."
"It's very interesting that they quoted premier McGuinty," he says. "It's interesting an unfortunate. The fact they are comfortable enough to put it in the letter says they believe they have the support of the province and the [education] ministry. The premier and the board's education director chose to interpret the policy in a way that continues to discriminate against these kids."
MARCH 26 - While more than 100 students filled the hallway at St Joseph Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga, demanding a gay-straight alliance (GSA), the principal drew an umbrella on the board inside a classroom, illustrating the type of club permitted in a Catholic school.
“I had to turn people away, so many showed up,” says Leanne Iskander, 16, a coy smile cracking her normally serious face. Iskander founded the GSA, but it has been denied official status by her principal, Frances Jacques.
Hoping to lend support, an Xtra reporter; Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association's (CCLA) equality program; and Casey Oraa, chair of the political action committee for Queer Ontario (QO) jumped in a car March 25 and drove to the suburbs to join the first St Joe’s GSA meeting permitted on school property since Iskander went public to Xtra on March 16.
Inside the school, Iskander says, the group got right down to business. They drafted a proposal, including a list of objectives, possible names and reasons why a GSA is important for fighting homophobia.
About three quarters in, Jacques “kinda took over the meeting,” Iskander says. A child and youth worker also joined the principal. “She just started talking. Then she drew an umbrella on the blackboard with different social justice causes underneath, like people with disabilities, racism, an umbrella group with focus groups.”
Iskander and fellow group member Taechun Menns, 16, put out the call for support after creating a public Facebook page to mobilize fellow students. Support has come from parents, journalists, students, teachers, activists and community groups from all across Canada. Students from another neighbouring Catholic school also came to the meeting.
Xtra was not allowed on school property (neither was QO or the CCLA). So, after the meeting wrapped up, five students met the Toronto supporters at a nearby restaurant. One student, Karl Britto, 15, asks Xtra not to reveal the name of the other school in fear the students might become the target of bullying: “It’s a very homophobic school. I’ve had basketballs thrown at me.” Students have tried twice, unsuccessfully, to start a GSA at their school, he says.
While munching on cookies at the restaurant, the students tell Xtra they feel strongly that the group should be recognizable as a GSA and the discussions should focus on gay, lesbian and trans issues.
“Leanne asked the principal at the end of the meeting if we could have a GSA. She said we could just have these focus groups,” says a disillusioned Anthony Costanza, 16.
“Were not going to stop! People in this group are gay. Why can’t we call it what it is?” pipes up Meagan Smith, a spunky 16-year-old St Joe’s student, who cheers on Iskander while quoting Harvey Milk. “An equity group is not what we want. That’s not what we’re trying to achieve.”
Iskander says that Jacques also told the students at the meeting that the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board education director, John Kostoff, plans to write a letter on Monday stating the board’s position. “[Jacques] said all groups have to reflect the Catholic perspective,” she says, adding, “or you just shouldn’t be here as students.”
“Is there a Catholic lens for the video game club? Or the chess club?” Iskander asks.
On the topic of names for the club, a few ideas were thrown out. “Walk With Me,” she says, adding, “that’s the name on the cover of one of our religion textbooks.”
The students chuckle at some of the other suggestions: “Open Arms, Jellybeans (flavoured), Straight But Not Narrow. I think the name should be LGBT,” Iskander says. “They want it to be Catholic.”
There were no Grade 9 students at the meeting, Iskander says. She points out that the name is particularly important so that new students can find the club.
The principal also told the group that she’s had “an interesting week” since the media got involved. “She said all the attention made it clear to her GSAs are an important issue,” Iskander says.
Clever beyond her years, Iskander says she feels unsatisfied with Premier Dalton McGuinty’s recent statement on GSAs. “He didn’t really say anything.” For her, it’s a clear-cut case of discrimination.
Much of the discrimination comes from the Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students of Same-Sex Orientation, the primary document for instructing school administrators and teachers on homosexuality. It reads that "gay" is not an identity, gay sex is “immoral” and gay people ought to live a life of “chastity.” Copies can be easily found around the school for teachers' reference, says a St Joe’s teacher, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his job.
When Iskander was originally denied the group, Jacques told the students that a GSA is “premature” for their age, and the school will work toward a “pastoral solution.” At a staff meeting, Jacques told teachers to offer gay, lesbian and trans students “Catholic supports” if anyone asks for a GSA. Then she handed out pamphlets for Courage.
Courage International “ministers to those with same-sex attractions" and counsels gay people “to abstain from acting on their sexual desires and to live chastely according to the Catholic Church's teachings.” The group uses the 12-step program, developed by Alcoholics Anonymous, to try to “cure” gays. The students look insulted when the topic comes up.
“The Courage pamphlets have been taken out of the guidance office, probably because of your story,” Iskander chuckles.
GSAs started making headlines in January when Xtra reported a ban on the student clubs by the Halton Catholic District School Board (HCDSB). When questioned, board chair Alice Anne LeMay told Xtra the board “doesn’t allow Nazi groups either. Gay-straight alliances are banned because they are not within the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
In the face of national outrage, the HCDSB lifted the ban on GSAs, but it still does not allow any student group with the word “gay” in its title. Through an investigation, Xtra revealed that gay-positive groups are banned at every Ontario Catholic School. Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky has so far not returned any of Xtra’s interview requests.
The students feel all the recent demands for GSAs in Ontario’s Catholic high schools have sparked a movement. Iskander says she invites other Catholic school students to join her by trying to start a GSA. Britto likes the idea of maybe marching in the Pride parade this year. “Ontario Catholic students demanding GSAs,” he grins.
“I can be bisexual and still love God,” says neighbouring Catholic school student Oliver Mathias, 15. “A GSA is just a place where kids feel safe.”