Update Oct 6 -- Halton Catholic District School Board (HCDSB) trustee Paul Marai is reaching out to support a Burlington student who has described her Catholic school as deeply homophobic.
“I’m shocked,” Marai says after reading the story of Elle Malon, a 17-year-old out lesbian at Assumption Catholic Secondary School in Burlington who wants to start a gay-straight alliance (GSA).
“It really concerns me that any student would feel that way. Every student should feel safe and accepted,” he says. “I’ve been pretty outspoken on this issue from the beginning, and I think the board should be supporting students.”
In February, the HCDSB approved By Your SIDE (safety, inclusivity, diversity, equity) groups that would act as nonspecific equity clubs, encouraging students to discuss “all issues concerning equity, inclusivity, diversity and safety.”
“I said at the time the policy didn’t go far enough, but my colleagues chose to implement it anyway,” Marai says.
In April, the Assembly of Catholic Bishops and the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association (OCSTA) announced the formation of a committee that would decide how to support students.
“They said back in April that the clubs would be implemented in September,” says Marai. “This is an urgent issue and an important issue that affects so many of our students across Ontario. The solution is already there... it’s very clear what students want.”
OCSTA president Nancy Kirby told Xtra in April that the committee would release a “framework” to “assist Catholic school boards” in creating “anti-bullying groups.”
Kirby said the groups would not be GSAs because “a GSA signals to students that the group is focused on activism.”
Marai says the committee should be listening to students. “It seems at the provincial level, only one side is being represented.”
Early on, Marai emailed OCSTA asking to be on the committee. “I thought, as the only openly gay Catholic trustee, I could offer a unique view and contribute an immense amount,” he says. “My emails were both ignored. I was incredibly disappointed with that.”
GSA activist Leanne Iskander’s requests to take part in the committee were also ignored.
OCSTA did not respond to Xtra’s request for comment.
“I don’t know who is on the committee, when they’ve met, how often they’ve met,” says Marai.
The committee sent out a memo in September stating it needs more time.
The memo says: “If at the beginning of the school year, any students request the formation of a group to address bullying related to sexual orientation, Catholic school administrators may start such a group with the understanding that the guiding framework is forthcoming. The delay in the issuance of the framework should not prevent any school from establishing such a group, if requested by students.”
So when Malon submits her proposal, will she be allowed to start a GSA?
“I don’t know,” says Marai. “I really have no idea. Based on what the board has already decided, it’s been clear on what is allowed and not allowed. There’s really no direction for students, and that’s unfortunate. What is happening is we are politicizing an issue of student safety, and that is dangerous.”
Marai has a message for Malon: “I want her to know that there are people in the Catholic school system who support her and encourage her to advocate for what she feels is right.”
“One of the worst comments I’ve heard is, 'People who are lesbian and gay shouldn’t even be considered humans because they're below sewer rats.' That’s the kind of derogatory and offensive comments I hear at school,” she says.
The 17-year-old out lesbian attends Assumption Catholic Secondary School in Burlington. It is part of the Halton Catholic District School Board (HCDSB), which has opposed GSA support groups for queer students.
“I’m on a sports team, and I regularly deal with a whole lot of offensive comments in the locker room. It’s really frustrating as someone who is part of the LGBT community to have to hear this and realize how ignorant people are," she says.
Malon was inspired to start a GSA after she attended an Oct 2 Unity Conference in Milton, where she heard activist Leanne Iskander speak.
Seventeen-year-old Mississauga student Iskander is at the centre of the fight for the queer support groups after a group of students at her St Joseph Catholic Secondary School were blocked from forming a GSA.
GSAs first made headlines in January when HCDSB board chair Alice Anne LeMay compared the support groups to Nazi clubs.
“Gay-straight alliances are banned because they are not within the teachings of the Catholic Church,” LeMay told Xtra at the time.
However, the Ontario Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy stipulates that schools should support students who want to start GSAs.
Since the school year began, Iskander, the founder of Catholic Students for GSAs (CS4GSA), has been helping students who want to form new groups. “I’m pretty sure they will all just be offered a general equity group,” she says. “If schools are using a general equity group as an excuse not to allow an LGBT-focused group, then students shouldn’t accept that.”
When she got home from the conference, Malon got to work drafting a proposal for a GSA, which she plans to submit to her principal next week.
Malon has complained to school staff about the bullying and anti-gay slurs she hears, but she says nothing has been done. “They tell me they will keep a closer eye on it, but at my school, teachers are not allowed to talk about LGBT issues. They are not allowed to say anything... [the social worker] said that she couldn’t refer me to anyone or speak about anything because she can get into trouble.”
Malon is one of several Ontario students preparing to request a GSA. And she is not prepared to take no for an answer. “I am willing to fight for a GSA. This is a human rights issue. At the end of the day, I want a safer school.”
At Father Michael Goetz Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga, 17-year-old Anna Tran has collected a petition with 130 signatures from students who also want a GSA. “A lot of people are afraid of getting in trouble for signing it, so it's helpful to really break down what a GSA is,” she says.
Meanwhile, at St Marcellinus Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga, Jay Co is waiting for word from the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board about a proposal he submitted last year.
Co has tried to organize queer-focused events, such as a day of silence, to raise awareness about homophobia but says it’s an uphill battle in a Catholic school.
Students want a safe place to learn about queer issues, he says. “Other students sometimes have questions, especially when they read my badges and buttons.”
At St Francis Xavier Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga, Oliver Mathias has given up his fight for a GSA. “We are no longer pushing for a GSA because we don’t have any teacher support,” he says, sounding frustrated. “We were going to go for a GSA, but students feel there’s no point.”
Robert Mastragostino, a recent graduate of Bishop Tonnos Catholic Secondary School in Ancaster, now attends McMaster University but is still hoping to start a GSA at his old school.
“Most of the opposition to GSAs is out of ignorance, so if you fight that with open discussion and support, the hatred goes away,” he says.
Follow Xtra reporter Andrea Houston on Twitter @DreaHouston.