Officials at a Toronto Catholic school decided they’d discriminate against a gay man who had been invited to talk to students about oppression.
Suhail AbualSameed was asked to talk about immigration issues at St Dunstan Catholic School in Scarborough on Mar 21 to commemorate the International Day To End Racial Discrimination. Among other projects, AbualSameed works with Supporting Our Youth’s program for young queer immigrants. But when organizers found gay content in his bio, they tried to get him to call off his presentation.
“I am still shocked that in this day and age, in a city like Toronto, I am faced with such acts of ignorance and institutionalized homophobia and discrimination,” AbualSameed wrote in a letter to friends.
AbualSameed and Mary Anne Chambers, Ontario Minister Of Colleges, Training And Universities, were engaged through a speakers’ bureau called Passages To Canada, run by the Dominion Institute. The school did not receive any biographical information about the speakers until the morning of the event. That’s when Dominion Institute project manager Tina Edan woke up to panicked telephone messages from Allan Mac- Millan, a teacher at St Dunstan.
Edan says MacMillan told her the elementary school was concerned that AbualSameed’s bio indicated he worked with gay youth, and therefore was likely gay himself.
“He said that it was a contentious issue in the board and they had concerns about him discussing involvement with gay youth,” says Edan. “I said that it was a concern for us that they would perpetuate other forms of discrimination on a day that was meant to be about the elimination of racism. It struck me too that he was in an awkward position because he kept emphasizing that these weren’t his personal views.”
Edan wasn’t able to reach AbualSameed so he arrived at the school not knowing about the controversy. He was immediately taken to meet prinicipal Anne-Marie Cassin and informed that he wasn’t welcome to speak about homosexuality.
“I could see that what they were looking for was for me to be offended and get out of the whole thing. I wouldn’t let them do that. I go there to speak for kids because that is what I enjoy. When I come and do these ‘speaks’ I don’t have any agenda as to my sexuality,” says AbualSammeed, who went ahead with his presentation focussing on anti- racism; being gay never came up.
MacMillan and Cassin refused to talk to Xtra. Mary Jo Deighan, media relations officer for the Toronto Catholic District School Board, returned calls.
“The bio… indicated that he was a gay activist with a Methodist group,” says Deighan. (AbualSameed is a Muslim who is active in Salaam, a queer Muslim group.)
Deighan says the purpose of the call and the chat was to “confirm that he is a speaker that is able to speak around the theme of the day. They verified that his topic would be on racism and not what he may be speaking about in other situations which was in the gay area.
“Nowhere within his bio did he say he was a speaker on the topic of racism. The school read it and said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is a gay individual type of thing.’ ”
Deighan says it was the age of the students that set off the alarm bells around having a gay man speak.
“We’re talking about grade three children. In the high school setting, if the wish was for the speaker to talk about it that would be different, but not at the grade three level around sexuality and not without parents being involved and us receiving parental consent.”
Edan says the Dominion Institute won’t do any more events with St Dunstan.
“We do not tolerate this. It’s discrimination, it’s homophobia, it’s hate and we will not tolerate it.”