BY ANDREA HOUSTON – Words are powerful. They can liberate, educate and empower. But in the battle for gay-straight alliances, they are being used to silence.
Premier Dalton McGuinty’s new anti-bullying legislation left the Catholic school boards a loophole, a way to strip GSAs of visibility and shove queer students back into the closet.
At first, no one really seemed to notice or care about those last three words. The stories praised the Liberals, as well as the PCs, who released their own anti-bullying bill the same day. But they have the effect of creating a distressing loophole.
The legislation makes boards legally required to approve student-led support groups that promote gender equity, anti-racism, respect for people with disabilities and people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, “including organizations with the name gay-straight alliance or another name."
It comes across as genuinely ironic, if not spitefully hypocritical, to “get tough” on bullies while allowing Catholic school boards to continue to bully queer youth by banning the very word that defines their identity.
Student activist Leanne Iskander immediately pointed out the glaring problem.
She argued that the language in the legislation is “too vague,” giving Catholic schools “an out” by allowing them to choose another name.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath also noted that banning the name gay-straight alliance or any queer word for that matter, like “gay,” “rainbows” or “pink triangle,” sends the absolute wrong message. It says to queer youth that being gay is a terrible thing, something to be ashamed of.
This was confirmed to me on Dec 1 by Nancy Kirby, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association (OCSTA), who said, “We can have other names.”
Over the past couple of days, several news stories, opinion pieces and editorials at major dailies have pointed out what queer activists have been saying for a year – that Catholic schools have an unwritten ban on the word “gay."
Toronto Sun columnist Christina Blizzard is the exception. She speaks out of both sides of her mouth and dismisses students pleading for support at school. She echoes what many Catholic officials think is an acceptable thing to say – that queer students don’t belong in Catholic schools and that if they don’t like the rules, they should leave.
"Well, parents put their children in Catholic schools because they want Catholic values reflected in their education. They have a choice. If they want them to participate in GSAs, they can always put them in a public school. But enough’s enough."
On Sun News, Blizzard repeats her misguided viewpoint (causing me to smash my head against the keyboard) as she justifies the discrimination:
"If you are going to have a Catholic school that adheres to Catholic ethics and teachings, part of that is not a gay-straight alliance. You can’t force religions and tell them what to think and believe."
Except, of course, that Catholic schools are controlled by the government of Ontario and funded by all taxpayers.
She is right about one thing: “This is [McGuinty’s] way to give in to the Catholic schools. His wife teaches at a Catholic school, his children go to Catholic school and he went to Catholic school. This is his way of caving in to the Catholic schools."
Meanwhile, many on Twitter quickly noted the legislation’s failure to empower students. One tweet, from @alekt, said, “To dismiss this as semantics fails to recognize the importance of words in bullying. The name DOES matter."
Thankfully, three editorial boards, those of The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and the Ottawa Citizen, do get it.
The Globe draws a parallel to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell legislation in the US that forced gay men and women in the military to keep their identities secret, putting them in constant danger of being victimized.
The Citizen expresses disappointment that the legislation stops short of having any real teeth and highlights the political games: “The partisan point-scoring at Queen’s Park does no honour to the memory of Ottawa’s Jamie Hubley, whose suicide brought attention to bullying and mental health."
In his National Post column, Chris Selley notes that GSAs “are verboten in publicly funded Catholic schools because the Pope says so."
Selley also points out that the Pastoral Guidelines to Assists Students of Same-Sex Orientation, a 2011 document used as a reference guide for all publicly funded Catholic schools, is completely contrary to the position of the provincial government and most Ontarians.
"In 2011, [the Guidelines] stress that homosexual acts are ‘intrinsically disordered’ and ‘contrary to the natural law’ and ‘do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.’ In 2011, not 1988, the Ontario Catholic Bishops’ official advice is that gay students be instructed never to act upon their sexual orientation in any way. Don’t hold hands, don’t go to a movie. Sodomy lies that way."
Why are we teaching children that being gay is depraved? This is insanity!
The Toronto Star agrees:
“As a result, the controversy of Catholic schools refusing to let students set up gay-straight alliances, which are common in public schools, won’t go away. In essence, the province is telling Catholic students it’s okay to be gay, it’s okay to have an anti-homophobia club, but it’s still not okay to call it what you want. What kind of message is that? It’s unsupportive, at best.”
Later, Selley raised another interesting question on Twitter. If GSAs are allowed in Catholic schools, whatever they end up being called, will meetings be dictated by the Pastoral Guidelines?
After my story went live, I was asked to be a guest on The Jim Richards Show on Newstalk 1010.
Caller Margaret had a few things to say about the word gay.
"It doesn’t encompass all those individuals who are being bullied in our school system. That doesn’t have to be a term imposed on a Catholic school system that is not discriminatory against gays; however, they do believe as part of their faith that it is an inappropriate lifestyle for a practising Catholic."
Hear the clip here.
The worst part is that our so-called “gay advocates” have also accepted defeat. Helen Kennedy, of Egale, has thrown her support behind the legislation and in the process overlooks the Liberals’ attempt to curry favour with the Catholic board.
Good thing Queer Ontario remains on alert. The organization has already released a statement and plans to present recommendations to improve the legislation.
The Liberals have an opportunity here to really do something to fight bullying and save students’ lives. They shouldn’t do it halfway, treading lightly with the Catholic school boards.
Doctrine be damned.