Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) remain banned at the Halton Catholic District School Board (HDCSB), and the “hard-line position” taken by trustees is contributing to the increasing onslaught of demands across Ontario to scrap funding for the Catholic school system, one trustee says.
Paul Marai was the only trustee to vote against the revised equity and inclusive education policy March 23. The board voted overwhelmingly in favour of allowing students to form general equity clubs dubbed By Your SIDE Spaces (an acronym for safety, inclusivity, diversity and equity) in place of GSAs. The move means there are still no GSAs in any Catholic schools in the province.
“There are students at this school board who want to start a GSA and they will not be allowed to,” Marai says. “I am against this ban on GSAs, and I think the hardline approach is alienating Ontarians as a whole on the issue of public funding. There is a risk now that there will be louder calls for the funding of Catholic schools to be cut.”
Student trustee Christiane Peric spoke in favour of the By Your SIDE Spaces.
“Bureaucrats and politicians across the province don’t know better than the students,” Marai says. “Students across the province have been asking for GSAs in larger and larger numbers.”
Back in January Xtra broke the news that the HCDSB banned GSAs. When questioned, HCDSB 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.
In February the board’s rewritten policy was sent out to the community for consultation. The policy continues to include “supports” that follow the Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students of Same-Sex Orientation, a document written by the bishops and used to write the equity policy, as well as to train staff, educators and parents. It explicitly prohibits gay sexual activity and states that gays must live a “moral life” or accept “a life of chastity.”
More than 300 people and organizations contributed feedback to the HCDSB. Many parents told the board to keep GSAs out of schools. Several others told the board GSAs don’t comply with the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality, which calls gay sex “sinful.”
“There were hundreds of letters, both for and against the policy,” Marai insists. “But there were hundreds of emails not included in the feedback package from across Ontario, not just Halton.”
One group says GSAs have no place in Catholic schools. Simply signed “concerned Catholics,” the group says gay students should “turn away from sin,” before listing several references to scripture. The letter states, “We strongly feel that there is no place in Catholic schools for gay and lesbian clubs, not because we hate people of such orientation, but because this type of behaviour is not in line with Catholic doctrine.”
Another letter suggests every school should have a Courage International chapter. Courage “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.”
Courage International also uses the 12-step program developed by Alcoholics Anonymous to try to “cure” gays.
“A GSA will only cause further confusion in these children,” the letter states. “We believe that Catholic schools need a Courage Apostolate started in every school… to show that people can be healed of same-sex attractions.”
One writer opposes gay-positive groups of any name, even general equity clubs. Several other letters say gays and lesbians are “suffering” from an addiction and should be cured. Marai calls some of the feedback “pretty shocking.”
“Gay-straight alliance groups are intrinsically hostile to Catholic teachings on human sexuality,” states a letter from the Knights of Columbus. “They are not satisfied with tolerance of a homosexual lifestyle, they will accept nothing less than full acceptance of such behaviour.”
The policy will return to the board for a final vote April 5.
Meanwhile, at St Joseph’s Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga 32 students were blocked when they asked to start a GSA in March. Their principal, Frances Jacques, says there are already supports in place at the school, such as guidance counsellors. Also, they were told, a GSA is “premature” for their age.
The group’s founder, Leanne Iskander, 16, set up a public Facebook group and has since mobilized support.
Iskander’s story led NDP MPP Rosario Marchese to raise the issue in question period at Queen’s Park on March 21. Premier Dalton McGuinty dodged the question, saying GSAs are not mandatory and Catholic schools can create “alternatives.” Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky has remained silent since January, refusing numerous interview requests from Xtra.
Then, on March 22, Egale Canada released an open letter to Dombrowsky calling on the minister to enforce the policy and “take a principled stance” on discrimination against gay, lesbian and trans youth in Catholic schools.
“The fact that the DPCDSB is disallowing GSAs and promoting Courage International conflicts with this DPCDSB policy statement,” writes Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale. “Students from schools with GSAs are much more likely to agree that their school communities are supportive of LGBTQ people, are much more likely to be open with some or all of their peers about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and are more likely to see their school climate as becoming less homophobic.”