Credit: Indiana Joel/Xtra
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13 min

Inside GSAs, where kids learn to ‘talk gay’

Nearly a decade ago, I started a Gay-Straight Alliance. I went back to high school to find out why they still matter

When the lunch bell rings at Martingrove Collegiate Institute, teens scatter across the halls of the Toronto-area high school, eager for fresh air on this sunny April morning. But up on the second floor, tucked away in a French classroom, six kids slide into desks and unpack their lunch bags, settling in for the hour. They’re a quiet bunch, save for their leader — a sassy boy with braces and finely manicured eyebrows. He twirls between the rows of desks before perching atop one at the front. All eyes turn to him. The Martingrove Gay-Straight Alliance is now in session.

The big item on today’s agenda: the alliance is organizing an assembly about homophobia, transphobia and LGBTQ2 rights. One boy, a Grade 10 student with ambitions to be an engineer (“even if it’s not that gay of a job”), agrees to scour YouTube for fun videos to screen that explain various sexual identities. His friend, a quiet sophomore, will make a slideshow. But their leader will be the star: he will be voguing as his drag alter-ego, Amanda Prior (“because I was a man prior to this dressup”). He tells me they mean to “educate and entertain.”

That’s no small order. These annual assemblies were spearheaded by early members of the Martingrove GSA nearly a decade ago, when political tensions over the groups began boiling over in Ontario. When those first students took to the stage in Martingrove’s auditorium, out and proud, they were heckled. Some kids threw debris on the stage; others shouted slurs. The assembly was promptly ended and cancelled indefinitely by administration — until it was revived last year.

Back then, the province had yet to legislate the existence of GSAs. In 2006, rules allowing students to form alliances in their schools were enshrined in the Ontario Safe Schools Act, but hardly anyone was following them, and very few knew what a GSA was. It wasn’t until 2011 that Ontario tabled Bill 13, the Accepting Schools Act, to ensure students could form GSAs and name them what they pleased without staff intervention or discrimination; that bill passed one year later. Since then, GSAs have been protected by law, and attitudes toward them have, for the most part, brightened.

So, last April, Amanda Prior made her first appearance on the school’s auditorium stage in a full face of pastel makeup. Though she enlisted some tough-looking allies as her bodyguards, she was surprised when no one made a peep. No garbage was thrown; no slurs were shouted. Instead, the students listened. Over the years, a mutual respect for the GSA kids in the room had been fostered (the school’s zero-tolerance policy against homophobia and transphobia helped matters). The tide had changed, it seemed, and the queer and trans kids were finally welcomed.

Queer visibility has exploded in the last decade: activists continue to fight around the world for improved rights. More and more representations of queerness and transness are popping up on TV, in film, in music. On social media, influencers on YouTube and Instagram — many of whom are youth themselves — are creating positive images of their lives. Gen Z is openly queerer and more fluid than any generation before it. And they’re more politically minded — several members of the Martingrove GSA even organized a walkout over the repeal of Ontario’s more progressive sex-ed curriculum last September.

It’s why GSAs continue to exist in Ontario today. Students, for the most part, feel safe coming out publicly among their peer groups; a survey of 10,000 American LGBTQ2 youth conducted by the Human Rights Campaign found nine in 10 are out to their close friends, and two-thirds are out to their classmates. Though it’s hard to quantify just how many exist, GSAs have become more commonplace; in many schools, they’re just another club on offer. As a political issue they’ve largely disappeared off the radar — even with a premier as socially conservative as Doug Ford, the threats against GSAs have dissipated, and political climates have cooled.

In Alberta, though, a new fight over GSAs is heating up. The election on April 16 could make United Conservative Party (UCP) leader Jason Kenney the province’s next premier. Kenney has made GSAs an election issue, promising to repeal legislation that protects students from having their parents and guardians know when they join GSAs. The ensuing battle mirrors what played out in Ontario in the early 2010s, which forced queer and trans students to prove their need for safe spaces in their schools. After all, LGBTQ2 youth still face plenty of obstacles: they remain at a higher risk of suicide, substance abuse and isolation despite greater societal support, and they regularly hear anti-gay and anti-trans slurs at school.

Those daily obstacles are made even harder when the lives of LGBTQ2 kids are politicized. Their concerns and needs are discarded, their lives only used to advance political agendas. But amid the debates and the politicians’ back-and-forth, what’s lost is an understanding of just how life-changing GSAs can be for queer and trans youth.

Depending on the time or place, a GSA can be a space to fight injustice, dispel misinformation about queer and trans identities, a safe haven to commiserate with fellow peers or a spot just to hang out. For LGBTQ2 youth who have few other venues to congregate, GSAs are a godsend. They’re where students learn about queer history, talk unabashedly about crushes and culture, gossip about their favourite shows and movies. It’s also often where kids can try on their identities for the first time. Alicia Lapointe, a research scientist at Ontario’s Western University who studied the functioning of GSAs, puts it simply: “They’re a place to talk ‘gay.’”

The GSA movement began in the US in the 1980s, and the first known GSA, at a school in Massachusetts, was created not by a queer student facing discrimination but by a straight ally unhappy with the way gay people around her, including her own mother, were being treated. Here in Canada, their history is unknown; because there is no central organizing body for GSAs, it’s hard to pinpoint how or when they started.

The groups first came to Kathleen Wynne’s attention in 2006, when she was still Ontario’s minister of education. During a Q&A at a York Region high school, a student asked if he should have the absolute right to start a GSA at his school. To Wynne, who is a lesbian, it was obvious from the boy’s tone — and the look on the faces of his teachers — that the question was part of a larger fight. “That felt like the impetus,” Wynne says.

What followed that year was Ontario’s Safe School Strategy, guidelines that in part outlined students’ rights to form collectives like GSAs without staff intervention. But, Wynne says, administrators were playing hard and fast with the rules, especially in Catholic schools. (Both Ontario and Alberta, as well as Saskatchewan, are unique in that they both publicly fund Catholic schools.) Students continued to be barred from forming GSAs by teachers and principals — like 16-year-old Lee Iskander, who tried to start one at St Joseph’s Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga but was threatened with disciplinary action by their principal.

I was among those students. In 2011, I was a senior at Marshall McLuhan Catholic Secondary School in north Toronto and one of the few out kids at the school. In the middle of a social studies class, an acquaintance of mine, another queer kid on the social outs, asked me if it’d be worth starting our own GSA. I had to Google the acronym. Online, I found there were others, like Iskander, trying to organize in their Catholic schools. Together, they were fighting the battles I knew too intimately: the ceaseless bullying, the name-calling, the threats of violence.

At first, the six of us who joined the group were relegated to our social worker’s tiny closet-turned-office (the irony was not lost on us), crammed together during school hours to discuss with her why we hurt so deeply, why our families didn’t know about our identities, why we felt the need to organize at all. We tried to explain: we were so alone in this school of 1,000, where straight kids’ promposals and exchanges of flowers on Valentine’s Day were celebrated but being out and queer was shamed. When we were together, though, we found power, commonality. In response, the social worker asked us, by our principal’s request, not to deem our group a GSA; collectively, we decided to stop showing up for our pseudo-therapy sessions and regroup. Instead, we found a progressive — if slightly over eager — teacher to act as a supervisor, and she busted through our administration’s authoritative regime, refusing to take no for an answer.

By the time our GSA was recognized, I had already graduated. Conservative parents and organizations continued to lobby against any legal protections for LGBTQ2 students; the president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association told the Toronto Sun in 2012 that using the word “gay” in the names of the clubs was a “distraction,” while a Halton Catholic District School Board chair likened GSAs to “nazi groups.”

During my first semester in university, Wynne had heard Iskander’s story. That’s when the Liberal government tabled Bill 13, the Accepting Schools Act, which ensured students in any schools — including publicly funded Catholic schools — could create GSAs, and name them what they wanted. When it passed in 2012, it helped those students at Marshall McLuhan and St Joe’s who’d been left behind in GSA limbo.

Those students were eventually vindicated when research further validated their endeavours. One landmark 2014 study from the University of British Columbia found that GSAs reduced the risk for suicide among all students in schools where they were established. Another study out of UBC earlier this year even proved that the presence of GSAs made all students — not just the LGBTQ2 ones — feel safer in their schools.

But what remains is an uneasy fact: the onus was — and still is — on youth to keep GSAs afloat. While politicians, parents and organizations on both sides of the debate have used the groups as a political vehicle, it has been kids who fought for their existence, for their recognition and to educate others about LGBTQ2 issues. According to Lapointe, it’s always been up to students to be the experts in queer and trans education — and it remains that way across Canada.

Nowhere in the country is the fight more pertinent today than in Alberta. In March, UCP leader Jason Kenney reopened the province’s debate on GSAs when he promised that, if elected premier in April, he would ensure that parents and guardians are notified if their child has joined a GSA. But just weeks ago, hundreds made their disdain for Kenney known when they marched from the Alberta legislature to a nearby UCP office in protest, rainbow flags in tow. Their fear: if Kenney is elected premier, he’ll out vulnerable youth to their families, who may not be supportive of their children’s sexual and gender identities.

The consequences of Kenney’s proposed legislative change could be dire. At a Calgary rally protesting the change, a teacher told the crowd that a former student of his was outed to his parents by his school after joining a GSA. When he continued to spend time with his friends from the GSA, his parents removed him from the school and are now homeschooling him.

Pam Krause, CEO of the Centre for Sexuality in Alberta, says that measures like this make children feel unsafe in the place they are supposed to feel safest. The centre created a network of GSAs in the Calgary area back in 2012, and Krause says many students who are members of the groups often have the hardest time coming out to their parents.

Kenney’s proposal doesn’t come as a surprise: his track record on LGBTQ2 issues, dating back as far as the late 1990s, has been dismal, and other UCP candidates, such as Mark Smith and Roger Reid, have been criticized for their homophobic views. Kenney first suggested reversing Bill 24 at a May 2018 party convention. “I do . . . think that parents have a right to know what’s going on with their kids in the schools unless the parents are abusive,” Kenney said during an interview with Postmedia in 2017, when the issue first arose. “I don’t think it’s right to keep secrets from parents about challenges their kids are going through.”

Public outcry — both from within his own party and from LGBTQ2 activists — led the UCP leader to retract his take on parental notifications. But recently, during his campaign leading up to this month’s election, the UCP has once again vowed to repeal Bill 24. In March, Kenney doubled down on the importance of parents knowing about the clubs their children belong to. “Using the blunt instrument of the law to tell a teacher that under no circumstances can they communicate with parents is not a moderate approach,” Kenney told media. “Let highly trained teachers and principals make a decision on a case-by-case basis of what’s in the best interest of the child.”

Even before Kenney became leader of the UCP, queer and trans kids in Alberta struggled for recognition of their GSAs. Because the province offers the most choice when it comes to alternative, charter and private schools, and because Catholic schools are publicly funded, parents are often more involved in how schools run — and that can make clubs like GSAs even more politicized. And with Alberta under a conservative stronghold for nearly 40 years, it was impossible for GSA legislation to make its way into law. Several members of the Alberta legislature tried in 2014, but ultimately failed. The province finally passed Bill 10 in 2015, legislation that gave all students the right to form GSAs in their schools if requested. Bill 24 came two years later, under Rachel Notley’s majority NDP government, protecting the privacy of students and closing loopholes that prevented youth from starting GSAs.

Even though a recent poll conducted by the CBC found most Albertans don’t agree with Kenney’s proposed policy shift, GSAs have remained a contentious issue — and as a result, they’ve become even more politicized. That alone is problematic, Krause says. “GSAs are not a political body, they’re a club,” she says. “They’re vulnerable young people who need extra support because of the marginalization they have because of society.”

The UCP’s anti-Bill 24 platform has reignited the debate over whether the groups should exist at all. Organizations, like Parents For Choice in Education, have positioned the legislation that protects GSAs in Alberta as a means to strip rights away from parents.

Tonya Callaghan knows this fight well. The associate professor at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education and author of the book Homophobia in the Hallways is also a former Catholic school teacher. She left her teaching job in 2004 when one of her students took his own life after being subjected to homophobic bullying. There’s been plenty of resistance to LGBTQ2 progress, she says, especially in faith-based schools. But that’s exactly why GSAs need to exist. “They may need to take on more of an activist stance,” she says. “They can’t just be allies. They can’t just be bystanders. They need to be upstanders.”

Unlike in the US, where the national, movement-building GSA Network exists to help students and educators develop the groups in their schools, there is no similar umbrella organization in Canada. The closest initiative is Egale’s MyGSA. The national LGBTQ2 rights body created MyGSA as a resource kit and provided an option for GSAs across the country to register themselves; but the website is currently down and emails to Egale regarding MyGSA have gone unanswered. And in Ontario, the country’s largest and arguably most progressive school board, the Toronto District School Board, stopped keeping track of the GSAs in its schools; at last count, from an unspecified date, there were 60. Most other boards don’t keep count at all.

Having more data on GSAs in Canada would provide insight into how LGBTQ2 students are both organizing and faring in their schools. The GSA at my old high school, Marshall McLuhan, no longer exists. Learning about its fate — in a message to the school’s new student council over Instagram, no less — was a blow to me; I thought of the evenings spent laughing and chatting and crying among people who were just like me, and wondered how the queer kids at McLuhan were now finding each other. Meanwhile, the GSA at St Joe’s, which helped spur the need for GSA legislation in Ontario, has become fairly “low-key,” Iskander tells me. Western University researcher Lapointe too says she’s heard from some educators who are GSA advisors that attendance has been low in the province.

It’s certainly not because GSAs are no longer needed. After all, more than 75 percent of respondents to one Canadian survey of LGBTQ2 people said they have experienced homophobic or transphobic bullying; 60 percent of that has happened at school. Rather, the possible drop in GSA attendance suggests a shift in how kids get together. At Martingrove, for instance, students connect primarily via Instagram about upcoming events for the GSA — the way many Generation Z teens do these days — alleviating some of the pressure of showing up every week for meetings. Membership tends to dip throughout the year, as more academic demands come up.

“There’s always waxing and waning in high schools, even public schools,” Lapointe adds. “You need student leaders who are willing to go out of their way to build these groups.”

But for Lapointe, that raises a more pressing issue: kids are expected to do the heavy lifting themselves. And while some teens have willingly taken on that role, Lapointe stresses that they shouldn’t have to. Instead, she says, there must be more adequate training and development for educators to grapple with the issues that arise within — and outside of — GSAs. Queer and trans students, she stresses, should not be forced to fill educational gaps.

When I spoke with Kathleen Wynne, she was fearful the cuts to education in Ontario planned by Doug Ford’s conservative government might mean more pressure on young people to educate others. That could soon be a reality: Ontario intends to cut 3,475 teaching jobs, according to a memo released this month. That means fewer staff available to serve as advisors and more pressure on already limited counselling and support services.

The Martingrove kids know this firsthand. After their assembly last year, a staff member swung by one of their meetings because he didn’t understand their discussion around they/them pronouns. The GSA members were grateful to have had the opportunity to educate someone, but they didn’t feel entirely comfortable with his ideas and thoughts, which seemed to border on transphobic. More importantly, though, it detracted from their time to talk about themselves.

Back in the classroom, the students in the Martingrove GSA finish up their plans for the assembly. Their leader, drag queen extraordinaire Amanda Prior, suggests a deadline, but adds that it’s fine if they miss it — he probably will, too. This is, after all, an extra-curricular, and it’s supposed to be fun.

The group turns to more pressing topics: what trans actor Indya Moore said on Twitter that morning, who saw Jordan Peele’s Us in theatres, when the next season of Pose will land. One kid saw on Instagram that Brunei will be enacting a new law that punishes homosexuality with death by stoning, and so another Googles the country to see where it is in the world. Downstairs in the school’s cafeteria, it’s likely that the same conversations are taking place; but here, they are together. The queer and trans kids have organized collectively — and consciously — to do something that matters deeply to each of them.

If the Martingrove kids are any proof, GSAs are still the havens they were always meant to be: a sanctuary where everyone is, for once, just like you.