When officials at Chris Karas’s school told him he couldn’t put up posters featuring a Harvey Milk quote to promote his newly formed gay-straight alliance (GSA) group, they probably couldn’t have fathomed the chain of events they were setting in motion.
Karas, 18, is a student at École Secondaire Catholique Sainte-Famille, part of Mississauga’s Catholic Central South District School Board. The quote — “All young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential” — was deemed too controversial by school officials thanks to its mention of sexual orientation. The incident was one of many in a series of attempts by the school to resist the formation of a GSA and to monitor its activities.
Karas has since filed a complaint against his school with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal alleging homophobia, which the school board has dismissed as “groundless.” He is now doing cooperative education off school grounds in order to graduate. “I think it’s really important that our students have this safe space in their schools so that they can feel safe and grow into the amazing and wonderful people they can be,” he says.
Galvanized by his experience, Karas approached Ottawa-based youth diversity initiative Jer’s Vision to see what more could be done. Karas had previously attended the organization’s national health ambassador conference, which trains youth to address sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and blood-borne infections, and met with them again to discuss the issue of queer students having difficulties forming effective GSA groups within their schools.
Jeremy Dias, founder and director of Jer’s Vision, compares GSAs with football clubs; the latter tend to be well-funded and teacher-encouraged, while GSAs often lack the resources and support they need to be successful. “How do we expect marginalized kids to run and lead the anti-bullying, anti-homophobia/transphobia initiatives in their schools?” Dias asks. “The answer, of course, is pretty simple . . . It’s training.”
Jer’s Vision has been bringing that training to youth in the form of Dare to Stand Out (DTSO), a series of regional conferences targeted to youth and educators that address the issues of homophobia, bullying, transphobia, discrimination and intersectional violence in schools, covering everything from queer history to safer sex.
Traditionally, the workshops have been one-day events, but from May 5 to 9, Jer’s Vision will present a weeklong youth conference in Toronto dubbed the GTA GSA Forum. Held at Glendon College and led by Karas, the event has invited 100 non-graduating students from across the region to participate.
“Jer’s vision has for a while now moved away from the one-day training sessions to themed programs that are customized for the schools and communities we work in that are action-oriented,” Dias says. “Homophobia, transphobia in schools — it’s a complex issue. Complex issues require complex solutions.”
“We’re holding [the GTA GSA Forum] just because we’ve seen that we need to build the capacity of GSAs, build the skills of the young people involved with them, and help them really educate themselves, not just about issues for one part of the community, but that affect the entire community,” says Zac Johnstone, who sits on the Jer’s Vision board of directors and has been actively involved in planning the DTSO conferences. “We’re hoping to educate but also just to help the ability of GSAs to create these safe spaces in their schools.” Johnstone says Karas has played a crucial role in organizing the forum, raising funds and mobilizing youth to attend.
The weeklong forum will allow more time to delve into complex issues such as transphobia, STIs and sexual violence and explore their intersections. Dias says the forum will dedicate an entire day to talking about STIs and blood-borne infections, preparing the youth to navigate these issues in their relationships. “The benefit to time is that we get to explore these issues with greater depth,” he says.
The forum will also address ways that youth can work with their school boards and the legal resources available to them, Johnstone says. Representatives from both human rights and legal organizations will speak, as well as Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow. “We have a lot of great names that are going to be there. I’m really, really excited,” says Karas, who will also speak about his own experiences.
“These issues, we should mention, are not isolated to Catholic systems,” Dias adds. “These are issues that exist in all systems — public, private, Catholic . . . These are issues that exist in other spaces, so it’s really important to recognize that.”
The right for all students to feel safe being themselves at school is a fundamental one, and Dias and Karas agree that a school’s policies should never compromise its students’ right to an education. “We’ve come a long way since what happened [to me], and I think that we are definitely moving in the right direction. We are creating better tools, better resources, and I think that there’s a lot of optimism for the future,” Karas says. “It’s important to have these safe spaces in our communities, in our workplaces and in our schools . . . to allow us to be ourselves and to allow us to grow.”