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Leanne Iskander brings fight for GSAs to Pride as co-grand marshal

Inspire Awards honours Iskander and KPMG's Michael Bach

Leanne Iskander is congratulated by her fellow GSA members at the Inspire Awards at Casa Loma. Credit: Andrea Houston

Adding to her long list of honours, 16-year-old Leanne Iskander is now the co-grand marshal of the 2011 Pride parade.

At the Inspire Awards June 16 gala at Casa Loma, Iskander thanked her supporters for standing in solidarity during her ongoing fight for Catholic school gay-straight alliances (GSAs). “I just want to thank all my fellow GSA members. You’re all awesome,” the 16-year-old told the room of formally dressed attendees. “I’d also like to thank Andrea at Xtra and Casey at Queer Ontario for all the support.”

The person of the year award went to Michael Bach, the national director of diversity, inclusion and equity for KPMG and co-chair of Pride at Work Canada, which works with employers to create inclusive corporate policies. Both Bach and Iskander share the title of co-grand marshals and will lead the parade July 3. Pride Toronto (PT) announced in May that the winners of the Inspire Awards would share the title of grand marshal.

Bach applauded the Inspire Awards for going beyond downtown Toronto to showcase inspiring stories across the GTA. “I’m so impressed the Inspire Awards are looking beyond the 416. It’s astonishing the work all these people are doing.”

The award is the latest honour showered on Iskander, the young activist leading a group of students at St Joseph Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga in their bid for a GSA. On June 4, Iskander was named honoured dyke and youth grand marshal by PT at the Pride Premier at Crews & Tangos on Church St.

“Leanne Iskander. Remember that name, folks,” MC Deb Pearce told the crowd as Iskander left the stage to thunderous applause.

Iskander was thrust into the spotlight in March when her school denied her request to start a GSA. She was told a GSA “makes students prematurely identify as gay” and “GSAs lead to activism.” Now she is taking her fight provincewide with her newly formed group, Catholic Student for GSAs. Just recently, during an anti-homophobia event at the school, the group was barred from decorating their booth with rainbows because “they are associated with Pride.” The students found a loophole by baking rainbow batter for cupcakes.

Casey Oraa, chair of the political action committee for Queer Ontario, who was nominated for person of the year at the Inspire Awards, has been supporting the students since their first GSA proposal. He says all the media attention isn’t going to Iskander’s head. Instead, she’s embracing her role as a leader and activist.

“The youth are getting a lot of recognition and they are really taking it in stride,” he says. “For them, it’s about furthering the cause and raising awareness about the issue. Leanne is using the recognition to generate support for the fight for Catholic GSAs, and I think that’s fantastic. Most people would be overwhelmed with all this attention.”

Right now, Iskander and her group are busy finishing exams and fundraising for buttons and T-shirts to bring to Pride. She plans to open up a bank account next week.

Over the next two weeks she hopes to get the word out to youth across Ontario, both public- and Catholic-school students, to join the Pride youth contingent. The message is simple: youth supporting youth.

“We want to get as many students to join us marching in the parade as possible,” she tells Xtra. “The response has been great so far. I’ve already been contacted by about four other [Catholic] students trying to start GSAs. I tell them not to give up and reference our school. We’re here for support.”

Meanwhile, Iskander is also reaching out to Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky. Iskander posted a request on her Facebook wall May 17, asking for a one-on-one meeting, in the hopes of having a voice in writing the “framework” for Catholic anti-bullying groups, which is happening at the provincial level over the summer.

Iskander says she’s still waiting for a response. Another GSA member, Christopher Mckerracher, sent a few private Facebook messages as well.

“We haven’t heard anything from her,” Iskander says. “It’s disappointing.”

GSAs started making headlines in January when Xtra reported a ban on the student clubs by the Halton Catholic District School Board (HCDSB). When questioned, 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 a silent ban remains at all Ontario Catholic schools on student groups focused on gay, lesbian and trans issues, or even clubs with names that contain the word gay.