Toronto
3 min

Leveraging public outrage

Marcus McCann

It was one of those knock-down-dragout fights where gay activists call each other names. And it’s no surprise that it was over Catholic schools.

By and large, we agreed: Ontario Catholic schools, under the direction of the province’s bishops, are pumping awful, homophobic bullshit into a publicly funded system. Their guidebook for teachers and parents suggests that gays should not be encouraged to identify as gay. They may experience same-sex attraction, but those students are to be steered toward lifelong celibacy.

It’s damaging stuff, especially for teens. It’s also damaging for parents and teachers, school administrators and anyone else who comes in contact with the Catholic schools. Pretty much everyone who weighed in on the discussion — over email, Facebook and the comments section of xtra.ca — agreed on that.

Yet things got ugly, mostly over gay-straight alliances (GSAs), which the bishops forbid.

One school of thought says generic diversity clubs — where positive messages about gays can be quietly slipped in — is all we can hope for. Not that it’s the ideal solution, but it’s as far as the Catholics will go, practically speaking. The folks pushing this strategy are often activists working to change the system from within. They would characterize themselves as “incrementalists.”

Or, if you agree with my hotheaded comments from the discussions, you could call them “defeatists” and “apologists.”

Prodding the incrementalists are a group of idealists, who say that the Catholic schools had better smarten up, drop the bishops’ bigoted “pastoral guidelines” and let gay kids who want to start GSAs start them. (That’s not to say, for the record, that all teens want a GSA rather than a diversity club. The point is that youth who want a GSA shouldn’t be forbidden from starting one.)

This group — and I’m in this camp — argues that creating a climate where there’s a political cost for not acting will help MPPs find the backbone to act on this file. In the meantime, we could support protests, letter-writing campaigns and even a court challenge.

And if we can’t fix it, we should yank public funding from the Catholic school system.

Are the incrementalists and the idealists doomed to fight against each other forever? I don’t think so. In fact, these two groups can and should work together.

How? Well, feminists, evangelicals, unions, free-marketers, lefties and rightwingers — they all use the same formula. Here’s what it looks like:

Idealists scream and shout on the street, write to their MPPs, publish newspaper editorials. They denounce, deplore and satirize the status quo. The louder they shout, the more leverage the incrementalists have. The powers that be — usually risk-averse when it comes to negative publicity — make some concessions. Incrementalists take credit. Idealists cry, “Not good enough.”

Lather, rinse, repeat. Eventually, the institution is transformed. At least, that’s the idea. It’s symbiotic, and, as much as both groups are reluctant to admit it, they need each other.

But it only works when both sides are aware of what’s going on.

For us idealists, it involves recognizing that many of these power brokers aren’t prepared to talk to the rabble. They want to negotiate with someone in a button-down shirt; the incrementalists, in this regard, are useful. And it also involves recognizing the advances that have been made as, at least, good first steps.

For insiders, it means acknowledging that public outrage ultimately buoys their position. They can and should take our anger to school boards, politicians and principals and say, “I can help you get out of this mess.”

On the Catholic schools story, however, these groups aren’t doing that dance. Instead, Egale (an incrementalist lobby group that is palatable to politicians and bureaucrats) and its allies have actively tried to dissuade us from getting angry over the bishops’ anti-gay policies.

Says one Egale defender:

“No one is working on a court challenge or lobbying to withdraw the funding, so queer youth in the board will have to deal with the present legal right the Catholic board has right now for the foreseeable future.”

Says another activist, in reply:

“Wouldn’t that be what we would expect Egale to do, or am I wrong on its function?”

To the Egale types, this is exactly the challenge. There’s an angry mob assembling on the Catholic schools question. For insiders it’s scary, and the temptation will be to denounce the rabble to preserve the advances they’ve made so far.

Instead, it is my sincere hope that they’ll find the courage to leverage our community’s anger into winning more changes.

We’re not going away, and our anger is real. They might as well use it.