UPDATE – March 22 at 2:20pm – After repeated calls by Xtra for comment, Egale Canada releases a statement stating that “privacy rules” prevent the organization from revealing any information about student clubs, even saying whether or not GSAs exist.
“It is out of respect for the privacy and confidentiality of these individuals, and an appreciation for the sensitivity of the issues and circumstance involved, that Egale maintains a strict adherence to this policy,” Egale states. “Under no circumstances will Egale identify or speak publicly about individuals, clubs or schools that have chosen not to do so themselves.”
Since February Egale’s Helen Kennedy has gone on record with Xtra and MPP Glen Murray, assuring that there are GSAs at “some” Catholic schools yet refusing to reveal which ones. At no time did Xtra ask for names of students.
UPDATE – March 22 – Liberal MPP Glen Murray spoke to Xtra at Queen’s Park, but said only that his government is looking into the matter. “The equity policy is pretty clear. It gives students rights to form groups… The premier is restating what the government policy is. We’re working very hard with the students and the groups to make sure they can get their full rights.”
Later in the evening, Murray posted a message on his Facebook page dubbed “Time to pull together for safe and inclusive schools.” In the note Murray calls himself a Christian and says, “There are Catholic schools that have GSAs, and Egale is doing great work on this issue with many caring leaders in the Catholic school system. I have met with school trustees and representatives of Catholic teachers. There are many who support inclusive schools and GSAs.”
March 21: Students in Mississauga will likely be disappointed by Premier Dalton McGuinty’s response when he was asked why his government is refusing to enforce its own equity policy and thereby allow gay-straight alliances (GSA) in Ontario Catholic schools.
The question came from NDP MPP Rosario Marchese in question period at Queen’s Park on March 21. He told McGuinty that gay, lesbian and trans students frequently experience abuse at school. “The ministry of education policy states that all Ontario schools must offer full support to students, such as through a gay-straight alliance. Why is the government refusing to enforce its own policy?”
But McGuinty dodged the question. He says all schools boards are getting the message “loud and clear” that they must adhere to the equity and inclusive education policy, but Catholic boards are free to find an alternative to GSAs.
“We are making it perfectly clear to all our school boards, all our schools, all our principals, all our teachers and all our students that it is unacceptable to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation,” but, McGuinty adds, “boards can find different ways to ensure they can adhere to those policies.”
Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky was not in the legislature to hear the question. Immediately following a tweet announcing her absence, her office emailed Xtra, saying the minister “had planned personal time” and would return to work on Wednesday. She also refused a phone interview. The refusal makes it 76 days and counting that Dombrowsky has remained silent since the GSA ban at the Halton Catholic District School Board (HCDSB) surfaced in January.
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.
Then, on March 16, Xtra told the story of a group of 32 students at St Joseph’s Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga who were blocked when they asked to start a GSA.
The group’s founder, Leanne Iskander, 16, set up a public Facebook group and has since mobilized the support of human rights and queer activists, lawyers, university professors, journalists and local community groups — 111 supporters and counting.
Iskander says she’s taking all the attention in stride. “School was okay today,” she tells Xtra. “Lots of the teachers were talking about the GSA, but nothing was said to me.”
After question period Marchese expressed disappointment with McGuinty’s answer. He said the students should be allowed to start a GSA and call it a GSA.
“He avoided the question. Both the primary and the supplementary one,” Marchese says. “His answer simply referred to the policy, which I agree with, but it is not being enforced. I think it’s to their detriment. I don’t know why they aren’t helping the school do the right thing.
“[The students in Mississauga] will be disappointed. That’s why we have to continue to press the premier and the minister to do the right thing.”
But those in a position to “do the right thing” today are not talking either. St Joe’s principal Frances Jacques wouldn’t take Xtra’s call March 21.
Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board chair Anna Abbruscato asked why the club can’t be called a different name. “I have to look into whether a gay-straight alliance is in compliance with what we believe. Everything has to go through a Catholic lens.”
Abbruscato says there are already supports in place at the school. One of those “Catholic supports” is Courage International, which “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.
“I don’t agree with that,” she says. “I can’t believe that. [Gay] is not a disease. Curing gay tendencies is ridiculous.” Abbruscato promised to “look into” getting the pamphlets out of the guidance office.
Abbruscato was shocked to hear about the Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students of Same-Sex Orientation, found in all Ontario Catholic schools. The document is the primary reference material for instructing school administrators and teachers on homosexuality. It reads that “gay” is not an identity, gay sex is “immoral” and gay people ought to live a life of “chastity.”
“[Gay people] must live a life of chastity, yes, that’s what our religion says,” she says. “I believe we are counselling gay students appropriately. We support all students no matter what their tendencies are.”
Casey Oraa, Queer Ontario’s political action committee chair, says the language used by board officials and the messages given to students in Catholic schools is discriminatory and anti-gay.
“That sort of language is not something that should be used in any public school,” he says. “These are outdated notions of queer sexuality that’s still used by rightwing religious communities. It’s heteronormative language.”
Oraa was quick to point out Ontario’s Catholic schools are publicly funded and must adhere to ministry guidelines on equity, and he also recommends the ministry launch an investigation into the anti-gay messages in Catholic schools.
“Accepting a general equity group is feeding into the myth,” he says. “The Pastoral Guidelines are unhealthy and anti-queer. It is forcing kids to internalize shame. You can’t legitimize a general equity group. You have to fight that tooth and nail.”
Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, director of equity for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, agrees. She says denying the students a GSA violates their constitutional rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of association and the fundamental right to equality.
Queer Ontario is hosting a public education forum on the International Day of Pink, April 13, at Jarvis Collegiate Secondary School to discuss the benefits of an updated sex education curriculum and GSAs.