Christopher Karas, a French Catholic school student in Mississauga, can’t understand why his school is refusing to allow his newly formed gay-straight alliance (GSA) to use a Harvey Milk quote on its posters.
The Milk quote — “All young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential” — has been deemed to be too controversial, according to an email Karas received from his vice-principal in October.
“I was told that I can’t have a picture of Harvey Milk or his quote on the posters,” Karas says. “I also had ‘sexual orientation’ written on the posters.”
But Karas says vice-principal Vicki Marcotte told him to change that to “self-expression” because “she felt it was too much about LGBT community and not inclusive of everyone.”
In an email, Marcotte says she won’t print the posters “because the quote is tendentious.”
Karas, 18, attends École Secondaire Catholique Sainte-Famille, part of the Conseil Scolaire de District Catholique Centre-Sud (Catholic Central South District School Board) in Mississauga. He says he wants to go public with his story to ensure there’s a safe and supportive club for future students, even after he graduates.
“There is seriously a problem with our school district,” he says. “I’m worried I won’t have this group next year for other students.”
The group is not actually called a GSA. Group members took the name Porte Ouverte (Open Doors), which was chosen because it “sounds the most inclusive,” he says.
Karas started fighting for a GSA last March, when he first put in a request for a “Bill 13 group” at his school.
Throughout 2012, he says, he followed the fight surrounding the Accepting Schools Act. He read about other students across Ontario, like Leanne Iskander and Christopher Mckerracher, who publicly fought for acceptance at school. Their stories inspired him to go public with his.
At the end of the 2013 school year, after months of asking for a GSA, Karas called Xtra, hoping a little pressure from media might push the board to give him the group he’s asked for. In a phone call at the time, superintendent André Blais confirmed to Xtra that a group would be formed at the school in September.
When September rolled around, Karas got his group, which now meets once a month. But the group faced further resistance when it came time to design posters, organize events and discuss sexuality.
The Accepting Schools Act states that school administrators must grant students permission to start a GSA if they request one. When the legislation passed in 2012, it was the culmination of a lengthy battle waged by students demanding GSAs at their schools. Until that time, many Ontario Catholic schools had consistently prevented students from forming queer-focused support groups. Some boards, like the Halton Catholic District School Board, went as far as banning the creation of gay-straight support groups.
That’s what makes Karas’s battle so difficult, he says. Unlike Iskander, who faced a blanket ban on all GSAs, Karas has a group. But he says the school is trying to prevent it from becoming “too focused on queer stuff.”
Karas feels the board and school administrators are censoring and restricting the content of the group and making it difficult for the group to present itself as a GSA.
Davina Smith, another of the group’s founders, says the posters have caused unnecessary friction between the group and the school’s administration.
“This gets on my nerves,” she says, noting that the objection to the poster design gives the impression that the board is homophobic. “That’s the impression that I get . . . Harvey Milk is talking about giving youth hope. What’s wrong with that?
“The school board is all over Chris,” she adds. “Chris has a vision. He wants to help gay youth, but the school board is Catholic.”
Smith, who is also part of the yearbook committee, says that group has little supervision or oversight from school administration and no interference from the board. “We barely have two teachers watching over us,” she says.
Xtra recently visited the school to speak with vice-principal Marcotte and principal Alain Lalonde.
Lalonde, who admits he has never met with the group or taken part in any meetings, says Karas and Smith’s group was never intended to be about LGBT issues.
“The idea behind the group was about inclusion, not necessarily just a gay-straight alliance,” he says. “There’s a committee that was formed, of four other students. They as a group decide what is being done. I know Christopher presented the posters, but that has to be decided as a group.”
Lalonde says it’s a school policy that administrators must approve all posters and education materials connected to student groups.
Marcotte says the whole group discussed the posters, and Karas’s posters were among other designs submitted for approval.
“The posters he submitted weren’t open enough for everybody,” she says. “There’s five students. It’s not just Christopher . . . everybody has a vote. They decided it wasn’t inclusive enough of everybody.”
But Karas says that’s not true. “The board was concerned that the group was not in favour of the Catholic doctrine and teachings,” he says. “The group is often reminded that we are scrutinized and under the watchful eye of the school district.”
Smith says Karas has the support of the entire group. “Everything that has happened so far, like the posters, we are all in complete agreement. There’s nothing wrong with his posters.”
Although they have asked to remain anonymous, the four founders all signed a letter expressing collective solidarity for Karas’s poster designs and his direction for the group.
The letter states, “We would like to express support for the work Christopher Karas has done to put in place Porte Ouverte. We support Chris’s poster design and Christopher’s efforts supporting Bill 13 by creating an inclusive group that is grounded in LGBTIQQ2SA acceptance, a place where students can have a safe space to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Karas came out when he was 15 and is still the only openly gay student at the school. Since he first announced his sexuality on Facebook, he says, he’s noticed a change in other students. Just being visible has made the school more accepting of LGBT students. But, he says, the school’s administration still has a long way to go.
“Imagine what that’s like being the only gay kid in the entire school,” he says. “I know there are others. Other students have told me they’re gay and asked for my advice, but they are scared to come out. That’s why this group is so important. It’s for them.”
So far, Karas says, response from other students has been positive. The group has about a dozen members who meet during lunch hour. He would like to see the group meet more frequently than once a month.
When it comes to talking about sexuality and gender identity, Smith says the group is a safe space to open up or just listen to others talk. She doesn’t think the school board is aware that the group has these discussions.
“I don’t know what the school board would say if they find out that we talk about that stuff,” she says. “I worry that they will push Chris even more.”
For the most part, Smith says, the school is accepting and welcoming. Most students and teachers are supportive. The problem is the school administration and the board, she says.
But Marcotte says the school is providing a safe space “that’s inclusive to everyone.”
When asked if he would allow a GSA that was called a GSA and that focused on sexuality and gender identity, Lalonde deferred Xtra to the school board.
“I’m not going to get into that,” he says. “You have to speak to the school board about that.”
Lalonde says he’s never heard of any homophobic bullying at the school.
With regard to Catholic doctrine, he shrugs off concerns that LGBT students feel alienated. “Well, unfortunately, that is part of the curriculum that we teach. We are a Catholic school in the Catholic board.”
Karas, who is now in the process of filing a human rights complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal against his school, says he’s tired of meetings and emails with his vice-principal and senior board officials only to face delays and be given the same frustrating answers.
“I have no right to free speech. The group is greatly scrutinized,” he says.
For their part, the board's education director, Réjean Sirois, and superintendent Blais, say they are fulfilling their requirement under the Accepting Schools Act.
“[The group] was not meant to have one specific agenda, but it would be open and inclusive,” Blais says. “From what I heard, the Harvey Milk quote dealt with mostly sexual orientation. The group wanted something more open and would welcome more kids. More kids would be able to identify to the cause.”
But when told that all students in the group support Karas, Blais says the school has the final decision on what posters go on the walls. “Anything that goes up on the walls has to be approved by school administration,” he says. “We committed to ensuring that this group was up and running in the fall. And it is now in place.”
But Karas says the school needs a group focused on acceptance of sexual diversity. From the outset, he says, he founded the group with the intention of reflecting the needs of LGBT youth. He knows he has this right, as stated explicitly in the Accepting Schools Act.
Blais says the board has fulfilled its obligation.
“That’s very different than saying we are censoring him or not allowing him to do what he wants to do,” he says. “Because it’s not going in the direction that he wants, the reflex should not be to turn around and call the media. That discussion should happen in the group.”
Blais would not comment on whether students could have a separate group focused on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Our responsibility is to put in place the law. I think we have done everything we have said we would do,” he says. “We have no position. We apply the law.
“I have to say that I am disappointed for the other students. We made all the efforts to ensure the creation of the group and ensure the welcoming experience for all of these teenagers, who are all living [through] different challenges and are uncomfortable with different aspects of their lives, and we are concerned of the impact of these allegations on all the group members. There is an issue of breach of trust and confidentiality as far as I’m concerned.”
Sirois says there are no other schools in the board that have GSA groups.
“We respect the law,” he says. “And we are working with the church to have a workshop training session with all the people responsible for the GSA club. It will be soon to facilitate those who would be working with the kids.”
Sirois says the board is forming a working group made up of teachers, principals, guidance counsellors and pastoral leaders to work on this issue. The group will also discuss GSAs generally and what form the groups will take in a Catholic school.
The meetings will not be open to students, members of the public or media, he says. “It’s just for staff.”
“It’s to train our people to deal with all kinds of questions that the students will have,” he says. “It’s not easy. We don’t have all the answers. There are difficult questions. You cannot just say what you think. You have to deliver the message of the minister of education.”
Sirois does not know if any LGBT people will be involved in the working group or whether the group will include an expert in sexual health. “If the kids ask for that, if they ask for someone to answer those questions, we’ll bring in an expert,” he says.
Meanwhile, Karas is seeking advice. In October, he called Egale Canada to discuss the process of taking legal action.
“I understand he isn’t allowed to put up his posters because they had quotes from Harvey Milk,” says executive director Helen Kennedy. “His options are pretty clear. He can do nothing, or we can have a look at a human rights challenge.
“What harm are these posters?” she asks. “There are bigger hills to die on, quite frankly. It’s just another roadblock that our students have to face while pursuing LGBT rights in schools.”
Kennedy says Karas has the support of the GSA Coalition if he chooses to pursue an Ontario Human Rights Code challenge.
Karas also sought the advice of Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association's (CCLA) equality program director. Karas says his next step is getting a lawyer.
Mendelsohn Aviv says it sounds as though Karas has grounds for a discrimination complaint to the tribunal.
“These young people are entitled to the same rights and protections that all people are, within reasonable limits,” she says. “That includes the right to express themselves, the right to association, the right to invite people to their group, and the right to have conversations.”
The Accepting Schools Act made the government’s position on this issue clear, she says. “Provincial legislators think that GSAs in schools is a great idea. They are entitled to use that name. And if you have a GSA you should have the right to tell other people that they are invited to join the GSA.
“So, on a number of fronts, based on the facts I’m told, it sounds like there are legal and constitutional concerns here. These students have rights that are not being upheld by the school.
“Chris sounds like an empowered, strong and intelligent young man. Whether or not he wants to take legal action will now be up to him.”
NDP education critic Peter Tabuns, who was on the Bill 13 committee as it moved through Queen’s Park, says students have the right to put together clubs, call the clubs whatever name they wish, and present the group to the rest of the school however they wish.
“I don’t see why the students are getting any grief on this,” he says. “The education minister needs to be aware that the act provides certain protections and rights. The students seem to be running up against resistance to exercise their rights under the law . . . school boards and administrators should respect the spirit and the letter of the law.”
Education Minister Liz Sandals did not respond to Xtra’s request for comment but instead sent a statement. “Our schools must be places where everyone feels welcome, safe and respected. Under the Accepting Schools Act, neither the board nor the principal shall refuse to allow a pupil to use the name gay-straight alliance or a similar name. If students have particular concerns, we encourage them to speak with their principal, supervisory officer, director of education or the chair of trustees.
“It is our expectation that schools and school boards work together to ensure the requirements of the Accepting Schools Act are upheld. A safe and inclusive school environment that makes all students feel accepted is essential for student achievement and well-being.”
Davina Hader, vice-chair of Queer Ontario, says the statement from the ministry is “out of touch.” She says it’s unrealistic to expect students to police their schools without government support. “How are they supposed to speak with their principal or director of education if they don’t care?”
The provincial government seems to have washed its hands of this issue, she says, adding that now that the Accepting Schools Act is in place, school boards are just trusted to follow the law.
“[Queer Ontario] is demanding implementation of Bill 13. Everything that this student is asking for he is totally entitled to by law,” Hader says.
Queer Ontario recently joined Tabuns and members of Planned Parenthood at Queen’s Park during Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week to remind the government that it has a responsibility to ensure that schools have implemented the Accepting Schools Act.
“The government has been shirking their responsibility on this, and we have been after them about this,” Hader says. “They’re not making the schools accountable.”
Hader says it’s not enough to simply allow students to start a group — schools must give them the agency to chart their own course. “It’s like the school is putting their thumb down on decisions students make as they set up their GSAs. That’s not right.
“His human rights are clearly being violated horrendously by this school. It’s a travesty. Queer Ontario is totally behind him.”