The inaugural meeting of the St Joe’s gay-straight alliance (GSA) takes place with very little fanfare in the Square One food court in Mississauga on March 16.
The three soft-spoken teenagers present are part of a group of 32 students trying to start a GSA at St Joseph’s Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga. The group’s founder, Leanne Iskander, 16, recently asked principal Frances Jacques to recognize their newly formed GSA as an official school club. Jacques flatly refused.
Now the students are taking matters into their own hands.
Iskander was told, “There’s already supports in place at the school, such as guidance counsellors. Also, a GSA is premature for your age.”
“We’re not going to give up,” Iskander tells Xtra. “We’re going to keep trying to get a GSA. This is very important. Gay kids feel alienated and need a place with a sense of community.”
If the students are successful, St Joe’s will be the first GSA in any Catholic school anywhere in the province. Xtra revealed in February that GSAs are forbidden, by decree of the bishops. Catholic school officials told Xtra bishops are the final authority for all policy and curriculum used in the publicly funded Ontario Catholic school system.
Much of the discrimination comes from the Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students of Same-Sex Orientation, the primary document for instructing school adminstrators 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.”
The St Joe’s students say they won’t take no for an answer. Iskander created a public Facebook group and wrote a letter to Jacques, reminding her that all students have the right to equality. Iskander argued that rejecting the request for a GSA violates the Dufferin-Peel Catholic School Board’s Equity and Inclusive Education policy.
“[Jacques] says GSAs are discriminatory to others in the school, that there are already groups like this in the school that provide support, and that the Catholic Church does not support the lifestyle,” Iskander explains. “There really aren’t supports, though.”
Taechun Menns, 16, grins as Iskander speaks, then crinkles up his brow. “I just don’t see why she said no. A GSA is just a support group where kids can go and feel safe without being judged.”
Tegan, 15, who asked to remain anonymous because she’s not out to her family yet, says having a GSA helps fight homophobia at school. “It’s a place to have discussions about your feelings and get advice. I think the principal sees it as pointless.”
Schools across the province are in the middle of March break, so Jacques could not be reached for comment at the school. Xtra was also unable to contact the principal at home before post time.
There are about seven teachers who have thrown their support behind the students, Iskander says. Some group members haven’t yet come out to their families and friends, while others are fearful of anti-gay backlash at the school, which has a student population of about 1,650.
Asked if other students are supportive, Iskander shrugs. “Some say that a GSA isn’t right on religious grounds. They suggested we call the group something else.”
But both Iskander and Menns say it’s very important that the word “gay” be in the group’s title. “I want it to be recognized for what it is. I don’t want it to be called a diversity club.”
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 it still does not allow any student group with the word “gay” in its title. Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky has so far not returned any of Xtra’s interview requests.
A teacher at St Joe’s, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his job, says Jacques said at a staff meeting on March 7 that “GSAs are in conflict with Catholic views on chastity.” Not one staff member questioned her, he says.
Jacques told the staff that a student looking to start a GSA had approached her. She asked if the student was being bullied. “No, not really,” the student told her.
“There’s more than one way to be bullied. You don’t have to have your head bashed in,” the teacher tells Xtra.
Jacques advised staff to “not make any commitments” if they were approached by students to support the GSA.
“She was insinuating the kids are confused and it might just be a phase,” the teacher tells Xtra. “Then she handed out pamphlets to Courage International,” which, according to the group’s Wikipedia page, “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.
“That’s her idea of offering support,” the teacher says. “It’s unbelievable. This pamphlet is also in the guidance offices for students.
“I can’t believe this is a publicly funded system and they are getting away with this.”
Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, director of the equality program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, applauds the students’ courage and throws her support behind their bid for a GSA.
“Students have the right to freedom of expression, they have the right to freedom of association, and they have the right to equality,” she says. “To block them from forming a gay-straight alliance is not acceptable and it’s not constitutional.”
Schools that lack supports can have a devastating effect on the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans youth, Mendelsohn Aviv says. “There’s no reason these kids can’t form a gay-straight alliance.”
UPDATE 17 MARCH 10:15PM – Politicians silent on students’ GSA bid