The St Joseph Catholic Secondary School students demanding a gay-straight alliance (GSA) looked overwhelmed as every person in the Jarvis Collegiate auditorium leaped to their feet to give two rousing standing ovations, an emotional outpouring of gratitude for youth who have the courage to fight.
Sex Ed, GSAs and Religion in Publicly Funded Schools, a forum hosted by Queer Ontario (QO) on April 13, brought together a panel of seven experts and politicians, many of whom are currently working on this issue behind the scenes.
Before the panel weighed in – and after about 150 people sat back down – five teenagers took deep breaths and shuffled up to the front of the stage to speak.
They described their fight with St Joe’s principal, the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, and, ultimately, the province of Ontario. They also talked about bullying from fellow students. Their fight continues today.
“We are fighting against self-doubt, self-loathing and that awful voice we’ve all heard in the back of our head one too many times,” said Megan Baranowski confidently, from under a fringe of bangs. “We’re here to support love.”
The group’s founder, Leanne Iskander, 16, took the audience back to the day the GSA was denied on March 29, describing how difficult it was to break the news to the rest of the group. “I didn’t want to tell them that the principal said a GSA is premature for our age, that the Catholic Church does not support the lifestyle and there are already supports in place.”
Christopher Mckerracher, 16, was the last to speak. He read a prepared letter from Oliver Mathias, whose mom forbade him to attend in person. The 15-year-old wrote that his experience supporting the St Joe’s GSA has been empowering and has armed him with confidence in facing homophobia and ignorance at home and at school.
“I wanted my voice to be heard,” he wrote. “I didn’t want people to get death threats or feel ashamed, like I and many other queers had to. Homophobia had to stop with me.”
Feisty and determined, Meagan Smith told the audience, “We will no longer sit quietly in the closet.”
“Gay students need to know they are not alone. They can’t pray the gay away, and God does not hate them,” she said. “It needs to be recognized that there are gay students in the system, and we need to be treated with the same respect and dignity as everyone else.”
The St Joe’s GSA Facebook group started with 32 members, a healthy number for any school GSA, but the group has since ballooned to more than 250 members.
At the forum, Iskander said principal Frances Jacques has since presented a counter-offer. The group can become a “LIFE Team (Living In Faith Everyday), “a religious club run by the chaplaincy leader” that must reflect a Catholic perspective. “We said we couldn’t accept that compromise because the group wouldn’t be visible to other students in the school,” she said. “They would basically be hiding our group in another.”
“There is a need for a GSA at our school, and it’s the school’s responsibility to meet that need.”
Panel member NDP MPP Rosario Marchese, the education critic, agreed. He raised the issue in question period at Queen’s Park on March 21. At the time Premier Dalton McGuinty dodged the question. On April 17, McGuinty promised Queer Ontario’s Casey Oraa, who organized the forum, an update on this issue “within the next two weeks.”
At the forum, Marchese implored everyone to keep putting pressure on the provincial Liberals to enforce their equity and inclusive education policy. He said he needs activists and media to push him. “Thank you for not letting this go.”
“Students are not born homophobic,” he said. “That’s why we need GSAs.”
Back in January, when GSAs first started making headlines, Xtra broke the news that the Halton Catholic District School Board had banned GSAs. The board’s chair, Alice Anne LeMay, told Xtra then that the board “doesn’t allow Nazi groups, either. Gay-straight alliances are banned because they are not within the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
The HCDSB lifted the ban on GSAs, but it still does not allow any student group with the word gay in its title. Xtra subsequently revealed that gay-positive groups are banned at all Ontario Catholic schools. It has now been more than 100 days that Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky has failed to respond to Xtra’s many interview requests.
The GSA coordinator from the public school board in Halton, j wallace, spoke at the forum about the need for educators to “do their jobs” and ensure schools are safe for gay, lesbian and trans youth.
Toward the end, wallace offered students everywhere a piece of advice: “if you can’t get anywhere at your school, call the media. Shaming people is an effective way to get things done.”
But the discussion wasn’t just about GSAs. Panellists also spoke frankly about the need for McGuinty to release a revised sex education curriculum.
Last year the province released an updated sexual education and health curriculum, the first in 12 years. But after Christian groups complained, McGuinty pulled it, pending a “rethink” and further consultations with parents. The curriculum was shelved.
El-Farouk Khaki, founder of Salaam, the first gay Muslim group in Canada, says religion should be kept out of public education. He says it cannot be justified for denying students GSAs and impeding healthy, sex-positive education. “Some people think we choose our sexuality, but we actually choose our religion. I’m opposed to public funding for religious schools. I don’t care what religion it is.”
QO is hosting a community strategy meeting to discuss what can be done to support students in their quest to form GSAs. The meeting is April 28 at 6pm at the 519 Church Street Community Centre. QO has also launched the Queer Ontario GSA Defence Fund, which will be used to empower students in their struggles to get GSAs in their schools.
Video from the Sex Ed, GSAs and Religion in Publicly Funded Schools (courtesy of Queer Ontario):