For the past five years, students at Cawthra Park Secondary School in Mississauga have been encouraged to learn about social justice causes through Social Awareness Day, the highlight of which is a talk by a prominent activist.
But there will likely be no Social Awareness Day (SAD) at Cawthra this year — and organizers are accusing the school administration of scuttling the event rather than invite a transgender speaker to the school.
“My administration made the wrong decision by declining my speaker, and their reasoning has made it clear that it is because they are uncomfortable with her being trans,” said Grade 12 student Andrew Randall, coordinator for SAD and a member on the Cawthra School Board.
Randall said the student group in charge of organizing the talk, Leaders Empowering All People (LEAP) settled on University of Toronto student Nikki Stratigacos as their choice five months ago for a discussion on the difficulties facing transfolk in society.
A Bachelor of Arts grad who returned to school to pursue a degree in sexuality and diversity studies, Stratigacos was no stranger to working with young people, serving on YouthLine’s board of directors and as a youth mentor in the Supporting Our Youth mentorship program.
Stratigacos was also the political and educational coordinator for LGBTOUT, U of T’s organization for gay, bi and trans students.
Randall said administrators “said no right away” to having Stratigacos speak at the assembly, where past participants have included a former child soldier and a gay man living with HIV.
When organizers protested, they pointed out that Stratigacos was a former sex worker and helped organize the 2009 U of T conference on commercial sex work, Sex for Sale.
“They said it was a morality issue, that students wouldn’t feel comfortable,” he said.
In an email to Xtra, Stratigacos wrote that she gave organizers the name of another trans activist, Michelle Le-Claire, back in early January.
“The issue of sex work is, by no means, the reason that Social Awareness Day was cancelled and is an attempt to deflect the clearly transphobic decision that was made by the school’s administration,” Stratigacos wrote.
But three months later, no speaker had yet been cleared to speak at Cawthra. A week before the event was scheduled, organizers decided to cancel it, saying there wasn’t enough time to prepare.
Further, Randall accused the school of shutting him out of planning Social Awareness Day after they turned down Stratigacos.
“I was not allowed at any of the meetings for the event I was running. I was cut out of emails,” he says. “I wasn’t allowed any contact whatsoever.”
The administration of Cawthra directed interview requests to Anthony Edwards, Peel District School Board’s superintendent of education for Cawthra Park.
He denied that the school had turned either Stratigacos or Le-Claire away. Instead, he blamed organizers for not coming up with a plan to prepare staff and students for the topic of discussion, as required by the school.
“It’s my understanding that when asked, ‘Has anyone heard the speaker? What is she going to speak about?’ they couldn’t give the school admin a good answer – here’s the topic, here’s what’s she going to speak about, here’s what she’s going to cost,” Edwards said.
“The principal needs to know what’s happening in her school and the group simply hadn’t done their homework.”
However, Edwards added that he would have supported the decision to keep Statigacos away because of her past.
“You have to understand that we would not actively promote having someone who was a sex worker coming in and being an appropriate speaker, and I would support that because we have a broader community that we have to respond to,” Edwards said. “Our parent community would have a hard time understanding why we would — of all the people that could speak about any number of issues — why we would have someone that was in the sex trade.”
“That person would have been deemed not the best choice of speaker.”
A teacher at Cawthra, speaking on condition of anonymity, backed up the organizers’ version of events, saying teachers at the school spoke out after being told Cawthra Park was “not ready” for a trans speaker.
With alum that include Adamo Ruggiero, the openly gay star of Degrassi: The Next Generation, the school is widely perceived as a safe space for queer youth, she noted.
“There are kids thriving at Cawthra that would have been beaten up and harassed at just about any other school in the GTA,” she said
In response to the cancellation, Cawthra Park student Alex Biro launched a Facebook group designating April 21st as “Dress-the-other-way Day,” in opposition to transphobia.
Biro said he hopes male students will dress in skirts and high heels and girls will come dressed in suits and ties, to show that “what’s on the outside isn’t important.”
If nothing else, Biro said he hoped the attention would ensure that organizers get their way next year.
“I think most students have shown they’re mature enough to handle it,” Biro said.