Since going public with a demand to be allowed to form a gay-straight alliance (GSA) at St Joseph Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga, students are facing a barrage of bullying from fellow students.
The group’s founder, Leanne Iskander, 16, was denied permission to form a GSA by school administrators on March 15. School officials say students are welcome to form a club that promotes safety, inclusivity and diversity, as long as it’s not gay-specific and doesn’t have the word “gay” in its name. Since the story broke, members of Iskander’s group have endured cruel attacks on Facebook, anti-gay slurs in class, pushing and shoving in the hallways and threats from other students.
When asked what is being done to stop the behaviour, school officials say only that they will “look into it.” The students say the bullying is further proof of the immediate need for a GSA at the school tackling specifically gay, lesbian and trans issues in a safe and supporting space.
“I’m feeling pretty crappy today,” group member Meagan Smith, 16, tells Xtra. “It’s been a rough week. There’s been lots of bullying.”
Taechun Menns, 16, says one group member was reading a copy of Xtra when a bully ripped the paper away and tossed it in the trash. “They push us out of the way while we walk down the hall.”
Menn’s mother, Lori Murphy, a single mom who has supported her son from day one, says she has seen a positive change in Taechun over the past few weeks.
“When he first came out to me I was worried about the trouble he would have in life, like dealing with bullies. I never thought his school principal or his school board would be part of that group,” she says. “My heart beats faster that he has to go through this, but I’m so proud of him that he is standing up to this bullshit.
“These kids are blowing my mind. This whole thing has made me ashamed to be Catholic, ashamed to send my kids to Catholic school. I don’t know what I did to deserve a kid like this. They have taught me more in the last few weeks than most adults in my life.”
Steven Ly, 16, says he hears slurs like “faggot” all the time.
“Are they going to wait until something serious happens to one of us for them to realize [a GSA] is a necessity?” he asks.
Iskander took screenshots of some of the online cyber bullying. One long Facebook thread was triggered by a student who posted “Leviticus 18:22, You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.” The statement got more than 60 likes on Facebook.
Another comment: “…faggots should burn in hell… I hate faggots, and if my son turns out gay, I’ll backhand dat bytch till he likes pussyyy.”
Throughout the 40 comments, Iskander, Menns and other GSA members hold their own, debating back and forth, throwing scripture right back, and explaining why a GSA is important.
Iskander previously told Xtra that St Joe’s principal Frances Jacques stormed into and “just took over” a March 25 group meeting at the school at which members were brainstorming ideas for a written proposal. Iskander requested a subsequent meeting with Jacques, which happened in the school’s office on March 31. Iskander says a note-taking vice-principal was there and that the meeting was more of an interrogation.
“I booked the appointment with her because group members are afraid of bullying at school,” Iskander says.
The group’s proposal for a GSA was denied again on March 29. The refusal came in the form of a statement released by Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School board (DPCDSB) education director John Kostoff, who wrote that discussions must take place “under the umbrella of a broader community focus on equity and diversity, and through a Catholic lens.”
Smith says that when she saw Kostoff’s letter she cried.
“It felt like a slap in the face,” she says. “We put a lot of work into the proposal.”
Christine Gornicz, 16, says students don’t want an “umbrella equity group.” Some students coming out as gay, lesbian and trans need a place that is safe, comfortable and accepting.
“We don’t want to bend,” she says confidently. “We want them to bend. This is important to us.”
But DPCDSB spokesperson Bruce Campbell tells Xtra the board has no intention of bending. He says the school already has groups that deal with homophobia.
“If students wish to discuss issues that are more personal they can do that through the chaplaincy team leader. We believe that meets the needs of the students.”
Any discussions with the chaplain would ensure “the Catholic perspective,” he says. “Nobody is trying to convert anybody or change anybody.”
Xtra points out that pamphlets for Courage International were distributed to staff and made available in the school’s guidance office for students. Courage is a Catholic organization that uses the 12-step program developed by Alcoholics Anonymous to try to “cure” gays.
“That was then. We are moving forward,” Campbell says. But Xtra reminds him that it was less than three weeks ago that a St Joe’s teacher revealed that the pamphlets were readily available to students.
“We are reviewing our supports offered to students,” he says. “We want to talk about moving forward. That’s in the past. I want to leave it at that.”
Campbell says educators, guidance counsellors and chaplaincy leaders will continue to refer to the Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students of Same-Sex Orientation, a document that reads that “gay” is not an identity, gay sex is “immoral and sinful” and gay people ought to live a life of “chastity.”
Written by the bishops, the Pastoral Guidelines are the primary document for instructing school administrators and teachers on homosexuality, he says.
Casey Oraa, Queer Ontario’s political action committee chair, says the document is anti-gay and homophobic from start to finish.
“The Pastoral Guidelines implies being gay is a choice and that gay people are in some way disordered,” he says. “No wonder kids become bullies if this is what they are taught.”
Campbell says he wasn’t aware of any incidents of bullying. “We deal with bullying very harshly. We don’t condone that.”
Campbell says the board supports everything in the document. “The bishops are the authoritative body for us. I would say yes, they are the primary authority on this for all Catholic boards.”
Xtra revealed in February that GSAs are forbidden at Ontario Catholic schools, by decree of the bishops.
St Joe’s students will be the special guests at an upcoming education forum hosted by Queer Ontario on April 13, the International Day of Pink, at Jarvis Collegiate Institute. Dubbed Sex Ed, GSAs and Religion in Publicly Funded Schools, speakers are scheduled to discuss how to make it better for students in schools across Ontario.
GSAs started making headlines in January after 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.”
The HCDSB subsequently lifted its explicit ban on GSAs, but still does not allow any gay-focused student group, or any group with the word “gay” in its title. Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky has so far not returned any of Xtra’s interview requests.
The final vote on HCDSB policy is April 5.