Students from across the country left Outshine – billed as Canada’s first gay-straight alliance summit and held in Toronto May 17 to 20 – with a charter: a list of expectations for all schools.
It may be only symbolic, but the charter represents a set of demands aimed at educators and administrators, especially those who continue to teach that being gay is sinful. Students have called the charter a roadmap for all schools to be more respectful and accepting places for queer students.
Some schools are already well on the way.
In North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Kayla Kahpeaysewat is a member of the GSA at Sakewew First Nations High School. Since the club started 10 years ago, Kahpeaysewat says, she has seen noticeable change both in the school and the surrounding community.
“Growing up in a community with a history of residential schools, we were told it was the worst thing in the world to be gay,” she says.
The group has inspired other schools to start GSAs and work toward being more inclusive. Kahpeaysewat says that acceptance has had a positive impact on the community.
“We have made real change, not just in our school, but in the wider community also. People are more accepting about LGBT issues,” she says. “Most of our parents didn’t even know we were gay until we got involved in the GSA. Now they are accepting.”
More than 300 GSA members and 100 educators took part in the Toronto summit, hosted by Egale and the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). Delegates from three Catholic schools – two from Ontario and one from Yukon – attended.
Heather McArdle, one of the few Catholic school teachers at the summit, is an advisor for the Denis Morris Catholic High School GSA in St Catharines, which started this year.
In Catholic schools, McArdle says, change is coming from within. Many of the more progressive teachers, frustrated by ongoing opposition to GSAs, stay in their jobs for the sake of their students. “If we leave, then we’re leaving those fundamentalist people there. So then the people who are liberal and trying to make change are gone. The [GSA movement] is growing, and it’s coming from the kids.”
McArdle’s GSA is the result of the Accepting Schools Act, legislation that passed last year in Ontario. It mandates that GSAs must be allowed in all schools when requested by students. The passage of the legislation capped a two-year fight between students and Catholic schools, which previously banned GSAs.
While GSAs are common in public schools, especially those in large urban centres, many faith-based schools and those in small rural communities continue to make it difficult for students trying to start the clubs.
“I think there’s going to be some human rights challenges soon,” McArdle says.
Karina Thrift, from Dakota Collegiate in Winnipeg, says most of the students who took part in the summit already attend relatively accepting schools with thriving GSAs. She says the message needs to get to the schools where there is still resistance to GSAs.
Manitoba legislators are currently debating Bill 18, the Safe and Inclusive Schools Act, a proposed anti-bullying law similar to Ontario’s Accepting Schools Act.
“In the rural communities there are a lot of Christian schools that are getting really upset about it and holding huge events with hundreds of people at all-night prayer rallies,” Thrift says. “It’s kind of ridiculous. The religious schools kept saying they don’t want to advertise something that goes against their beliefs. GSAs aren’t advertising. It’s a safe space.”
At Outshine’s legal panel, lawyer Doug Elliott said some Ontario Catholic boards are clamping down on teachers and students trying to start GSAs.
“That’s about to change,” says Elliott, who joined lawyers Cynthia Peterson and Jacquelin Pegg, from the Ontario Human Rights Commission, on the panel. “In the last couple years there has been a dramatic shift on this issue.
“The right to hold a religious belief is different than the right to act on it. A Catholic teacher can think a gay student is sinful, but they can’t harass that student for it. LGBT students have a right to an education free of intimidation and harassment.”
Meanwhile, students like Cooper Sims, a Grade 12 student at Stamford Collegiate Secondary School in Niagara Falls, transitioned last year with loads of support. He says having a GSA made it easier.
“Except for the odd remark, it’s been good,” he says. “Most people try to use my preferred name and pronoun. My parents have been so great.”
Amy Ballett is the GSA advisor at Sims’s school. With more than 40 students, the GSA is one of the largest in the province. That’s probably because some students have transferred to Stamford from less accepting schools where they don’t feel as welcome, she says.
“I think we do attract students who want to feel like they are in a more inclusive environment,” she says. “Student who don’t fit in at other schools, they find us.”
Still, Ballett admits, no student should have to change schools to escape bullying or anti-gay school administrators.
Bob Williams, executive director of Windsor Pride, says he hopes the students return to their communities and feel inspired to keep the movement going.
“For many of these kids, this is their first chance they have ever had to truly be themselves,” he says. “I do worry what happens when they go home. Will they be put back into those little boxes or will they step into that leadership role? I also wonder if we are saving lives by hosting events like this.”
Williams attended the summit as part of a large delegation of 24 people from Windsor Pride, funded through Run for Rocky, a fundraising campaign in memory of Rocky Campana, a gay Catholic student who died by suicide last year.
The inaugural run in April raised $40,000 for local GSAs, as well as raising awareness about mental illnesses and suicide, Williams says.
“This summit has been very emotional for us,” he says. “We all have to do something. We can’t afford to have one more youth commit suicide.”