UPDATE – Dec 1: Ontario Catholic schools will not allow student groups to be called gay-straight alliances, the president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association (OCSTA) pledges.
Nancy Kirby admits that the Liberals’ new anti-bullying legislation makes boards legally required to approve student-led support groups that promote gender equity, anti-racism, respect for people with disabilities and people of all sexual orientations and genders with groups called gay-straight alliance “or another name.”
For Kirby, the words, “or another name” means Catholic boards can overrule students and force them to rename the groups, even if they specifically request GSAs. “We can have other names,” she told Xtra on Dec 1.
Upon hearing that Education Minister Laurel Broten told Xtra, unequivocally, that students can use the words gay-straight alliance, Kirby says, “Then that is a discussion I will have to have with her.”
“Our concern is that the name [GSA] has become so controversial,” Kirby says. “What it means to some people means something different to other people. What we’re trying to do is get away from the controversy and get to the heart of the matter, which is to support all the students, especially the LGBTQ students, who are having real problems.”
Kirby spoke passionately about the need to address youth bullying and suicide and admits it’s a growing concern, but she says she doesn’t understand the importance of using the word “gay.”
“I will be in discussion with the minister about her comments to you.”
Kirby noted that if a student asked for a GSA, “we would give it another name.”
Meanwhile, Broten may be backtracking on her pledge to allow students in Catholic schools to call their clubs GSAs.
Broten’s press secretary, Paris Meilleur, responded to Xtra by email:
“To be clear, the Minister said and the proposed legislation states “Every board shall support pupils who want to establish and lead . . . activities or organizations that promote the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, including organizations with the name gay-straight alliance or another name.
“The legislation is unequivocal about the requirement to support students in forming clubs that focus on single-issues like sexual orientation. Putting this into law makes clear what the Minister’s expectations are for all schools and school boards, and she has confidence that all boards will meet this expectation. Elevating support for student-led clubs like GSAs into this proposed legislation, clearly signals how much of a priority support for all students, including LGBT students, is for this government.”
Meilleur has not yet responded to follow-up questions.
Kirby did not know what name Catholic school boards have decided on.
“We have been throwing back and forth so many names, we still, unfortunately, did not come up with a name,” she says.
What about “rainbow alliance”? Will the names be “queer sounding?”
“I can’t even answer that question,” she says.
Kirby denies that there is any ban on queer language.
Patrick Keyes, superintendent for the Toronto Catholic District School Board, could not be reached for comment.
Nov 30: Premier Dalton McGuinty has said Ontario students will no longer be blocked from creating gay-straight alliance support clubs in schools.
On Nov 30, McGuinty launched his government’s new anti-bullying legislation at a Toronto area school. (To coincide with the bill, McGuinty also released an It Gets Better video.)
After a grilling during question period later in the day, McGuinty also assured NDP Leader Andrea Horwath that the new legislation is unequivocal when it comes to GSAs. Horwath says the legislation does not go far enough.
McGuinty said, “[GSA] may not be the name that they use, but the important thing is we’re going to have that kind of a supportive group there available in all our schools.”
Horwath pressed on: “Will students be able to establish gay-straight alliance clubs in their schools?” she demanded, after noting the urgent need to address bullying in Ontario schools. “Can we finally put the politics aside and answer a simple question?”
McGuinty responded, “Yes. The answer to that, very simply, is yes. In fact, that wording is in the bill.”
Education Minister Laurel Broten tells Xtra there is “no more debate” on GSAs. “If students want a GSA, it must be provided.”
Until now, most Ontario Catholic schools have banned GSAs. Broten says Bill 13 will require school boards to allow students to start queer support groups and name them whatever they wish, including gay-straight alliance, Broten vows. A “general equity group,” which is what some Catholic schools have offered students, is not sufficient, she says.
“I’m confident our Catholic schools will work with students on this,” she says. “’Gay-straight alliance’ is language and terminology we all understand and support. Students will call the groups what they want.”
On Nov 30 the Progressive Conservatives also unveiled an anti-bullying bill. MPP Elizabeth Witmer’s Bill 14, the Anti-Bullying Act, suggests counselling for bullies as well as victims. The Liberal bill proposes mandatory expulsion for anyone caught bullying.
The PC bill does not mention the words “gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer” or “gender.” It does not stipulate that students can start GSAs.
“The PCs are taking a blanket approach,” says activist Casey Oraa, co-chair of Queer Ontario. “It’s not specific to queer youth. There’s nothing in here about GSAs.”
Both pieces of proposed legislation come after a divisive fight over the past year that has pitted Ontario students against Catholic school boards, which have repeatedly blocked students from starting GSAs. The boards have argued that the religion views homosexuality as sinful and immoral.
For that reason, the name of support groups has been a point of contention for many schools. Catholic boards have told students the names must remain “Catholic sounding,” complaining that a GSA “promotes homosexuality and breeds activism. Catholic schools have also promised to release “guidelines” to address bullying.
Mississauga student Leanne Iskander, who has been fighting for a GSA in her school since March, says she feels uncertain about the proposed legislation. She says the message from McGuinty on Nov 30 sounds remarkably similar to MPP Glen Murray’s announcement in June during Pride. Murray’s promise didn’t stop her principal from forcing Iskander’s group to adopt the name Open Arms. (Her principal also threatened Iskander with disciplinary action.)
Iskander, who is the founder of the advocacy group Catholic Students for GSAs (CS4GSAs), has said accurate names of support groups are vitally important because they allow GSAs to be visible at school so other students looking for safe queer-friendly places will know where to go.
Iskander says the wording is still too vague. On her CS4GSA blog, she offers recommendations for changes to some of the language.
The real test will be when a student tries to start a GSA, she says. “It will all depend how this will play out at schools.”
Oraa says schools should do everything possible to prevent bullying before it starts, instead of reacting to it after students suffer emotional scars.
Experts agree. A recent landmark American study on GSAs says clubs that provide support for queer youth help prevent depression, victimization, substance abuse and suicide.
Bullying is an escalating problem in Ontario schools. A 2009 survey by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health of Ontario found almost one in three students in Grades 7 to 12 have been bullied.
According to Statistics Canada, 458 young Canadians between the ages of 10 and 24 committed suicide in 2008. Egale Canada says suicide is the second leading cause of death among Canadian youth, and studies have found suicide rates among gay youth are four times higher.
Oraa notes that current ministry policy (Policy/Program Memorandum 145), which is still in effect, states that “boards must also help school staff to give support to students who wish to participate in gay-straight alliances.”
“The government has just ignored that policy, so who’s to say they won’t do it again?” he says. “There must be a mechanism built into the legislation so if schools don’t comply, there is a consequence for those boards. How will they ensure compliance?”
There are no protections in either bill for queer and supportive teachers who face bullying, he says. “Some teachers are afraid to come out against queer bullying because they are afraid of how their principal will react.”
Horwath says the Liberals need to do better. She says “clear direction” is long overdue.
If the Liberals don’t enforce the rules, “that tells students that ‘gay’ is a dirty word and we shouldn’t use it,” she says. “How does that deal with the issue of bullying? It’s unacceptable.”
In a Nov 30 editorial, The Globe and Mail declares that Ontario has entered Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell territory. “To be made nameless is not a small thing. It is to be told that some shame is associated with who you are. The clubs can exist but, depending on how the Catholic schools react, perhaps only in the closet, a place of shame.”
It remains to be seen if Catholic schools will fight the proposed legislation.
Broten says publicly funded schools, which include Catholic schools, must follow ministry policy, regardless of how religious doctrine views gay people.
If Catholic schools continue to block GSAs, Horwath says, it’s the government’s job to enforce the rules. “The government, as the one that provides funding, can set the guidelines and set their own rules, and the schools have to follow them. That’s what this legislation should be doing.”
The bill is now headed to a second reading, and Horwath says the NDP will likely present suggestions, changes or recommendations.