Despite a ban on any rainbows at the St Joseph Catholic Secondary School anti-homophobia event June 3, the student organizers found a creative way to get their message across: hiding rainbows inside the cupcakes.
Leanne Iskander, 16, who founded the school’s “unofficial” gay-straight alliance in March, tells Xtra the Dufferin-Peel Catholic School Board put the kibosh on displaying any rainbows at their information booth.
“We brought signs and posters with rainbows, and we were told that we can’t put them up,” says Iskander, who was recently named the 2011 honoured dyke and youth grand marshal. “They said rainbows are associated with Pride. There’s so many other things that a rainbow could be. It’s ridiculous.”
The teacher who delivered the news told Iskander the decision came from the board. “The board wasn’t there, but they knew about the event,” she says.
Since rainbows couldn’t be displayed openly and proudly, the students baked rainbows into the cupcakes by dying the batter in a rainbow of colours. The cupcakes were sold for 50 cents each, raising about $200 for charity.
But the students couldn’t donate the money to any gay, lesbian or trans charitable organization, such as the LGBT Youth Line. “We asked if we could donate to the money to the Youth Line and the board said no. We were told to donate to Covenant House, a Catholic homeless shelter.”
Bruce Campbell, spokesperson for the board, could not be reached for comment.
Casey Oraa, chair of the political action committee for Queer Ontario (QO), has been supporting the students since they first submitted the GSA proposal. He says the rejection of the rainbow flag and the board’s insistence on benefiting a Catholic charity rather than one chosen by the students proves administrators have no interest in diversity.
QO supplied the students with several materials for the event, but many were rejected by the board, including the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation’s Shout Out Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Transphobia and Heterosexism, a booklet designed to educate young people on issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity; an AIDS Committee of Toronto flyer; and information on trans health, he says.
“We proposed a whole bunch of resources and only about four got approved, and the ones that were approved were censored,” Iskander says. “They wouldn’t let us have this one booklet because it had one or two sentences on safe sex.”
Oraa says it’s absurd to ban the rainbow flag, but it’s completely in keeping with the Catholic board’s treatment of queer students.
“The Catholic board gave the students a carrot to try to silence them when they announced the anti-bullying clubs. But it’s not enough and it’s not meeting the needs of youth,” Oraa says. “The students recognize that and they are fighting for what they want.”
“Nothing the schools do surprises me anymore. Not allowing the rainbow flag? They have no concept of diversity. [The board] is pushing back because Leanne is a problem for the school. She’s also a problem for Catholic school boards and the Ministry of Education. Leanne’s a problem in the best possible way, even more than she even realizes. It’s fantastic she’s a problem.”
GSAs started making headlines in January after Xtra reported a ban on the student clubs by the Halton Catholic District School Board. Board 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.”
In February, Xtra revealed there are no GSAs at any Ontario Catholic school. Then, in April, all Ontario Catholic boards were instructed to allow “anti-bullying groups,” but a silent ban remains on all student groups focused on gay, lesbian and trans issues and group names can’t contain the word gay. GSAs are prohibited because “they lead to activism.”
Iskander has already announced that the group plans to bring their fight to Toronto’s Pride parade this year under the newly formed, student-led, student-driven contingent dubbed Catholic Students for GSAs.
Principal Frances Jacques doesn’t want the students telling everyone at Pride what school they attend. “She’s actually fine with it, she just doesn’t want [Pride] connected to the school, so we can’t say the school name or anything,” Iskander says.
Iskander says it’s more important to get the message out. To do that, the group plans to make buttons. Iskander is now appealing to the community for donations to raise about $1,500.
“Marching in Pride is important to us because it will allow us to advocate for GSAs in Catholic Schools to a large audience,” she says. “Handing out buttons will be an excellent way to spread the message that GSAs are needed in Catholic schools.”
Oraa says Queer Ontario will continue to support the youth throughout the summer to advocate for GSAs in all Ontario secondary schools.
“The buttons are important as another way to spread the message and show solidarity for the cause across Ontario,” he says. “Some people think by now allowing the anti-bullying clubs, the issue is over. But it’s not. The youth want to hand these buttons out to their fellow students, public or Catholic.”