Two thumbs up from a passing cyclist and a rowdy woman shouting, “It’s not about rights – it’s about religion,” are the two reactions that greeted Danny Gariepy and his son Damon’s silent protest outside Sacred Heart Catholic School in Stittsville.
On Tuesday, June 21 at 6:30am, the two, with help from Gariepy’s youngest son, Miles, planted 300 rainbow flags in front of the school.
It was one family’s reaction to a Southern Ontario Catholic school board that has come under fire for banning gay-straight alliances (GSA) at its schools.
The family had read about the banning of rainbows at an anti-homophobia event at St Joseph Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga and decided, collectively, that something needed to be done.
“We got the idea of putting up rainbow flags in front of the school,” says Gariepy. “We wanted to demonstrate support, and hopefully that effort would sprout and sow some seeds for other endeavours around the province.”
For Miles, who couldn’t stay for the duration of the protest because he had an English exam to write, the matter is personal. At 15, he is an out gay youth who has experienced bullying at the public high school he attends in Ottawa. For him, a GSA is a safe space.
“I would say that they are really important for encouraging people to actually accept themselves, and for raising awareness in general,” he says.
His reason for wanting to plant rainbow flags outside the Catholic school is simple.
“Basically, we are raising awareness, and for people who banned the rainbow stuff in the school, they may or may not notice that what they did is kind of wrong,” says Miles.
Gariepy is a little stronger in his reasoning, but his actions are guided by his desire to be a supportive parent. He says he wanted to be there “to encourage his son to be a strong person, an advocate for himself and an advocate for his friends and for what he believes in.”
For Gariepy, the planting of the flags is symbolic.
“Rainbow flags are a symbol, and what they are doing is attacking a symbol,” he says.
The trio hand-made all the flags themselves and arrived early outside the grounds of Sacred Heart. Gariepy was fearful of trespassing and had previously mapped out the line between city and private property in front of the school sign.
The symbolic protest seemed to go unnoticed until the end, when Gariepy and Damon were packing the flags away.
The principal of the school, Cindy Owens, came out with another staff member. According to Gariepy, Owens told him that she had received a number of complaints and that the display should not be in front of the school.
“So that apathy we saw earlier, of cars driving up and down, was parents taking note,” says Gariepy. “Shortly after, a parent came up with a camera, taking pictures of the flags and the Sacred Heart sign.”
When asked by Gariepy if she, as a parent, supported the effort, she said, “No. Anywhere but in front of the Catholic high school.” And when Gariepy explained that it was a matter of rights, she replied tersely, “It’s not about rights – it’s about religion.”
“So she was taking offence that we had Pride flags out in front of a Catholic high school,” says Damon.
Although a little taken aback by the woman’s anger, Gariepy was happy that there was a response.
“It is getting the message out there, I think. Unfortunately, for the first little while it’s going to be apprehension, negativity and driving forward the awareness, with hopes of positive awareness coming after,” he says.
And the next step?
“The next step is through social media. Miles and Damon will be driving that home through Facebook,” Gariepy says. “Developing a tool kit for students. We talked about large banners and developing a package to guide students through positive protest.”
All three plan to be back in the fall – with rainbow flags, banners and more people – in front of another Catholic high school.