Canadian comedian Rick Mercer is throwing his star power and support behind a rally in support of gay-straight alliances (GSAs) on Sept 18 at Queen’s Park.
Mercer says his blood is boiling because Catholic schools continue to deny student requests to start the support groups.
“[Gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans] kids are most at risk, and gay-straight alliances create a safe place and a more tolerant atmosphere at school,” Mercer, who is gay, told Xtra. “Any school board that will not allow them to start GSAs is completely ridiculous and absurd in a country like ours.
“God forbid any of these Catholic school board people responsible for trying to stop gay-straight alliances ever have to deal with one of their own children who is at risk and doesn’t have the support they need. Kids just have to get through this rough time.”
The Sept 18 rally — dubbed Keep the Faith But Not in Our Schools — has been organized by the Canadian Secular Alliance to demand support and protection for students of all sexual orientations in all publicly funded schools. The event is set to begin at 1:30pm and will call for an end to public funding for Roman Catholic separate schools in Ontario.
Although Mercer is travelling and unable to attend in person, he plans to write a letter of solidarity that will be read aloud.
But organizer Kevin Smith warns there is a chance the rally will be “hijacked” by hostile counter-protesters with “an agenda of hate.”
“This rally of ours could turn into a shit show,” he says.
Canadian Hindu Advocacy’s Ron Banerjee told CTV News on Sept 12 that his group plans to attend specifically to protest against Islamic prayer services at Valley Park Middle School.
Valley Park has been holding Friday afternoon student prayer services for the past three years. The sessions were initiated after staff noticed that students were skipping class to attend services outside the school. Banerjee told CTV he opposes any form of religious prayer in secular schools.
“We told Banerjee he’s not allowed to speak. He says some awful things about Muslims,” Smith says. “Today he threatened us, saying, ‘If you don’t let me speak, I will bring all my people with our signs and have a counter-protest in front of your rally.’”
Originally the rally also took aim at Valley Park, calling for an end to the prayer sessions, but Smith says organizers decided to keep the focus on GSAs and faith-based schools. “The students are the most important part in this story. We can’t lose sight of that.”
In the weeks leading up to Toronto’s 2011 Pride festival, Banerjee joined the Jewish Defense League (JDL) to protest outside the Pride Toronto (PT) office. At the time, the two groups joined forces to demand that PT “denounce” Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA).
Smith says Queen’s Park security has been notified about the event. “This rally is about supporting the students and supporting GSAs. Yes, we will also talk about funding, but it’s not the focus.
“We have a provincial election coming up, and this is our one chance to make GSAs an issue,” he adds. “The public awareness is definitely on our side, but we have to keep pushing.”
GSAs and Catholic schools have been in national headlines since January, when the Halton Catholic District School Board banned GSAs. In a separate incident, activist Leanne Iskander, founder of Catholic Students for GSAs (CS4GSA), has been blocked from starting a GSA at Mississauga’s St Joseph’s Catholic Secondary School.
At this, Mercer didn’t mince words. “Anyone who walks around saying there’s no need for GSAs shouldn’t accept tax dollars.”
“As a society we have to take care of people who are at risk. GLBT kids are at risk,” Mercer says. “To not provide [GSAs] is to ignore the needs of these kids. We already know about the suicide rates. We know about the self-esteem issues.”
Catholic schools have told students they are permitted only to start “general equity groups with Catholic names,” maintaining a ban on the word gay. Mercer says this sends the absolute wrong message. “It says you should function in society without identifying as gay. It makes my blood boil. It just makes me shake my head in the morning.”
Mercer remembers when Newfoundland got rid of Catholic schools after it held a referendum in 1997. “I grew up under a denominational education. It was a system I never thought would ever end. It was so ingrained in the society no one from my generation, or the previous generation, could believe it would cease to exist. When there was a referendum in Newfoundland, I voted to end denominational education.”